Tag Archives: jgff

My new article series on the JewishGen blog

I’ve started my first ongoing contribution to a blog different than this one, the JewishGen Blog. I will be writing a monthly series there called JewishGen Basics, which will introduce readers to different aspects of the JewishGen website.

I’ve started the series with an expansion of my earlier post here on the JewishGen Family Finder, called JewishGen Basics: The JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF). If you’re doing Jewish Genealogy and are not using the JGFF, you should definitely go read the article and add your information to the JGFF which is a very important resource for Jewish genealogy. If you already use JGFF, but don’t fully understand it, then also read the article which explains a bit about how to optimize your results using the JGFF.

If there are section or features of the JewishGen web site you’d like me to write about in future articles in this series, let me know.

If you don’t know about the JewishGen Blog, make sure to check out the rest of the blog, which has contributors from across the spectrum of Jewish genealogy and in addition to information on the JewishGen site itself, provides all kinds of information of interest to anyone researching their Jewish relatives.

As always, please let me know what you think (either in the comments for the JewishGen Blog article, or in the comments for this post).

Finding local records

A recent tweet by Leland Meitzler caught my eye, linking to a post on his blog GenealogyBlog.com, that referenced an article by Allison Carter about researching roots in Newton, MA. I grew up in the town next to Newton, so I thought it would be interesting to see what the article was talking about. My family didn’t move to Massacusetts until the 1960s, so there was unlikely to be anything directly related to my family, but I’m always curious about new resources available online.

The article mentions that the City of Newton recently posted birth, marriage and death records, as well as city directories, online. The city scanned these documents and has made them available as PDF files on a new Genealogy page on their web site. They have birth, marriage and death records from 1635 up until 1899, and city directories from 1868 up until 1934. They say more will be added in the future. It’s nice to see a city making these records available to the public and I hope more communities will follow suit.

As I looked at the most recent City Directory from 1934 it occurred to me that as a researcher looking for Jewish ancestors, I was unlikely to find much from that far back. While Newton today has a large Jewish population, I don’t believe it had very much at all in the 1930s, and certainly not earlier. That made me think about the communities in the Boston area that had earlier Jewish populations – places like Lowell, Roxbury and Dorchester. Did these communities have records online? Like in many cities, Boston’s Jewish community had over the years started in the urban and industrial centers and moved out to the suburbs. This process is still continuing today.

I first searched for Lowell, as I know a family that has a long history there, and wanted to see if they would show up in any records. Some searching online turned up a Genealogy Resources page on a site run by the Center for Lowell History at the University of Massachusetts. One of the pages listed in the resources is Lowell – Vital Records 1865-1970. From there, there are pages for Births, Marriage Intentions and Deaths. Each one of those pages lets you look at the transcribed records (not the originals), but you need to know the year in order to find the record. There is no search. That can be fixed with a little help from Google of course. Searching Google for:

site:http://library.uml.edu/ SURNAME

will search the entire web site for the surname I specify (add site: before the web site URL, a space, and then the keyword(s) you are searching for). Indeed running this search on the surname of the family I was searching for found a page from the Marriage Intentions section in 1947 showing a couple I once knew, including the maiden name of the wife and the issue of the newspaper in which it was published. The page indicates that the index was created from marriage announcements in the Lowell Sunday Telegram, a newspaper that ceased publishing in 1952 (it was bought out by a competitor). One can go to the UMass library in Lowell and access these newspapers to see the original citation, but I was curious if the newspaper was available online.

GenealogyBank.com, which I’ve written about before, has thousands of newspapers online. I looked at their title list and while they list three other Lowell newspapers (all published in the 19th century), they do not have the Lowell Sunday Telegram.

I then checked out Chronicling America, a project to digitize historical newspapers run by the Library of Congress, but it appears they do not have any newspapers from Massachusetts (yet). They do, however, point to the fact that the Boston Public Library holds copies of the Lowell Sunday Telegram on both microfilm and in the original. Hopefully either GenealogyBank or Chronicling America will get around to scanning the Lowell Sunday Telegram one day. At least we know it is preserved in at least two libraries, and is on microfilm.

So what about the other towns in Massachusetts that had early Jewish communities? I can’t say I’ve been as lucky there in finding records. The flight of Jews from communities like Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan is well documented. One book which looks interesting (although I have not read) on this topic is The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions which focuses specifically on these communities and was co-written by the former editor of The Jewish Advocate, Boston’s largest Jewish newspaper. The Jewish Advocate has been published since 1902 and their archives would certainly be important for anyone researching Jews in the Boston area for the past century. The Jewish Advocate actually does have an online archive, although it only has issues dating back to 1991, which means it is not very useful for researching these former major Jewish communities. JewishGen, however, does offer a Boston obituary database from 1905 to 2008 gleaned from the Jewish Advocate.

Another approach to researching these communities is to find people in the JewishGen Family Finder (JGFF). Most people think of the JGFF as only covering communities overseas, but you can add records to the database for any community, and indeed Dorchester, Lowell, Mattapan and Roxbury all have entries in the JGFF. See my earlier article on the JGFF if you’re not familiar with how it works.

So what’s the moral of this story? Especially if you have no Jewish roots and you just trudged through this article and the Jewish part doesn’t apply to your research? There are a lot of local resources available, if you spend the time to look for them. Other sites like USGenWeb can be useful in tracking down local records, as are specific sites like DeathIndexes.com, but in the end a bit of time and effort searching for the town you want to find records in is the best idea, as you never know where you might find them. The big record database sites like FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com are great, but sometimes the tiniest local site might actually have what you’re looking for…

Genealogy Basics: Up, Down and Sideways

Genealogy humor: “Only a Genealogist regards a step backwards as progress”. While amusing, it also points to an interesting issue faced by many people interested in genealogy.

Many people who research their family are very focused on going back as far as they can. Perhaps the thought is that if you go back far enough you’re bound to find someone famous (or infamous) you’re related to, some royal blood, family that lived in a famous town, or lived through famous events in history.

There are actually a few different directions you can research your family. You can, as mentioned, research up your tree. You can also research down your tree, taking your oldest known ancestor in one line and researching all of their children, grandchildren, etc. (not just the line that leads to you). You can also research sideways, researching collateral ancestors, like the siblings and spouses of your known ancestors. Each of these techniques is useful, and indeed you will likely need to try all of them when doing your research if you want to be successful.

Let me give a good example of why researching your non-direct lines is important. Let’s say you’ve tracked back to your great-grandfather who lived in Poland or Russia in the 19th century before moving to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. That fits the profile of a large percentage of American Jews. Now if you’ve been able to find out about the great-grandfather but haven’t been able to get back further than that, we call that a brick-wall.

Maybe you only have information on your great-grandfather from after he arrived in the US, and you haven’t been able to find the name of the town where he was born in Poland.

Maybe you know which town he was from, but it’s a large city and he has a common last name, which makes research nearly impossible.

In this case you’ve researched up your tree to your great-grandfather. The next step is to research down your tree from your great-grandfather to find all of his descendants, your aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Even if your goal wasn’t to document these branches of your family, you need to realize that just like you have certain information on your family and where they came from, your extended family likely has different information, some small piece which might help you in your search. Mapping out all of the descendants of your most-distant-known-ancestor can frequently lead you to additional information about that ancestor.

Section of birth record of my grandfather’s
aunt, showing the birthplace of her father,
my great-great-grandfather – Kanczuga.

In my own family research I was looking for records in the wrong town for many years because that’s where my grandfather said our family was from originally. It was partially true. His siblings had been born in that town, as had some of his father’s siblings. It was, in fact, one of his father’s siblings’ records which led me to the town my gg-grandfather was from originally. If I had only been searching directly up my tree, I would never have discovered this fact, since my great-grandfather’s birth record (which took much longer to find in any case) did not name the town where his father was born. Even though it might seem a waste to look for records on all the siblings of the people whom you are primarily searching for (you can think of this as searching sideways), remember that they share the same parents and grandparents, and thus any information you find will help your search.

An important point is that it turns out that cousins of mine knew the town my gg-grandfather was born in long before I discovered it. Had I been in touch with these distant cousins earlier, it would have saved me a lot of pointless research.

Another way to search sideways is to contact cousins that you may not have figured out quite where they fit in your tree. In the case above, it was actually a cousin whom I knew was related, but wasn’t sure how they were related. If I had in fact pursued the question of how we were related and asked where their branch was from, it would have led me straight to the town from which my branch also originated.

Also, if you find references to relatives in family letters and don’t think it’s worth figuring out who those distant relatives mentioned are, think again. If you’ve hit a brick wall, those distant cousins, or their descendants, may be the ones that can help you knock down that wall.

Those distant relatives may also have photographs of your common ancestors. Another example from my own family concerns family photographs. I received portrait photographs of ancestors of mine, but without labels showing me who they were. After contacting a distant cousin and having him send me family photographs in his possession for me to copy, I found other copies of the same portraits with the names labeled on the back. They were, in fact, my ggg-grandparents, the in-laws of the gg-grandfather mentioned above. Many years later, someone contacted me through the JewishGen Family Finder (read my earlier article on JGFF if you’re not familiar with this amazing resource for Jewish researchers) and he turned out to be a 4th cousin of mine, descended from the same ggg-grandparents. Now, because I had received the portraits, and another cousin had labeled alternate versions of the same pictures, and this cousin from the other side of my family (he was a descendant of the sister of my gg-grandmother) had found me through JGFF, he now had photographs of his ggg-grandparents. This is why it’s so important to seek out your distant cousins, because you never know who has what information (or what photo).

So when searching for your relatives, even your direct ancestors, always remember to look for other descendants, some of which may know much more (sometimes just that one tiny important detail more) about your ancestors than you. Feel free to share your stories on finding information from distant cousins in the comments.