Sunday, April 12, 2015

Take your own mind-blowing tour at NGS in May: Cahokia Mounds

A thousand years ago in downstate Illinois, across the Mississippi from where St. Louis is now, a world-class engineer designed a 100-foot-tall structure that still stands. He made it out of mud.

I think it's the most amazing destination in the Midwest. I wrote about it 15 years ago.

The latest visitor information is here.

Harold Henderson, "The Rise and Fall of the Mound People," Chicago Reader, 29 June 2000.

Photo per Creative Commons (

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Crossing the Continent with Common Names and Living to Tell the Story

As we genealogists soon learn, an amazing number of people have common names. I ran into a few of them seven years ago while working on my first BCG portfolio: Who were the parents of Ina Smith who married Frank Burdick in Kansas City in 1885?

He was the third generation on my kinship determination project, so I didn't have to deal with this side issue right then. But I was intrigued.

It turned out that Ina's parents were John and Elizabeth Smith. They appeared to have come from Indiana, but which ones were they, and where in Indiana -- and was Elizabeth's maiden name Smith too?

I made several runs at this problem over the years, going from thinking it was hopeless to thinking it was too easy. Now I'm on even keel, and the finished article is in the newly posted March issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, so readers can see how I solved it. This version is a little sharper than the original submission, thanks to peer review and good editors.

Of course, it's not likely that either of these two Smith families is one of yours. But you may have a similar sort of problem with different people. Hope it helps!

 NGSQ is a benefit of membership in the National Genealogical Society. Members can read the latest issue (and many old ones) as soon as it is posted.

"Crossing the Continent with Common Names: Indiana Natives John and Elizabeth (Smith) Smith," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 103 (March 2015): 29-35.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

136 years ago: the Upper Midwest from the back of a horse

During the 1800s, even ancestors who would end up staying home often tried going West to see how it suited them. My great-grandfather spent a few years in Kansas hoping to alleviate his wife's asthma, but they returned to southern Illinois.

And in the spring of 1879, my wife's great-grandfather left his young family behind for several weeks and took a 430-mile horseback ride west across part of Wisconsin and most of Minnesota. He sent back postcards and letters, which I transcribed and annotated, and which have now been published in the Minnesota Genealogical Quarterly. It's all there -- the rain, the cold, the boredom, the jokes, the universal presumption that if your traveling companion fell sick you could find him a bed in a farmhouse along the way, and forge on.

"Across Wisconsin and Minnesota on Horseback, 1879," Minnesota Genealogical Quarterly vol. 45, no. 4 (2014): 7-9.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Good news for researchers whose ancestors ever got sick or died of anything

The indispensable newsletter ResearchBuzz alerts us to the existence of the Medical Heritage Library, a free searchable archive of more than 1.7 million pages in more than 3,000 volumes of 336 old public-domain medical journals and reference materials. While researching what it might have meant to die of appendicitis in 1897 -- or what medical people were writing and publishing in 1850 -- don't forget to check their long list of related resources. And don't forget this is history, including many learned articles on long-refuted (if not actually murderous) medical claims and schools of thought.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Good news for Michigan researchers!

Seeking Michigan now has all state death certificates on line for free, 1897-1939. The most recent 18  years are new.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

two talks at the Michiana Genealogy Fair March 21

I'll be speaking Saturday, March 21, at the 17th annual Michiana Genealogy Fair, sponsored by the South Bend Area Genealogical Society, and held at the Mishawaka Penn Harris Public Library.

10:30 am -- "Welcome to the Other Midwestern Archives," a fun travelogue of lesser-known research sites in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

1:30 pm -- "Indirect Evidence: What to Do When Perry Mason Is Not on Your Side." Many genealogists build their own brick walls by looking only for direct evidence. Nine examples of how to have more fun and better results.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

La Porte County Indiana Early Probate Records 1833-1850

Everybody dies. Many have probates. A few leave wills. Therefore, all serious genealogists consult probate records in their research. Now it will be easier for those whose research takes them to La Porte County, Indiana.

Almost four years ago, Dorothy Germain Palmer, Mary Leahy Wenzel, and I divided up the county's earliest probate records and started abstracting them. Dorothy took Probate Order Book A, which recorded the daily activities of the local probate court from the founding of the county up to about 1842. Mary took Probate Complete Record Book A, which recorded the larger probates in detail from the founding of the county up to 1848. I took the first microfilm reel of loose papers (AKA estate packets), which run from 1836 up to 1850.

Once we had abstracted them, we indexed every name excepting judges, clerks, and attorneys in the bound volumes; in the loose papers we indexed all decedents, heirs, administrators, buyers at estate sales, those providing security (bail), and those who signed decipherable names (on receipts, for instance). Since almost all individuals connected with every probate are included, researchers can use this book to place many people in early La Porte County who did not themselves die during the 1830s and 1840s.

Some probates appear in all three records (the county's first will book starts about 1850). Some appear in only one. This book allows the researcher to get an overview of where any given individual appears, and to find him or her readily in the original records in the county clerk's office. The original records may contain additional information; in a few cases, diligent administrators compiled what amount to credit ratings for those who owed the estate money. (The consolidated approach is unusual, and it would be difficult to use in any projects covering later years, as the bound volumes and the loose papers all become more out of sync with each other.)

The resulting book is 290 pages long and sells for $29.95. All royalties will go to the La Porte County Genealogical Society. Copies can be purchased either via the society website or from the publisher,, whose people were very helpful in getting the book properly formatted.