Exploring beyond the obvious: going off the beaten path in your genealogy search

You’ve decided to embark on your genealogy search and you have already scoured the obvious sources: birth, death and marriage certificates, personal family records, and census and immigration information.  Perhaps you have reached an impasse after exploring these primary documents or you know that your particular family history might require some more innovative sleuthing.  Often the most fruitful searches require an unconventional approach.  In this article, I discuss some unusual references that might get you thinking about the more unexplored paths for genealogy searches.

Fraternal Organizations.  When immigrants arrived in America, they often chose to reside together in enclaves in cities and towns where they could collectively preserve their language, culture and traditions.  These immigrant communities founded and operated their own schools, churches and fraternal benefit societies.  Communal organizations became popular in the late 1800s as venues for fostering social bonds and providing much needed insurance policies and financial assistance for immigrants.  You can investigate the insurance policy enrollment and benefits information provided by these fraternal organizations.  You may also find other relevant clues in your personal family history items such as paperwork, dues books, literature or photographs with a particular insignia belonging to the fraternal society.  If you do not have access to personal documents, another place to locate information is notations in obituaries or gravestones which may reference the deceased’s association with an organization.  Check out Cyndi’s List for links to websites for many such organizations and the Encyclopedia of Associations for a list of domestic and foreign organizations.  With an approximately one in seven chance that your ancestors living in North America were members of some type of fraternal society, it is a worthwhile place to search.

Funeral home archives.  Funeral home records have the distinction of providing useful information that is not contained in the death certificate.  Funeral records are typically business documents that include a death certificate and a financial ledger detailing the costs associated with the funeral arrangements.  Other useful facts that can be gleaned from the records include lists of the surviving immediate relatives, the names of grandchildren or in-laws, and sometimes addresses of residences for the listed relatives.  Funeral records may also include a copy of the obituary and/or the newspapers in which it was printed.  In addition, the reliability of the facts included in the funeral records, including the date and place of death and burial location, makes this an advantageous discovery if such records exist.

Criminal records.  Criminal and police records may not be the most obvious or pleasant place to search for genealogical information.  However, if you have noticed that one of your ancestors seemed to vanish from the family lore during a particular period of time or there is a disinclination among family members to mention his name, criminal records may be a fascinating and useful source of information.  There are various types of criminal records to search, such as arrest records, police reports, execution records and prison logs.  You can always locate court records by searching the jurisdiction in which the criminal activity occurred.  Since that information may not be accessible, researching the county records where that ancestor lived is a good starting point.  You can also check online databases such as Black Sheep Ancestors or the National Archives online catalog, Archival Research Catalog.

There are numerous other, less typical resources that may provide missing information in your genealogical puzzle; priceless nuggets of family history can be found in places you never thought of and maintaining an open mind and applying a scientific approach are the best methods to succeeding in your search.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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