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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 27, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Trying to Save My Pennies

Q: How does a person go about doing their family tree without spending a lot of money? Most sites I come across want me to pay for information. How can I research with plain notebook paper and the library? -- Jamie

A: The majority of genealogy sites on the Internet were created by fellow genealogists and are, therefore, free of charge. Generally speaking the only time that you will find a charge is for those databases that companies have incurred expense in purchasing. Even some of these, such as the Social Security Death Index, will be available free of charge.

First, you'll want to spend some time getting to know the general search engines, such as Google or AltaVista. Once you begin to understand the intricacies of these search engines and how to tailor a search to eliminate as many of the non-genealogical Web pages as possible, you may begin to find more information on your family.

Generally speaking, success in genealogical searching online is greatly increased if you are able to trace your family back before 1900. While it is not impossible to trace 1900 and later, I find that fewer researchers have shared their 20th century research. This is primarily because some of those individuals are still a live and genealogists are becoming more cognizant of the importance of protecting the identity of living individuals.

You may also need to attack your research from a different approach. Instead of concentrating on surnames, you may first need to look at what is available for the localities in which your ancestors were living. For instance, the free USGenWeb Project is broken down by state then county and then in some instances, such as the New England states, by town. You will find a similar division with the WorldGenWeb Project as well. Many counties have relied on the kindness of volunteers who transcribe tombstones in cemeteries or abstract information from marriage registers. Because of volunteers, this information is now freely available on the Internet. The USGenWeb project has also done some work on making indexes to census records available for free.

There are a number of compiled sites you can search for free including the Ellis Island Records site. You'll also find that some of the Family History Library's databases are available online.

Generally speaking if you must wait for something to be available for free, you must possess a great deal of patience in this hobby. Genealogy is a great hobby because we can control the costs by spacing them out. Still, as with any hobby, there are going to be some costs involved. If you do decide to pay for a subscription to one of the commercial sites, I have found that the best bargain to be an annual subscription. When you compare the cost of a monthly to the cost of an annual subscription, purchasing an annual subscription is often like getting one to four months for free.

And while the Internet offers a lot of information to genealogists, do not discount a trip or two to your local genealogical library. You may find that they have microfilm equivalents of the census records available or they may have subscribed to the databases for patrons to use. It is certainly worth checking into.

English and Irish Families

Q: How do you go about finding ancestors when all you know is they came from England or Ireland but have no idea who their parents were, dates of birth, death, etc.? I know some came from these countries but without specific counties can get no help. -- Nancy

A: Generally, when it comes to researching ancestors in England or Ireland you need to know more than the county from which they came or were born. Instead you often need to know the parish in which the person was born because many of the records you will be using will be found on that level. The parish may be the town in which the family was living, or may be a near by town. Many of the records genealogists use are found on an ecclesiastical level as opposed to a strict geopolitical level.

With that said, it sounds like you may need to do some additional research in this country before you trace the individuals back to England or Ireland. It sounds like all you have are names and the fact that they came from either England or Ireland. That is seldom enough information to know for sure that you have found the right person once you do find someone mentioned in either of these countries (unless you are searching for an extremely uncommon surname such as Zucknick).

What records may be available to you in this research will depend largely on where your ancestors went when they left Ireland and England and when they made their migration. We use vital records or civil registration more for the latter 1800s or the 1900s. For earlier centuries, we generally use vital record alternatives.

If the person came from England or Ireland, then they came to someplace. Begin there with your research. You need to get at least an approximate year of birth. Exhaust all the records that may exist in the country, state, and county where your ancestors settled when they emigrated. Too often we jump from census to census and then head right across the pond thinking that all we need is the country. Instead we need to spend extra time looking for all possible records that were generated on an ancestor when they came and settled in the new country.

Unfortunately not all of these records can be found on the Internet. In fact, most of them are not available on the Internet. Instead we need to get familiar with the unique repositories for the localities of our ancestors. You will often find useful records at a variety of repositories including state historical societies or archives, county courthouses, and public or specialty libraries. While there is certainly more information available on the Internet today, it is just the tip of the record iceberg.

Cemetery Name Change

Q: I have recently come across several cemeteries where the names have changed over the years. I would like to make note of this in Family Tree Maker, but I'm not sure what the proper way of noting the change. Also, how would you enter the source information? Here is an example of how I think the change of the name should be done, but I'm clueless about the source. EXAMPLE: Dela Cemetery a.k.a. White Church Cemetery; Dela, Pushmataha County, Oklahoma -- LuAnn

A: First, let me commend you on being so conscientious with your research and record keeping. It is a shame that more genealogists don't worry about such things. It certainly will make things easier for those researchers who may come across your genealogy at a later date. They will not have to guess what the cemetery is or where it went since you will have told them.

In Family Tree Maker, the only real way to make note of the cemetery change is to put it in the notes for the individual in question. Other software packages may have a note field that is directly attached to the burial event. For those individuals encourage them to put the notation in that note field rather than on the note for the person as a whole. The name of the cemetery is actually not a part of the locality. The locality of burial is the town, county, and state, or foreign equivalent. Of course, knowing the town often is not enough when it comes to trying to find the exact place of burial. The cemetery is considered a detail and is often relegated to a note.

Because I relegate the cemetery to a note, in the case of your example, it would not be difficult for me to word the note in such a way as to include both the original name of the cemetery and what it is now known as. For instance, I would probably say "John Smith was buried in Dela Cemetery, now known as White Church Cemetery." I might even go further with my note and include the date of the name change if I have it in my research.

When it comes to citing the tombstone as a source, there is some pertinent information that you will want to include. I would also encourage you to mention the name change in your source citation as well. You don't know if the person reading your research will overlook it in the notes, but may pay closer attention to your sources, and as such might miss it if you limited it to just the notes. I include the following details in a tombstone inscription source

  • Name of the deceased person
  • Record type (in this case - "tombstone inscription")
  • Name of the cemetery (and this is where you would want to make note of the name change
  • Location of the cemetery (include town, county, and state)
  • Name of the person who read the stone
  • Date the stone was read

The above details pertain only to those tombstones that you or another has physically read. If you found the information in a published source, such as a book of tombstone inscriptions or a Web site, then the source would not be the cemetery itself, but the book or Web site that shared that information with you. In such a case, then you would probably want to include an annotation to the source about the change of the cemetery name, pointing out the name used in the published source and the name either as it was originally or the name that it was later changed to, depending on when the resource was published and when the cemetery's name changed.

Burial of the Poor

Q: My family arrived in New York Harbor, September 1911 from Port of Spain, Trinidad. They resided in Brooklyn (Kings County) New York. Not long after their arrival the family patriarch William Best died of pneumonia; in 1914. Having great difficulty finding the death certificate and location of his burial. They had only just arrived and did not have much money, so we are sure that he was buried in a cemetery for those with little to no money - but which one and where? -- Susan

A: While it is certainly possible that he was buried in a potter's field, and I have included more about New York City's below, the first step in solving your problem is to find a copy of his death certificate. There is an index to deaths for all the boroughs of New York City that I suggest you consult in your research of the death and burial of William Best.

A search of the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, will reveal an Index to Deaths for all of the New York City boroughs dating from 1888 to 1965. From this index you should be able to locate your William Best. The indexes are arranged first by year, then month and then alphabetically. When working in the index from 1898 through 1936, you will find that each borough is listed separately. Don't be tempted to limit your search to Brooklyn because that is where he was residing. Instead, go through each borough's list. I would also suggest that you look from 1911 to 1918 in your search, but at the least I would order the following two microfilms through your local Family History Center to go through.

  • Index to Deaths, All boroughs, 1909-1913 --------- FHL #1324916
  • Index to Deaths, All boroughs, 1914-1917 --------- FHL #1324917

Hopefully you will be able to identify William Best by his age, because the index will list him by name, and then by age at the time of death and then give you the certificate number. Armed with this and the year of the index in which you found him, you may then find that the death certificate has also been microfilmed. If he did die in Brooklyn in 1914 then his death certificate is definitely on microfilm and available through your local Family History Center. The death certificate should then tell you where William was buried.

The death certificate is certainly the best route when it comes to trying to find out where someone is buried, especially when it comes to New York City. There have been so many cemeteries in New York City that is often hard to find the right one without this information. You may find Carolee Inskeep's book The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian's Guide to New York City Cemeteries helpful. This alphabetical listing of cemeteries can be found in more than 200 pages. Unfortunately for you, while the cemeteries are identified by category, the author did not include potter's field or some other way of identifying those cemeteries for the poor and indigent, or those that had made provisions for the burying of the poor. In some cases, though, it is possible that the community rallied around your ancestor's widow and family and helped out with the burial, which would mean that he was not buried in a potter's field.

Potter's Field in New York City though is also known as Hart Island Cemetery. Hart Island is east of City Island, Long Island Sound. The City of New York acquired Hart Island in 1868 from John Hunter and set aside the northern tip of the island, approximately 45 acres, as a potter's field. This was not the first time the city had felt responsible for the indigent and alone. They actually began interring bodies in the early 1800s at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In 1823 the cemetery, and those buried there were removed to Fifth Avenue and 40th-42nd Streets in Manhattan. When a reservoir was to be put there, the remains were again moved, this time to 4th Avenue and 50th Street. When this land was given to the Women's Hospital the remains of those buried were again disinterred and transferred to Ward's Island in 1857.

Hart Island is under the custody of the Department of Correction. Inmates from neighboring Riker's Island prison are responsible for the receiving and burial of those who are buried in Hart's Island. There are approximately 125 burials a week to Hart's Island Cemetery, making about 8,000 burials a year. Of those 1,500 are infants. In general if a body is not claimed then it is likely to wind up in Potter's Field on Hart Island. The first burial at Hart Island was on 20 Apr 1869. The 24 year old Louisa Van Slyke was an orphan who died in Charity Hospital. Since that time approximately one million people have been buried there as well making it the largest potter's field in the United States.

Hart Island is not open to the public and the burial registers are turned over to the Municipal Archives when disinterment is no longer an option. Individuals buried at Hart Island can be disinterred up to eight years after burial, and there are about 150 disinterments a year. For more history on Hart Island and Potter's Field, you may want to read the excerpts of "A Historical Resume of Potter's Field: 1869-1967 (Excerpts)".

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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