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

August 22, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

What to Do With a Social Security Number

Q: I have my great-grandmother's social security number. Where do I go from here? -- MissAngie145

A: With your great-grandmother's social security number, you can write to the Social Security Administration to request a copy of the SS-5 form. The SS-5 form is the original formed filled out when an individual was requesting a social security number. There are many benefits to getting a copy of this form, though you should note that the price for requesting such a form recently went up from $7.00 to $27.00. (The increase was necessary to continue to supply individuals like us with these valuable forms.)

So what do you get for your $27.00? The card includes

  • the full name of the person in question
  • their address at the time they applied
  • who they were working for
  • their age at their last birthday
  • their date of birth
  • their place of birth
  • the full name of father
  • full maiden name of mother
  • sex
  • and race.

Of particular interest is the signature on the card. Few of us are fortunate enough to have original records bearing the signature of our ancestor. The SS-5 is one such document.

If you found your great-grandmother's social security number in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), you'll want to mention that in your letter to the Social Security Administration. If it was something else, you may want to include a copy of her death certificate or other proof of death so that you can get the requested SS-5 form.

On occasion the SS-5 form is no longer available and instead you will be sent the Numident card. While the Numident card doesn't have as much information, it is less expensive and is certainly not worthless. It may include valuable information about where your ancestor lived, giving you a trail to follow of places where your ancestor lived which may help you to locate records on her. You can find out more, by visiting the Social Security Administration's Web site.

Native American Research

Q: I don't know if you can help me or not, but I am trying to research my Indian heritage. The problem is that the heritage is on my dad's side and I don't have any contact with him or his family. I am trying to find this out without actually having to contact someone from that family. Do you know where I could start looking for the answers? Anything at all would be helpful. I do have some information such as when and where he was born and his parents' names and stuff. -- Megan

A: If you haven't done so already you will want to get a copy of your father's birth certificate. While you mentioned that you have his parents' names, the birth certificate will give you additional information about his parents including their age at the time of his birth and their place of birth, at least the state. This gives you something with which to begin your research.

While it is not impossible to research your dad's side of the family without contacting them, it will make for a slower process. Without their input you must rely solely on what the records tell you and, in some instances, the records are not always accurate.

If you have more than just names for your paternal grandparents, such as their age when he was born or when they were born, you might want to look for them in the Social Security Death Index to see how many possibilities show up based on what you presently know. Depending on the surname, there may be too many names in the results list to make this feasible. If it is not a common name, then it is possible that there will be so few names that it will be easy to identify your grandparents. The SSDI is not an index of everyone who died in the United States, but it is a good starting place in some instances.

While your goal is to connect to your Native American ancestry, the research must still begin with traditional methods in the records generated by births, marriages, and deaths. As you continue your research, you should eventually begin to find information in the records that alludes to the Native American connection.

I should point out that many individuals have family stories of a Native American connection. Research, though, often disproves many of these stories. When you are researching this side of your family try to do so with an open mind. Some researchers try to force the information they find to fit the family story they have, thus sometimes overlooking clues or ignoring them. It is important that we use family stories simply as clues and be willing to accept that the story may have flaws.

Misinformation Found

Q: James Nathen McClain died in 1948 but the tree I just found says he lived between 1925 and 1978. I wanted to let you know, can you change it? I also have a lot of information on the descendants of Raymond Pershing McClain. How can I update the tree that I found? -- penpen

A: It sounds like you are describing a World Family Tree submission. These GEDCOM files are submitted by researchers like you who have compiled some information and are willing to share it with others. In some instances, for example, when a date of birth or death is not known, the World Family Tree will estimate a date. Such estimates usually are listed in the World Family Tree database as WFT 1925-1978. It is also possible that the information you found was downloaded from the World Family Tree and then uploaded along with other information to the Web by another researcher.

Regardless of where you found it, you need to go to the source. If it is a Web page, there should be an e-mail address somewhere on the site that you should use to contact the person. When you contact them, be sure to let them know that you are willing to share your information. I find that offering to share research is a better approach than immediately trying to point out the errors on their site. People can get irritated if they receive an e-mail about their site that only offers criticism. Even constructive criticisms can be misconstrued.

If you found the information in the World Family Tree, then you will need to go through the steps for getting the contact information on that submitter. After filling out the request form, you'll receive an e-mail with the name and address of the submitter of the information, which you can then use to contact the person. You can find out more about this at the World Family Tree page.

The information found in the World Family Tree, assuming that is where you found it, will not be updated since those trees have been submitted and published on CD-ROM and online. However, if you contact the individual who submitted the tree and supply them with the correct information, they may be willing to submit another tree with the revised information. Or you can supply the tree to World Family Tree.

One thing to keep in mind before submitting information to the World Family Tree or sharing with fellow researchers, though, is to protect the information on any living individuals entered into your database file. You will want to find out how your genealogy programs privatizes individuals and turn that feature on before sending the GEDCOM file to anyone. In Family Tree Maker, this feature is found under the File menu, Preferences sub-menu. If you use another program, you will need to search the online help to see how to hide information on living individuals.

Finding Place Names

Q: Is there a online source to find the county name of a city outside of the United States? -- Sandra

A: What you are in need of is a gazetteer. You may be able to find many gazetteers through your local library. In addition, your local Family History Center has many gazetteers for foreign countries available on microfiche, but you must use them at your Family History Center and they cannot be taken home.

If it is an area that you will be researching in heavily, you will want to consider purchasing a gazetteer to have at your fingertips whenever you are working on your family tree. Many gazetteers have been published through or reprinted by genealogical publishers and societies. You may want to start your search at Genealogical Publishing Company.

Online, you may want to look into the WorldGenWeb Project page for the country of interest. If an online database or gazetteer exists they will likely have a link to it on their page. You could then save that URL to your browser's favorites or bookmarks.

One thing to keep in mind when working with gazetteers of foreign countries is that they are usually published in the native language. This may mean that you will need to have a way of translating the information so that you can identify where your town is located in the country. For short passages, you could probably use an online translator, such as the one at Altavista.com but a language dictionary might also prove useful.

Whether or not a gazetteer for your country of interest exists online will depend largely on the country, those who are researching in that country, and how active the genealogical societies of that country are. You may find that the only gazetteer is either on microfiche through your Family History Center or a published book that you must either read at the library or purchase.


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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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