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Finding Ancestors in Periodicals

by Kathleen W. Hinckley, CGRS
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What You'll Find in Genealogy Magazines
In genealogical magazines you'll find everything from complete family histories and how-to articles to research queries and case studies that can teach you how to look at a research problem a new way.
Are you a typical genealogist with boxes or file cabinets bulging with census records, deeds, and marriage certificates? You probably have some military pension files and a collection of flowery obituaries. Perhaps you found some long-lost cousins and have pages and pages of correspondence and photocopies of documents from shared research.

But if you are a typical genealogist, you also want more! You want the maiden name of your great-grandmother. You want to know exactly when your immigrant ancestor arrived in the United States. Or maybe you cannot figure out where your great-great-grandparents married.

The answers to your genealogical puzzles may be buried in periodicals. Have you looked? If not, you are missing a gold mine of information.  

Why are Periodicals Important to Research?

Indexes and Abstracts

Periodicals (a.k.a. journals, newsletters, magazines, and quarterlies) are filled with indexes or extracts of every type of record imaginable, such as cemetery inscriptions, baptisms, naturalization records, and homestead applications. These periodicals, usually published by local genealogical societies, provide a constant stream of newly indexed resource material.

Compiled Genealogies and Corrections

Some journals, such as The American Genealogist (a.k.a. TAG) and the New England Historical & Genealogical Register focus on publishing compiled genealogies of families, or correcting previously published family histories. For example, the 75th anniversary issue of TAG (July 1997) includes an article titled "Margery (Maude) Fisher, Quaker Immigrant to Delaware: A Correction of Her Lineage" by Charles M. Hansen, FASG. Margery Maude was born in 1671 and married Thomas Fisher in 1692 in Lewes, Delaware. The incorrect lineage of Margery (Maude) Fisher was published in Count d'Angerville's Living Descendants of Blood Royal, 5 vols., (London: 1959-73, 1:46-47) and again in Gary Boyd Roberts's The Royal Descents of 500 Immigrants, (Baltimore: 1993), 180. If you are a descendant of Margery (Maude) Fisher, this article will be critical to your research.

Methodology Articles

The National Genealogical Society Quarterly is well-known for its research methodology articles. Case studies teach readers how to analyze and correlate research to solve brick wall problems. For example, Margaret R. Amundson's article "The Taliaferro-French Connection: Using Deeds to Prove Marriages and Parentage" (Vol. 83 No 3, September 1995) describes how she used deeds to prove the marriage between Robert Taliaferro (1688-1736) of Essex County, Virginia, and Margaret French (ca. 1690-1724) of adjacent Richmond County.

General How-To Articles

Many periodicals, such as Heritage Quest, publish articles of general interest. Their September/October 1997 issue, for example, includes John Philip Colletta's article on U.S. passport applications, and Desmond Walls Allen's discussion of World War I draft registration records.

John Kennedy's article "Take Care of Pieces of Family History" in the September/October 1996 issue of Family Chronicle tells how to preserve family documents and photographs.

Queries and Book Reviews

The Genealogical Helper is best known for publishing queries from genealogists who want to connect with others researching the same family. Queries are published by other journals too, and success stories abound on how cousins find cousins.

Book reviews may seem like an unimportant or boring item in journals, but they inform us of new products or books on the market. Critical reviews also teach us standards and how to evaluate the quality of publications.

How Do I Find These Periodicals? They're Not in the Grocery or Book Store!

Periodicals are published by every type of genealogical society ranging from the local group of ten members, to national societies with membership in the thousands. They are published throughout the world by family associations, hereditary societies, and individuals.

And, yes, they will not be found in the magazine section of the grocery store or book store. To find a periodical, you must first find the society or organization that covers your area of interest. The quickest method to find out if there is a genealogical society in the research area of your interest, is to study the Federation of Genealogical Societies Membership Directory. Information is provided on over 500 genealogical and historical societies and family associations.

Online web site directories, such as Helpful Web Sites, will guide you to publishers of genealogical magazines. Some of the sites offer online indexes to their journal and/or feature articles from their magazine. Although there are hundreds of sites, there are hundreds more that are not online yet. A visit to your nearest public library with a genealogy collection will introduce you to the variety of periodicals within the genealogical field.

Researching Periodicals

The largest and best-known index to periodicals is the Periodical Source Index, known as PERSI. This resource, created by the Allen County Public Library and available on CD-ROM, indexes over 5,000 different periodicals published in the United States and Canada over the past 200 years. Every article can be searched by locality (both state and county), publication date, family name(s), and article subject.

We should begin our research with PERSI, but not stop with PERSI. There are limits to PERSI because only the article titles were indexed. If the article was an abstract of probate records, only the name of the county and record type will be indexed. But if you examine the full index to the periodical that published the probate records, all the names will be indexed.

The problem comes in finding indexes to the periodicals. Until the era of CD-ROMs, we had to rely on publishers creating cumulative indexes. In the "old days" we used Jacobus's Index to Genealogical Periodicals (an index to 91 periodicals published between 1932 and 1953), or the Genealogical Periodical Annual Indexes (known as the GPAI) that began in 1962. Or we examined annual indexes published by genealogical societies, a painstakingly long research process.

A couple of years ago, the New England Historic Genealogical Society published the Register, 1847-1994 on CD. The Register is the oldest continuous publication by a genealogical society. If you have colonial New England ancestry, the odds are excellent that you'll find references to your family in this publication.

A brief exploration of the Internet unveiled the following Web sites that have information about their periodicals and/or indexes to their periodicals. You may find many other such Web sites in your own explorations.

  • Avotaynu, the international review of Jewish genealogy, publishes on subjects of interest to genealogists of Jewish and Central and Eastern European ancestry. Last year, the company put the first 12 volumes of the publication on CD-ROM using the Folio® search engine. Users can search for words and combination of words and the software locates occurrences (hits) displaying the complete article on the computer screen. The user can then print a copy of the article. For example, a search for the surname Fischbein identifies two articles in which the name appears — Fall 1994 and Winter 1995 issues. The town of Lublin, Poland is identified with 58 hits.
  • The Record, is the second-oldest genealogical journal in the United States. Articles focus on families that lived in New York prior to 1900, as well as abstracts or indexes to original New York records such as church registers and tax rolls.
  • FEEFHS Internet Journal — East European Genealogy Ala Carte There are several full-text articles at this Web site such as "Researching the People From 'No Mans Land' — The Carpatho-Rusyns of Austria-Hungary" by Thomas A. Peters.

Research Tips for Searching in Periodicals

  • Index Types — Utilize every available index type because none of them provide 100% of what you need. Use PERSI for general surname, locality, and subject searches; use CD-ROMs issued by publications for detailed surname searches; and use the annual index provided by the publication for topics not included in PERSI or CD-ROMs.
  • Surname Searches — Prepare a list of spelling variations to use with every search. Include surnames of collaterals.
  • Locality Searches — Search by town, township, county, or state; province, district, country.
  • Subject Searches — Prepare a list of subjects unique to your family. For example, Methodists, gold rush, slaves, or Black Hawk War.
  • Research Log — Maintain a record of the title and date of periodicals searched, plus research results.
  • When you find a reference in an index and do not have access to the periodical, you have four options:
    • Write directly to the society that published the periodical, assuming they still exist. Give them a donation for photocopying the article for you;
    • Determine if the periodical is available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. If it has been microfilmed, you can order the film through a local Family History Center. If not, hire a professional genealogist in Salt Lake City to make a photocopy;
    • If the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Indiana has the periodical, they have a service to photocopy articles. Visit their Web site for details.
    • Ask your librarian if back issues of the periodical have been published on CD. We will be seeing more and more periodical collections in this format.

Researching with periodicals is never-ending because new material is published every day. For example, an article may appear in next month's NGSQ that will name your family. Or maybe the headstones from a small, rural cemetery were recently transcribed and will be published later this year.

That is why we never give up. There is always another record or another periodical to examine in hope of finding our elusive ancestors. And when you DO figure out one of your genealogical puzzles, write an article about it and submit it to your favorite magazine. Your contribution may help another genealogist solve their own puzzle!


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