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Expert Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

Nov 05, 2003
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Danish Research

Q: I have run into a snag in my research. I have traced my grandfather's genealogy back to where my ancestors came to the United States from Denmark. I would like to trace back further, but I do not speak, nor read Danish. Any ideas on how I should continue? — Leslie

A: I won't kid you and tell you that it will be easy. However, there are some guides that will help you to work with the records. It is also a good idea to get an English-Danish/Danish-English dictionary. While the word list mentioned below will help you tremendously with the terms common to genealogical research, there are times when you will need a more complete translation dictionary. Such dictionaries can be picked up at any bookstore.

When visiting websites that are in Danish, first look to see if they offer an English translation. Many of them do. If the site doesn't, try finding that site using a general search engine and then see if the search engine offers a translation link. While it doesn't always translate cleanly, it is often enough to get the overall subject and work in the site.

The Family History Library has compiled many word lists for genealogists that find themselves working in countries in a language that they are not familiar with. Luckily for you, Danish is among the many languages in which they offer a word list. You can purchase a paper copy of it through your local Family History Center and you can find a computerized version of it at the website.

The word list is devoted to the aspects of records that are unique to genealogy. It details the numbers, dates and times, and common terms we are most apt to find in the civil registration or church records we are using. Also found in the Danish word list is a look at some unique spelling issues that will affect the words you may find, because spelling was not standardized until 1953.

Finding a Birth Date

Q: I am trying to find the date of birth for my great-great-grandfather. I have his date of death, his name, and some military records, but I cannot find his birthdate. George S. MOSES was 33 when he enlisted in 1863. He died 22 Apr 1908 in Johnsburg, New York. He was born in Clifton Park, Saratoga Co., New York. I have contacted the bureau of vital statistics for New York State and Saratoga County as well as Clifton Park, but have had no luck. Neither his military records nor his marriage records have a birth date. Can you tell me how I might find it? — Michael

A: Vital records were not recorded in early 1800s for the state of New York, so you are unlikely to find a birth certificate for your great great grandfather. However, you may be able to find his birthdate or enough information about his age to be able to determine his birth date.

Your first step would be to order a death certificate. You have a couple of avenues through which you may pursue this. You can contact the Vital Records Section of the New York State Department of Health to request the death certificate. Currently, there is a 14-month delay for requests of certificates for genealogical purposes. However, there may be a way to speed this up.

New York is one of the states that participates in the Vitalchek Network. This means that if you go through Vitalchek, it might be possible to expedite your request. You can find out more about this by visiting their website.

Another possible avenue for getting a death certificate would be to contact the Registrar of Vital Statistics in the town of Johnsburg. They may be able to get the death record to you quickly.

Why such concentration on the death record? Generally, death records include the age at time of death (in years, months and days) and also very often they supply you with the date of birth and place of birth.

Finally, cemetery records will very often have detailed information about the birth of a given individual. The tombstones will have the dates of birth and death, or they will have the date of death followed by the age—again by years, months, and days.

Defining an Abstract

Q: I've ordered, through interlibrary loan, two microfilms from the New York State Library that contain issues of 18th century newspapers. I'd like to abstract the information from them for use online. What would be the proper way to abstract these records? I would like to include anything that may place a person in the locale (births, deaths, weddings, advertisements, etc.) -- Melissa

A: Before we go into the issues of abstracts and the information you should include, let me insert a note of caution in regard to copyrights. Copyright laws are intricate and confusing. You will want to double check the availability of the newspaper in the public domain before launching your project. This may require conferring with someone who is knowledgeable in copyright laws and their ramifications.

With that said, you will want to keep certain things in mind when abstracting records such as this. Since you wish to include information from more than a standard record, such as just marriages, you will need to evaluate the possibility of including all of that in a columnar format. Otherwise, you will need to go to a sentence structure instead.

Filby, P. William. Passenger and Immigration Lists Index (Gale Group, 2002)—this resource was actually first published in 1982 as a three-volume set. An annual supplement was then added to it. Fortunately for us, this massive work is available online as part of the International & Passenger Records Collection.

To abstract means to pull out the pertinent information, summarizing the main ideas of the text. When dealing with births, marriages, and deaths, you will want to have the following wherever they appear:

  • Name of individual(s)
  • Date of the event
  • Place of the event (which may be a town name or a person's residence)
  • Names of parents
  • Names of ministers, doctors, or others included
  • Other identifying information
  • Date of newspaper, and page number

When researchers have the above information, they can verify the reliability of your abstract by going directly to the original source.

Grandma Morgan

Q: I have been trying to trace my family tree for quite some time now. I can't seem to get past my great grandmother, Grandma Morgan, because I don't know her first name. I do know that she was born in Sweden and she came here to the U.S. I think that was in her childhood. I don't even know her mother's first or maiden name. If you know anything about the "Morgans" who came here in the early part of the century, I would greatly appreciate it. — Sara

A: My first thought is that perhaps you need to step back a little on your research. Good genealogical research works from the known to the unknown. Begin with yourself and get your birth certificate—you probably already have that handy—and look at the information on it. In addition to your name and the date and place of your birth, you should also see information about your parents. You should see the full maiden name of your mother. Usually the age and place—at least the state—may also be there. The full name of your father and similar information should also be on the birth certificate.

You will want to continue to get birth records, as long as they exist, for your parents and perhaps even your grandparents. Your message did not mention which side of the family your Grandma Morgan was on. If you are most interested in her, then begin to concentrate on that line for certificates. Once the line gets back to before 1930, then you can also add the census to your research. The census will show the family unit as a whole. This should include the head of the household, which is usually the father, followed by his wife, and any children living in the home. There may be others in the home as well and each person's relationship to the head of the household will be identified.

It is a good idea to get vital records—this includes birth, marriage, and death records—on those in the household for the line you are working on. You may not find all the records you need on your direct ancestor, or once you find them they may not have the information you hoped. Finding similar records on the siblings of your ancestor may fill in the pieces.

Since Grandma Morgan is your great-grandmother, it is probable that the birth, marriage, and death record on your grandparent should hold the clues that you need about her. But if you get these records and they do not have the information, see what records you can get for your grandparent's siblings. Also, if you know who Grandma Morgan married, look for records on him. His obituary may hold the key to her first name. In fact, it is possible that the two of them are buried together. In this case, if you find out where he was buried or get a copy of his death certificate, you will find the name of your great-grandmother.

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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