I have heard from more than a few Gilded Hour readers who wonder about their own family history and how to find out more. For example:
…Our great-grandmother, [name], was a doctor in NYC at around this time, so it was truly interesting, and sobering, to read about some of the things she may have endured as she pursued her chosen path. We do not know much about her during this time in her life, and I would like to learn more. Any suggestions as to the best places for me to look to track her down?
This is a big question, and the answer depends on how much time, energy, and money you want to invest in the search for information about your relative. There are hundreds of online resources for genealogical inquiries, of course. Dozens of them provide good tutorials on how to get started. For someone without any research experience who has a fairly limited question they’d like to answer, I would suggest the following steps:
- Gather as much information as you can from living family members and documents. Dates and places for all four grandparents and all eight grandparents, whatever you can find. Even if it’s conflicting, you need to keep track of it. Make sure you get older relatives to cough up birth certificates that may be gathering dust in an old desk.
- When you have as much information as there is to get from family members and resources, sit down and make a list of what you don’t have for the four grandparents and eight great grandparents. Dates and places of birth, death, marriage, parent and children and sibling names etc.
- Depending on how deeply you want to pursue this, start tracking down those documents. Say you know that a grandfather was born in Buffalo in 1920. There are ways to track down his official birth certificate and to request a copy. It will cost a couple bucks, and take a little time. Whether or not you want to take this step, you can move on. This research step may become easier if you decide to pursue the suggestion I’ve made below.
- Once you know something about the relative who interests you most (for example, this reader’s great grandmother who was a physician in New York city in the late 19th century) the single biggest source of information would be the census. The 1880 census is a great source of information. How to get to it, and how to read it — that’s another issue. If you think you’ll be satisfied with tracing down Dr. Great Grandmother alone, then here’s my suggestion: sign up for a free month at ancestry.com, and then do not waste a minute. Put Dr. Granny in as the first person in a family tree with whatever information have (dates of birth, death, etc) and do a general search. Focus on the census to start. Ancestry.com will show you both the actual census page (which you can save and/or download) as well as the transcribed data. Read what you find carefully. Look up the address on a map (more on this if you’re interested). Consider her neighbors (other doctors? More of your relatives?). You can find maps of the city neighborhoods for the same time period, so look at where she lived, and see if there are clinics or hospitals nearby.
- Once you find one trace of her on Ancestry.com, you’ll be able to pick up all kinds of hints. Add it all to her on the family tree you created, but this is important: download everything you find too (as you’ll only be there for a month), and figure some way to organize it electronically even if it’s only everything in one file.
- Now you’re at a crossroads. Say you’ve found Dr. Granny in five different censuses, you’ve got a lot of information but you still don’t know about where she went to medical school or practiced medicine. At this point you have to settle in for some serious research. If there’s interest, I can go into this in more detail on this at some point.
To make a point, I put this Dr. Great Grandmother into both the Ancestry.com and Google, and hit pay dirt right away. I found her obituary in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 75 (1920), and with the dates I got from that source I went to Ancestry and got a (1) a listing in a medical directory when she was still in practice, with information about her medical school, etc. (2) a family tree with sources, and from there (3) her 1880 Census entry. I’ve blocked out the names because I don’t have permission to share that information–I did this on the fly.
The census is especially interesting.
In 1880 she was 17, married, with a six month old child, and she’s listed as keeping house. How she got from that place in her life to medical school — that would be an interesting story, one worth pursuing. Just to be clear: this was a tremendously easy search. Most are not.
It’s funny that you should post this today because in today’s local newspaper was a long article on organizing family photographs and memoir writing to preserve family stories.
As well as an article on an organization that will preserve your memories in a cloud based online storage system.
That is a coincidence. I’ll look at those links with some interest, though I have to admit that while I love to read about ways to keep things organize, they seldom work for me. Wishful thinking, no doubt. Thanks, Petzi.
Hi Rosina !
Thank you for your reply and your comments!
Oh my goodness! She was married at 17? Yikes! I did not realize she was so young when she married. She had two sons, Alphonse and Eugene (my grandfather; he died before I was born). My grandmother (Eugene’s wife, Victoria), spoke often and fondly of her mother-in-law, and as a child, I loved to hear stories about their lives in New York. Unfortunately, I was not astute enough at the time to ask all of the right questions. I know the Pelhams were people of means (they were in the construction business in NYC), but I have no idea what drove ‘Mother Pelham’ to become a doctor. I do have a few notes from her to my grandmother offering remedies for childhood illnesses when my father (born in 1909) was a baby, but how or why she became a doctor was never a topic of conversation. Unfortunately, she died from diabetes just before insulin became available.
Well, now I think I have got to get on the ball and start doing some research of my own.
Thank you so much, and I will continue to follow you on your blog!
My best, Melinda (Pelham) Murphy
I don’t know if you’ll thank me if the research bug really has bitten you. Family history is fascinating, but it can turn into a huge time (and, if you go really crazy) money drain. A yearly subscription to Ancestry (the big package, with all the resources) is somewhere around $360. If you use it every day that’s not bad, but it’s not pocket change, either.
I also suggest familysearch.org it has quite a bit of information for free. It has gotten me started on a whole heap load of searches. Some libraries have obituaries online, for northern Ohio, try cpl.org and findagrave.com has a non-famous grave search. These are the sites I use most often.
So much of genealogy is amazing, the stories and hardships our ancestors lived through. The fact that two generations after a one-eyed miner who come over from Slovakia with $11 in his pocket, my dad had a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering and bought brand new cars with a check. Crazy. Fascinating, and only one of many, many similar stories.
Soup — those are great links, and I should have thought to include them. Sounds like you have been bitten by the genealogy research bug, too. I have a one-armed ancestor who taught in the first school built in the Delaware Water Gap. Such interesting stories pop up. Some of them really disturbing.