Offline Research

My dad’s ancestors are all from the US, Canada, and the UK so researching their families online has been pretty easy. My mom, however, is from Italy where not as many records have been made available online. Some of the larger Italian cities can be found on Familysearch or Antenati, but my grandparents are both from small towns where nothing has yet been digitized.

My maternal grandmother is from Entracque, a tiny town in the French Alps with a population of about 800 people.  Current government records are kept in a nearby city, but all of the historic genealogical records, some dating back to the 1400s, can only be found in the local church.

My grandpa looking through old church record books

My grandparents have been trying to research their genealogy for decades by visiting the church and requesting to look through their books, but looking up each individual is very time-consuming and too many visits can become an annoyance to the local priest. When my mom decided to go visit last summer, we came up with a plan to digitize the church records so that our family history research could instead be done from home.

Nonno and priest
My grandpa looking through records with the local priest

We researched many different scanners but couldn’t find one that really fit our needs. Flatbed scanners would require turning the book face-down over and over with each page flip, so that wasn’t going to work. I love my Flip-Pal scanner, but it only scans 4″x6″ images so digitally stitching together each page from multiple scans would have been a nightmare. A wand scanner could have worked for some books, but many were wider than the wand and would have required multiple scans for each page.

My dad ended up creating his own “scanner” using a cellphone to capture the images. He purchased a Selfie Stick and attached it to a boom microphone stand so that the phone could be positioned directly above the table and the image could easily be captured by pressing the button of the Selfie Stick. (An even easier alternative that we have since discovered would be to purchase a phone mount that easily attaches to the boom microphone stand and then use a Joby bluetooth remote to control your phone’s camera). Using this process, my mom was able to digitize thousands of pages of birth, marriage, death, and local census records in a matter of days.

record
Digitized birth record

Once these records were digitized, we were then faced with the challenge of searching through the thousands of digital images. They have been organized electronically into folders according to the record book they were captured from, but it is still difficult to find specific records.

To solve this problem, my mom has taken on the daunting task of indexing each record. For each record book she has created an excel file with headings relating to the info found in those records. She then used speech recognition software to enter the data into excel from the records.

spreadsheet
Birth record column headings: Surname, Given name, Gender, Birthday, Father’s given name, Mother’s maiden name, Mother’s given name, Mother’s father, Page number

This is an ongoing project that will require quite a bit of time, but it has already paid off. Once a record book has been transcribed into excel, I can sort the spreadsheet by parent names and easily see family units! I can also perform searches for specific names without needing to examine the images page by page.

spreadsheet families
Family units discovered through sorting spreadsheet

Using this process we have been discovering and adding new individuals every day to our Ancestry and Familysearch trees along with the source info and record images.

How do I know if this really is my ancestor?

One of the most difficult parts of genealogy research is determining if the records you come across really are for the particular individual you are researching. Here are a few basic things to check when you find a new record just to make sure you’ve got the right person.

1. Household/Neighbors

It is very common for ages and birth locations to be incorrect on censuses and other records, but if the names of family members are the same and children are in the correct birth order, you can usually assume that you have the right record.

Don’t forget to pay attention to other individuals on the record as well. Neighbors in a census or other passengers on a ship manifest could be family members or close friends. If these same neighbors show up in multiple records, you can usually assume the records are for the same individual.

An example from my own research comes from my search for James Bonnell. All I knew of him previously was that he was the father of David Lusk Bonnell. I found a James P Bonnel in the 1870 census, but from the transcription I had no way of knowing if it was my James or not. Looking at the actual record, however, I saw that my David L Bonnell was living right next door!20170120_114010.pngYou can also see that there is a possible father for James listed in his household, another David L who was 28 years older than James.

2. Location

Just because it says that the person was born in the same state or country as the one you are looking for, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve found the correct individual. But if they are living in the same town as a known relative or within a short distance of a location shown in another record, there is a greater likelihood of them being the right person.

I often use Google Maps to find the distance between two locations. For example, my grandmother had been told about a cousin, Vittorio, who had emigrated from Italy to Argentina in the early 1900’s. She knew nothing of this cousin except his name and the address of his nephew who also lived in Argentina. A quick search on Ancestry.com produced a Brazilian immigration record for a man named Vittorio who appeared to be about the right age and was from the same Italian region as my grandma.wp-image-1448058741jpg.jpegUpon further inspection, we found that this record contained a previous address for Vittorio in Argentina. I immediately typed the address into Google Maps along with the nephew’s address and found that they were only about 1.5 miles apart.

argentina-mapThe chance of finding a random stranger with the right name and age living this close to the nephew is very slim so I think it’s safe to say we found our Vittorio.

3. Occupation

The occupation field is often overlooked in records because it is rarely transcribed. If your ancestors had a very common occupation such as farmer or housewife, you can probably continue to ignore it, but if they had a more unusual occupation it can be a great help.

One of my husband’s family lines reached a brickwall with George Davidson. The earliest record I had for him was an 1860 census just shortly after he had married, but with a name that common I wasn’t sure which George was the right one in the 1850 census. While making my family history binder, I printed his 1860 census and noticed his occupation said “tailor”.

I decided to do a quick search on Ancestry.com for a George Davidson in the 1850 census born within 5 years of 1831 in Ohio. I ended up with a list of 7 possible Georges. I went through the images of each of these census records finding farmer after farmer until I finally found one with a George who was a tailor! And he was listed with his parents and siblings!

Many times, sons will also continue in the same occupation as their fathers. One of my husband’s lines has at least 6 generations of plasterers. This has made it easy to follow not only the direct line but also find uncles and cousins who continued this tradition.

You should, of course, consider every part of a record to determine if it really is your ancestor, but hopefully this will be a good starting point for some of you. I’d love to hear if any of you have additional tips to share!