Help Others Discover Cemetery Records

In my last article about giving back to the genealogy community, I talked about how you can spend a few minutes each week to do some transcription of documents, so that other people’s relatives begin to show up in searchable indexes. The two examples I gave were Ancestry World Archives Project and the FamilySearch Indexing project. If you’ve already decided to sign up and submit a few records, I applaud you. You’re doing the genealogy community at large a huge favor, and you can bet your bottom that others will benefit from your hard work.

These services have quite a few different indexing projects going on all the time, which cover a great many databases. And while they don’t cover cemeteries, they do partner with other cemetery databases that do. So when you search for relatives on Ancestry or FamilySearch, the cemetery records from partner cemetery databases bubble up in the search results.

Cemetery databases often provide information about a person buried, along with a photograph of their headstone. Photographs of headstones can reveal important information, such as birth, marriage and death dates, as well as reveal other family members you didn’t know existed. This is an often overlooked resource when you are stuck on a family member that you knew lived in an area but you don’t have their vital information.

The most popular two cemetery databases are


On FindAGrave, people can request to have contributors near their relative’s cemeteries snap a picture of their headstone or grave. It’s quite typical that you’ll receive a request photo within a week. And since it’s done by a volunteer, it doesn’t cost anything to request a photo.

To contribute, you can sign up for alerts from other users who are requesting photos for graves at nearby cemeteries. You get to pick which cemeteries you get alerts for, and you can claim the requests you actually want to tackle so that you’re not competing with others to make it happen. Additionally, you can also go to cemeteries and add grave information and photos that are missing if you feel like it (though there are rules at some cemeteries about taking photographs of graves without a family member’s permission so be sure you ask the front desk first).

They have partnered with Ancestry, who will index FindAGrave’s databases over time. This will result in the familiar leaf Hints that Ancestry subscribers are familiar with when a cemetery record on FindAGrave matches a person on an Ancestry tree. Can you picture the warm fuzzies a fellow genealogist will feel upon seeing that?


BillionGraves takes a different approach. They provide mobile phone apps that take advantage of GPS locations to detect where you are. Contributors are prompted to snap photographs of each grave, which is uploaded with a precise location on a map. This allows people to quickly see which graves are missing in a large cemetery.

Other contributors decide to transcribe the information on headstones in the photos instead of going out to take photos of the headstones. This allows you to contribute from the comfort of your home, and can also greatly benefit a genealogist looking for cemetery records.

The beauty of this model is that the photos provide information (headstone information) that would otherwise be unknown, since cemeteries will typically not give away their plot databases all at once. The FindAGrave model requires users to call cemeteries to get the plot information,  then submit that information to the site, and finally allow users to request photos. But the BillionGraves model gets the photographing out of the way first, and often in batch (a person can walk down a row of graves and take pictures one after the other). Then there is a huge queue of photos waiting to be transcribed by contributors like you.

Which to Contribute To?

My suggestion is that you give both sites a shot. They have very different sets of cemetery data, and I rarely find the same record on both sites. They are both worthy of your contribution time.

I’m only punishing myself for not implementing the idea first. I thought about making a cemetery photo database website for many years, and I just never found the time to get around to making it happen. To make up for that lost opportunity, I try to contribute as many transcriptions as possible.

Giving Back to the Genealogy Community

I wanted to share that even though I’m an incredibly busy person (I run a startup company, consult for clients, research my family history, blog about startups & now blog about genealogy, and raise two very young children) I still find some time every week to transcribe and index a few records for collections that are sitting on an island, totally unsearchable.

Most of you have benefitted from access to great databases, such as the ones at Ancestry and FamilySearch. You also probably realize that most of these records would not be available if it wasn’t for the contributions of tens of thousands of volunteers who transcribe images that contain your documents into indexes that are searchable. The hard work of these people make it possible for you to quickly discover great records simply by searching on the Internet.

The old way of doing things was to search catalogs of repositories to discover collections of records, and then order or request access to a collection (usually on microfiche or microfilm, but sometimes in print) and then manually look through all of the records to see if any records looked like something of interest. It was incredibly time consuming. (And for the vast majority of records out there, they’re still not digitized and you will need to manually look through them, but that discussion is for another day.)

Services like Ancestry and FamilySearch have paid for the rights to copy and digitize a lot of collections that are still sitting there unindexed. In order to get these collections into searchable form, the tens of thousands of volunteers need to transcribe and digitize them. This is a rather interesting process, as the volunteers sort and analyze the images (and toss back any that are unreadable or overly confusing), and then other volunteers manage this new data and review the work of the transcribers. Eventually, this content is published and we all benefit from their hard work.

Unfortunately, there’s always new collections that need to be indexed, and even with the tens of thousands of volunteers there is simply too much work to be done. My call to you is to consider helping out, even if you can only transcribe a few records a week. It only takes a few minutes to index a few records, and there are no time commitments required of you. Giving back to the community will make you feel great. You’ll also get a better understanding of how many records are still out there waiting for you to discover.

Start giving back now!

Ancestry World Archives Project

FamilySearch Indexing

Do you volunteer? If so, tell me more about it in the comments.

10 Ways to Determine Origin of Immigration

If you’re a United States citizen, then you know that nearly everyone’s family once originated somewhere else in the world; your family included. Every budding genealogist dreams of discovering where exactly their ancestors were from, and in many cases this can be a very difficult proposition.

With a strict attention to detail and a determined attitude you can uncover this knowledge. The following ten sources prove to be excellent ways to determine where your ancestors emigrated from. This is the particular order that I search for information about my once foreign family members.

1. Family Discussions

Talking with your close and living family is the best source to learn about your family, in most cases. They often have details in documents that they might be holding onto for safe keeping and stories that they have in their memories. This may seem like an obvious task but you would be surprised to learn how many people are not in touch with their families and feel hesitant to start a dialog to begin this process.

Do keep in mind that information you get from people’s memories may be incorrect, even if they are certain of it. It is very likely that a significant number of years has passed and it is easy to recall information incorrectly. Their anecdotes make excellent dialog for your family stories, and the documentation that they might be sitting on will make reliable sources for facts about the family members you are researching.

2. Family Stories

Many families pass down stories, diaries, and other anecdotes to each other. These often provide detailed scenery of family members’ lives in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to understand. In most cases, stories and diaries are dated, provide personal details about other family members, and reminisce about the old lives they had before they made their way to America.

Family stories are an incredible source of information that is often very reliable because they are typically written during the time and era that the family member experienced the events.

3. Family Documents

Many families have a family bible where they keep a lineage. Additionally, families often keep government documents and pass them down to kin, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates. Additionally, deeds, wills, and other official paperwork can be found in family archives.

These documents provide a wealth of information that is incredibly accurate and can very quickly lead you to the next generation of family members. If your family did not keep these documents, or you’re unable to get copies of them from your family, don’t fret – there are many ways to get access to these types of documents with some diligent research.

4. United States Census

The US Census is performed every decade. Wherever your family members settled in the United States, they are bound to show up on the US Census eventually. This document will list the family members in the dwelling that they were living in, and will detail the origins of each of the family members as well as their parents. The husband and wife of the household will be the most revealing line items since they will hopefully point to the country of their origination (or at least the country that their parents were from).

5. State Census

Just like the US Census (which is performed by the Federal government), many states in the Union perform their own census. This census can be as equally revealing, and often it is offset from the Federal census by 5 years. This can help catch a new residence location if the family member moved within the decade period. Additionally, this will detail the location of origin for each family member.

6. United States Passenger Manifest

Often hailed as the “Holy Grail” of immigration/emigration documentation, a Passenger Manifest is a document that details all the people who got onto or got off of a ship. These records can be paired up on both ends to reveal very interesting information about where a family member (or even entire family) was from.

If you discover a Passenger Manifest corresponding to entry into the United States, chances are that there is a matching Passenger Manifest corresponding to emigration from the country they were from. They often traveled to other countries that had a seaport in order to travel by ship, so it is very common that these illustrate that the point of embarkment is not the same as the country of origin.

7. County Marriage Certificate

Marriage records and certificates are typically issued and kept by counties in each state. They contain the names of the people getting married, and the names of their parents. Generally it will say what their birth dates are and where they were each born.

8. Death Certificate

When someone dies a record of their death is created. The Social Security Death Index will generally include your family member if they had a Social Security Card issued (and in most cases, people who died after 1940 have a SSN since they became increasingly necessary).

Additionally, the state and county where the person died will have a death record. This document will detail their birth date, death date, and potentially other revealing information. The country of their origin is sometimes noted, though it is commonly not revealed. Using the birth and death dates, you may be able to uncover other documents that will reveal this.

9. Obituaries

Obituaries are rife with details. They explain when the family member became diseased, where the public viewing will be (if any), who the surviving family members are and where they live, and some information about where they are from and how they have been involved in the community.

The information is usually summarized by the funeral home as part of their services, and the information is gathered by a family member, usually the next of kin. So this information could be incorrect. It’s usually very helpful, but the information they have is usually based on what the diseased family member shared with the next of kin while they were alive.

10. United States Naturalization Documentation

When you ancestors were aliens (not the ones from space) they dreamed of becoming citizens of the United States of America. This process required that they live in the US for a certain duration of time (this time length changed over the years) throughout the entirety they obey the law and diligently hold their allegiances. Once approved, they would become naturalized citizens.

Certificate of Arrival

A Certificate of Arrival documents the entrance to the United States. During the process of acquiring a Certificate of Arrival, an applicant’s first entry to the United States would be verified, typically by confirming the person on a Passenger Manifest. Once confirmed, the applicant would be assigned a Certificate of Arrival number. You can often find these numbers on the Passenger Manifest handwritten near their name as well on the Certificate of Arrival itself.

The Certificate of Arrival will tell the original name of the family member, the date and ship that the person came to the United States on, and sometimes the country of origin. If the country of origin is not provided, you can look for the Passenger Manifest for the date and ship that the Certificate of Arrival lists.

Petition for Naturalization

When an applicant is ready to apply for citizenship, a Petition for Naturalization is filed. This document contains a wealth of information, such as their current name and address, a spouse and any children, and very possibly some close friends or neighbors who have signed as their witnesses.

The document will also declare the country of origination that they will be denouncing once their application is approved.

Oath of Allegiance

An Oath of Allegiance is a legally binding document that officially denounces the applicant’s country of origin as well as the leadership of that country. Signing the Oath of Allegiance is the final step to citizenship, and the applicant becomes a naturalized citizen.

This document lists the country of origin because the family member must officially denounce their previous citizenship and loyalties.

In future articles I will go into detail how to research each of these categories of resources as well as many others. How have these sources helped you with your search for the country of origin of your family lines?

A Revival of Genealogy Blogging

When I originally started this blog, Genealogy Kevin, I thought I would blog generically and frequently about the craft of genealogy. As an amateur genealogist (as opposed to a professional for hire one), I expected that I’d post about resources, databases, and techniques for how you too would handle genealogy for your own family. Since I was so excited about genealogy myself, I thought I would spark interest with people who have never really taken a serious look at genealogy. I wanted to share the passion of making family discoveries with all.

I was so wrong! I have been so very busy raising my son (Aidan), building my startup company (WeLike), and tending to my clients. I deprioritized this blog, and it never got to see the light that I expected of it.

The positive side of this is that since I didn’t really spend much time developing this blog and creating a readership, I have less of you to disappoint. Chances are very high that if you’re reading this you have never even heard of me.

We recently brought into the world another child, a daughter (Madeleine). While I have been consistently been involving in daily genealogical research for my family, my friends’ families, and even a lucky few (from my fun Fiverr gig where I spend time working on strangers trees for a very tiny fee of $5), I haven’t had the time to blog about it. When my daughter was born, it reminded me that I really did want to blog about it in more detail.

The new purpose of this blog will be to:

  1. educate the general public about genealogy and why to get involved with it
  2. ahare tips, tricks, and strategies about genealogy in general
  3. describe my own genealogy process, and elaborate on what I am doing to elevate my own research game
  4. set goals and document my outstanding needs
  5. highlight discoveries and findings of my own family search
  6. discover new friends/colleagues who are also into the craft of genealogy
  7. provide insight into new databases and services that you might have been unaware of
  8. receive feedback and suggestions from readers

This post exists to reintroduce myself to you, and make a commitment to give back to the community that has given me so much already.

Why Genealogy?

The word genealogy most likely sounds a bit foreign to you. Perhaps it conjures up images of a collegiate activity, or perhaps something to do with science. There’s certainly a bit of those in it, but that’s not really how it should be viewed as. Ultimately, genealogy is the science behind organizing and discovering family histories and ancestries. It shouldn’t intimidate you, and I think everyone should give it a try. Learning the basics of genealogy is something that everyone should be able to do, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to start putting together your family tree.

Why put together a family tree?

I suppose I should first talk about why anyone would possibly want to put together their family tree. I happen to know a lot of people who don’t even like their family, much less want to look into the pandora’s box of their family history. Equally, I know people who absolutely love their family, but just don’t seem very interested in connecting some dots and learning about where they came from.

But whether you love or loathe your family, understanding your heritage can be an interesting path of self-discovery, mystery, and skill development. Finding out who your ancestors were, and where they came from can often answer questions about yourself that you’ve been brewing about for years. You’ll also gain a sense of appreciation for the struggles and tribulations of your emigrating relatives, assuming they did at some point come from somewhere else. You’ll learn how to sleuth and investigate, and you may even get some opportunities to travel (and not just to vacation, but to also meet distant cousins, or research at a remote historical society or records office).

Best of all, you’ll begin to build up a collection of stories and information about all the different branches of the family that you can share with all of your living relatives. Family trees that are specific to a particular relative become amazing framed gifts, and publishing a personalized family history book can make tears form.

How do I get started?

Getting started may seem daunting and intimidating but it really isn’t. Before you dive into online databases or visiting historical and genealogical societies, you should first some time thing thinking about how your family is structured.

  1. Write down on paper all of your relatives, starting with yourself (or your children if you have any).
  2. Draw out the relationships between each family member. This can simply be a hand sketched picture containing boxes for each family member, and connected with a line. This will help you visualize the relationships between them.
  3. Include your brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, and brothers and sisters of your grandparents and great-grandparents. You will later realize how valuable having the extended family listed in your family tree is when you begin searching databases for records. A common problem people have is they have difficulties finding their grandparents in a database. But when they search for their grandparents’ siblings, they find additional information about their grandparents, such as alternative names and nicknames. Do not under estimate the value of your extended family!
  4. Collect all of the vital details on every relative in your basic family tree. Look at any documents you may have, and begin to talk to your extended family and ask for these dates. The more accurately you collect and record birth, marriage, and death dates, the better opportunities you will have when searching for records later on. At a minimum be sure to get estimated dates, even if your grandmother’s memory is a bit foggy. Other dates to consider are immigration arrival, naturalization, passport application, and divorce dates.
  5. Find documents to support your dates and names. Ask your family to provide you with documents that you can keep or make copies of that show proof of names and vital dates of your relatives. You will use these documents to confirm the information you think you have, and serve as annotations to remind you why the information is actually accurate. Your tree may be simple and small now, so you might think you can remember where you got all the little bits of information, but in the long run you’re going to forget, so you should start learning how to annotate right away. You will understand how important annotations are when you start to look at information other people have put into their trees. You will start to wonder how they knew your great-great-grandmother’s birthdate, and if they’ve annotated it, you’ll know where they got that information.
  6. Search online databases for additional records, details, and other researchers who are investigating the same ancestors. Once you’ve got a foundational tree, you should start searching online. There are a tremendous number of free and paid resources on the Internet. Many government documents, such as the Census, has been indexed and scanned for discovering more information about your family. As you begin to discover documents online, you’ll start getting excited, especially when you unlock connections to a distant place. But be very weary about what you find online. Just because a name matches up, it doesn’t mean it’s your relative. You need to learn how to cross-correlate various details so be sure the records are correct. Otherwise, you’ll screw up your family tree significantly, and need to start over.
  7. Visit and write to places that have records that are not online to find further information and records for your ancestors. You can find a lot of valuable information in historical societies, government records offices, libraries, churches, synagogues, and small town mayors. You may think there are a lot of records online, but there’s an even larger number of records offline. Do not overlook or neglect these sources, as they’re often containing more treasure than the online databases. And, it gives you a chance to start putting together the puzzle in a really large way, as you start to see details of their lives.

In future articles, I intend to further elaborate on the process, and show examples of how to proper sleuth through discovering your ancestry. I will spend time elaborating each of these tasks, and will provide you with techniques for properly documenting and searching for records.

Online Resources

As mentioned in step #6 above, there is a lot of information about your relatives online. In general, most online databases will only publicly share information that is 60-75 years old and older. This is to protect the privacy of people who are living now. This means that you will likely find very little about yourself, and potentially your parents. You will certainly not see very much about your children. This is generally a good thing. If you’re directly related though, you can submit formal requests by mail with documentation proving your relationship.

In the future, I will write articles with additional online resources, as there are hundreds of excellent ones. Here are a few of the most common ones, of which some require paid subscriptions:

  • FamilySearch – Provides access to a database of trees that have been uploaded by users, as well as documents that have been scanned and indexed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). This is a free service provided to the public. This is an excellent service that should not be overlooked. Users can also help to grow the databases by submitting their trees, and help with the large indexing projects. Once you’ve used their service, you should consider spending a couple of minutes every day helping to index, by downloading their free software and typing up the information you see in the images. It’s easy, and it’s super helpful.
  • Ancestry – Ancestry is very well known, and has a tremendous number databases scanned and indexed. They offer a very limited free search service, but their subscription service is quite extensive. You can build any number of family trees, and as you put your relatives into the tree online, it begins to offer hints based on the information you’ve included. For example, if you put your grandfather in with his birth and death dates, it will often recommend records it found automatically, such as his Social Security Death Index record. It’s not always perfect, but it’s a fun way to quickly find records. Forcing manual searches based off of information you’ve already put into your tree is very easy too. I personally really like this service, and I subscribe to the World level.
  • Footnote – This service has been growing, and provides a place for people to create Wiki-style military pages for specific people. They also provide access to some databases, such as the Census. They seem to have an emphasis on social interactivity, as they encourage people to connect with Facebook and Twitter. Access to most of the features of this service requires a yearly subscription.
  • Geni – This service lets you build your family tree visually for free. You can invite other family members to help you build your tree, and even own portions of the family tree. Additionally, it focuses on ways to help keep your family in touch, and gives you reminds about birthdays and anniversaries. They offer some premium services as well, but all of the free features are quite useful. They do not have any database indexes that are useful though.

Offline Resources

As mentioned in step #7, sometimes you need to get off the Internet and step into a real building or send a letter through the postal service. You can get access to birth and death certificates, passport applications, and naturalization documents.

Here are a few examples:

  • Family History Centers (FHC) – The Mormons (of the Church of Latter Day Saints) are really into genealogy. They’ve scoured the earth looking for records, and have scanned and indexed a lot of content. They have centers open to the public (you do not need to be a church member) all over the United States where you can access any number of their microfilms and databases. In most cases, access to records are free, and you generally only pay to make duplications. This service is really an incredible thing to offer, and there will likely come a time that you’ll visit one of their centers.
  • Government Records – There are too many to list. Government organizations like NARA (National Archives) have offices that you can visit to search records that have not yet been scanned, indexed and placed into databases. There are national and state offices for various government organizations to look into. And when looking outside of the United States, there are often similar organizations that you can visit. Sometimes you need to visit since they do not provide record indexes online. Sometimes you can simply send a written request via the postal service.
  • Places of Religious Worship – Churches and synagogues often have marriage and religious records that can help you in your search. Once you’ve determined which religion a particular family member participated in and know which place of worship they attended, you can often write them asking if they have any records on file. These can give clues to maiden names, and other relatives, such as a parent or sibling.

I will go into depth on how to discover other offline resources by searching Google, and how to request documents from them in future articles.

    What next?

    Once you’ve spent some time building your family tree, you should sharing your data with other family members. You can print out ancestry charts and books, as well as organize old photographs. They make excellent gifts. You should continue to talk with your family members, especially the elders, as they have a treasure trove of information, and they love to tell stories. Above all though, be sure to respect everyone, and don’t challenge them. Be kind, and respect their privacy. Remember that not everyone will be as excited about your family tree as you are.

    You should also spend some time helping the two major indexing efforts. FamilySearch and Ancestry are both letting the public help them index databases. They paid various government organizations for access to microfilm and paper documents, and then they scan it all in. But these scans are just essentially photographs, so there’s no way to easily get information out of them and into your hands. So it requires people spending hundreds of thousands of hours looking at the scans and typing up the information into a database. Then more hours ensuring the data was correctly submitted. You can participate in this effort by spending a few minutes each day typing up some of these records. If you do it often enough, you’ll even get free access to their paid premium services as a thank you.

    Lastly, you should reach out and help other people. Teach other people how they can make their own family trees, and encourage other people to help with the indexing projects. This ends up helping everyone have more access to more records. And the more people who are into genealogy, the more opportunities there are to have fun together by sharing techniques and stories of success tracking down lost relatives.

    Please do let me know if you end up getting into genealogy, and ask me any questions you might have along the way!