Friday, April 1, 2011




By Juliana Smith 24 March 2011


While four of the five tools below weren’t created with family historians in mind, they can sure come in handy as we explore our family’s story.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 and 1828 
So you just learned your ancestor was a hostler from the census.  What’s a "hostler?" Looking it up in a dictionary from around the time your ancestor was engaged in that occupation can sometimes give you a more accurate definition.  In the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary a hostler is defined as “The person who has the care of horses at an inn.” The 1913 definition also includes “an innkeeper” and this later edition also includes a railroad reference as “The person who takes charge of a locomotive when it is left by the engineer after a trip.”

Other uses for the dictionary would include medical and legal terms, and even terms you might find in family correspondence. For example, the 1913 definition of the word “shine” includes this one:
4. Caper; antic; row. [Slang] To cut up shines, to play pranks. [Slang, U.S.] So if you find yourself confused by the cryptic lingo in Aunt Marge’s correspondence, pay this site a visit for a clarification.

Looking for more information about a battle in which your ancestor fought during the Civil War? Or perhaps your ancestor was a Brooklyn policeman and you’d like to learn more about the history of that police force. What were the working conditions of the industry in which your ancestors were engaged? The answers to these and many other questions can often are found in publications that might not be found in your local bookstore. WorldCat will not only alert you to their existence, but when you enter your zip code it will give you a list of libraries that have those publications in their collection.

Census Enumerator Instructions (IPUMS) 
Census enumerators were given very specific instructions when it came to recording the answers your ancestors gave. Reading these instructions can be very helpful in more fully understanding your ancestor’s response. This site includes the original instructions for the years 1850-1950. (Note: This site also includes lists of the questions asked in each census. Check out the 1940 questions in preparation for the release of the 1940 census by the National Archives next year.

Soundex Converter 
Soundex is a phonetic algorithm that was used to index U.S. censuses in the pre-online database days.  Now it is among the many algorithms employed by sites like that allow searches to turn up spelling variants for the surnames you’re seeking.

However, sometimes the variants for your ancestor’s name may have different Soundex codes and in these cases you’ll want to search for both versions of the name. For example, the code for my grandmother’s maiden name of Mekalski is M242. But I know that her father often used the spelling Menkalski, which is Soundex code M542. Knowing this, I’ll want to either search for both versions or use a wildcard to pick up both variants (i.e., Me*kalski). For more on wildcards, see this article.

Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) 
Ever wondered what county a town was located in? Or what cemeteries were in the county where your ancestors lived? The Geographic Names Information System can help. Enter a town name and its state and you’ll be presented with a list of features associated with that town and the name of the county it currently falls within (or in some cases counties as there may be more than one place with that name). Click on a name for geographic coordinates and links to various maps and satellite views of the area.

For more on county histories, see the “Red Book” portion of the Wiki.  Choose a state of interest and then select the “County Resources” link to see a table with a list of counties, dates of formation and parent counties.

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