Monday, August 31

How Popular Are You? (In a Family History Sense, That Is)

Here's just a quick look at some surname tools that are interesting from a family history perspective, but truth be told, they're mostly just fun.

The Census Bureau has a big list of Frequently Occurring Surnames From Census 2000.  Actually, there are several lists of last name rankings:

The Top Ten Surnames.  Smith leads the way, showing up 2,376,206 times in the 2000 Census.

The full Top Ten list is right here.

The list of the Top 1000 Names  can be downloaded from the Census site.

So can another ranking list with 151,671 surnames that occurred 100 times or more in the 2000 Census (the list is configured to fit in a standard spreadsheet).

There are similar lists of rankings of first names from the 1990 Census.

There's also an interesting (albeit technical) paper on the challenges of counting Hispanic surnames, with a list in the Appendix of the Most Common "Heavily Hispanic" Surnames.

There are other good surname tools out there.  Name Facts, at, provides stats even on really rare names (like mine, which doesn't show up on the Census lists).  It even shows a map of geographical distributions for your family name.  The Social Security Death Index is another good, quick way to gauge the popularity or rarity of a particular name.  Enter just a last name (or just a first name, for that matter) and see how many results turn up.

I like having an unusual last name.  It makes family history research so much easier...almost everything that I find is actually related to my ancestors in one way or another.

If my last name was Smith, on the other hand...Hoo Boy!  Talk about too much of a good thing!

Sunday, August 30

Anacleto Ebooks: Worth a Look for a Quick Family History Search

One of the frustrations of the internet is how scattered much of the information can be.  There's no easy way to search through, say, oral histories.  You just have to find individual collections, and begin to browse, in the hope that something valuable will turn up.

The same is sort of true with ebooks.  There is an enormous amount of content available in ebooks -- millions of volumes! -- but no easy way to search through them.

Google Books comes closest, and Amazon has some good inside-the-book search cabailities, but...isn't there anything more?

You can search thousands of books like this one

Try Anacleto.  This search engine plumbs the depth of content at Project Gutenberg's ebooks.  There are about 100,000 books here -- not huge, by internet standards.  However, many of these are older, non-fiction books that include tidbits of family history.

You can find slave narratives, biographies, Indian (Native American) records, historical accounts, correspondence, newspaper records, academic studies, personal journals, government reports, and many other types of materials that can include information about your ancestors, the places and the times in which they lived.

Anacleto is just a quick stop. Visit it, search on family names, and other topics of interest, and see what pops up.  You may be pleasantly surprised.

Use the Advanced Search feature (they call it Qualified Search) to fine tune results.  You can specify the format you want, including sound, video and image files, along with whatever types of text you'd like to access.

By the way, Gutenberg has its own full-text search feature, but I find that it rarely works well.  I much prefer Anacleto.

Visit the main page of Free Genealogical Tools for more, umm, free genealogical tools. 

And don't forget to also check for your family history at and are subscription databases, but they are among the most powerful research tools available for looking into family roots.

Saturday, August 29

Free Lexis-Nexis for Family History Research

LexisNexis is one big honking database, boasting of access to more than five billion searchable documents.  And this is all high-class stuff.  None of your blogs, chats, and tweets here.  LexisNexis is for professionals.

And maybe that's why a lot of people are not very familiar with it.  But you should be!  There's tons of family history information just waiting to be unearthed by genealogists.

What does a legal and news database like LexisNexis have to do with family history research?  Plenty.  Many of your family members from current and past generations are likely to be found somewhere in LexisNexis' vast collection of newspapers, professional journals, magazines, court cases, patents, public records, and a whole lot more.

Ruth the Acrobat, for no special reason

This is especially true of their collection of court cases.  Every family winds up in court sooner or later, either on criminal charges, or by filing a lawsuit or getting sued, or as witness or participant in a case.  Their Federal and State court case records go back hundreds of years, and include everything from runaway slaves, to personal bankruptcies, to some of the great criminal and civil trials of the ages.

Thing is, though, accessing their records costs a bundle.  Is there a way to get LexisNexis for free?  Yes...sort of.

You can access the databases at LexisNexis by Credit Card...use the Pay As You Go option (unless you want to set up a longer-term account).

I did say free, right?  You can search the databases at LexisNexis for free, and see Google-like snippets for the results.  You'll have to pay if you want to access the documents in full, but often, just having the free snippet provides a lot of useful family history information.  You still have to provide your credit card information to register, but you don't have to actually spend any money to search.

Warning, though.  LexisNexis is no Google.  Searching is complex, and article retrieval is no picnic either.  And reading case law?  Hoo boy.  But if you can find some gems on your family's roots, it's all worth it.

One last thing.  If you find an interesing case in LexisNexis, try running the case name through a Google search.  With a bit of luck, you can pull up the entire case in Google, without paying a cent.

Visit the main page of Free Genealogical Tools for more, umm, free genealogical tools. 

And don't forget to also check for your family history at and are subscription databases, but they are among the most powerful research tools available for looking into family roots.

Friday, August 28

Family History Research at the National Archives: More Online Than You Know

The National Archives (or more formally, the National Archives and Records Administration) has some wonderfully massive databases online, and I've covered the major NARA data sets -- military enlistement records, immigration/customs records -- in earlier posts.

There's also a helpful summary at NARA in a section, What genealogical records are online?  where you'll find some treasures like military criminal case files, lists of US Marshals, and fugitive slave case papers and petitions.

But there's a section of NARA that is often overlooked...the Archival Research Catalog. ARC is the Archives' pointer system to their massive records holdings, the vast bulk of which are offline. But in putting together the database, NARA included millions of individual names...names that often come with snippets of interesting and valuable genealogical information.

Click image to enlarge

Almost all the family names that I searched on in ARC turned up some hits, even for some pretty rare surnames. Search on a common name like Davis, and you'll get 2,000 search results...the maximum the system allows.

But even an unusual surname like Bollin turned up five hits. Four of these were military records spanning a period from 1863-1947.

The fifth record was a 1917-1921 Enemy Alien Registration Affidavit (how often do you see one of those?) for Mary Klasinski. What's the connection between Ms. Klasinski and Bollin?

Clicking on the record, and then clicking through the tabs (Details, Scope & Content, Archived Copies, and Hierarchy) tells us that Ms. K lived in Kickapoo, Kansas, was born in Missouri on June 18, 1858, and her maiden name was (go ahead, guess!)...Bollin.  There's even a photo of Ms. K in the file that I can request from NARA -- the listing also provides contact information for the particular file in question.

You might notice that ARC searches include a People tab, meant for searching individual names. You can try this, but I haven't found it to be particularly reliable, and prefer to stick with their just-search-everything default option. There is also a Digital Copies tab, for restricting your search results to digitized records that can be retrieved online.

Run, don't walk, to the ARC search page to look for any of your ancestors who might be included here.

Visit the main page of Free Genealogical Tools for more, umm, free genealogical tools. 

And don't forget to also check for your family history at and are subscription databases, but they are among the most powerful research tools available for looking into family roots.  

Thursday, August 27

The Painful-Yet-Worthwhile Making of America


It was the best of sites, it was the worst of sites...

The Making of America collection is one of the internet's most frustrating sites...the very opposite of user-friendly.  But it's a very good specialty resource for family history work, so you should certainly have a look despite it's shortcomings. 

And shortcomings there are.  The collection is so convoluted that I'm not even sure what to call it (there are many possibilities), or what link to provide (most of them are horribly long and cumbersome).  Once you get to the collections (there are several), things aren't much's a slow site, and hard to navigate, search and access results.

But the effort is worth it.  Through the combined efforts of the University of Michigan and Cornell University, the Making of America site has amassed a large (about a million pages), important and rich collection of Americana, with a strong focus on 19th century US history after the Civil War (antebellum to Reconstruction).  These are primary sources -- books and magazines of the period -- and make mention of probably millions of family names, from prominent historical figures to everyday folk. If your ancestors were part of the US in the latter 19th century, you may well find them mentioned here.

As for actually using the dang thing, I suggest starting at the University of Michigan Digital Library (UMDL) Collections page.   Here you'll find an overview of their collections, including Making of America Books, and MOA Journals.  These are both part of a larger collection, known as Nineteenth Century American Publishing      which includes works of Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well a rich collection called The United States and its Territories, 1870 - 1925.  There are other important resources tucked away here, the most significant of which is the Digital General Collection (I'm getting tired of making links!), a very large collection of digitized books which probably overlaps greatly with the MOA books, though the site will never tell you that. 

Whew!  Confused much? Happily, you can search all these collections at once, if you're willing to click on one of the ugliest URLs I've ever seen...I won't even mask it:;xg=1;page=simpleext;ALLSELECTED=1  

This should take you a search page that lists all the UMDL collections, and you can check or uncheck the ones you want included, but don't check them all, as it messes up the system (and ignore the Currently Searching box near the top, which misleadingly and arbitrarily lists a single collection name).  If you'd rather access MOA at Cornell, you can do so, along with their other fascinating (but not in a genealogical way) digital collections.  

As for searching itself, try looking for family names, or the towns that are part of your family history.  A Bibliographic search for books at MOA with Directory in the title, turns up a host of useful documents, like the Ohio State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1860-61.

See...I told you it was worth it.

Visit the main page of Free Genealogical Tools for more, umm, free genealogical tools. 

And don't forget to also check for your family history at and are subscription databases, but they are among the most powerful research tools available for looking into family roots.