June 28, 2019
Way back when I began working on my family history, the internet was barely a presence. If I wanted to do some research, it meant a trip to the NARA-Rocky Mountain Region in Lakewood or a visit to the Denver Public Library since I had no ancestors local to Larimer County. An occasional research trip the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or maybe a visit to an ancestral home out of state rounded out my opportunities to research. As I remember it, there were often long stretches where I could do little except organize my files or perhaps write up a story or two about an ancestor, and in those days I had little to organize and less to write up so it meant not much genealogy got accomplished. To keep my research alive, I learned to write letters and make telephone calls. The daily delivery of the mailman was something to look forward to since I never knew whether he might bring me a death certificate or a deed or some other treasure from a far-away library or courthouse.
Fast forward twenty five years or so, and the mailman rarely brings me a treasure. I make fewer trips to various repositories, but my research has expanded greatly. Nowadays, the internet provides such a plethora of resources, including copies of original documents, that I sometimes feel overwhelmed and find it difficult to force myself to focus on one problem at a time. But, hard as it is to believe sometimes, with all the wealth of data available with the click of a mouse, there is still a lot of information that isn’t available online. For example, in spite of the fact that there are a multitude of online newspaper sites, there are still at least five or six locales that I can think of off the top of my head whose newspapers are nowhere online. I know that newspapers for these areas exist, and I know that most of them are even on microfilm, they’re just not available online yet, and perhaps never will be. The simple answer is to make a trip to the repository which holds the microfilm or the physical copies of the newspaper in question. However, the five or six newspapers I’d like to get my hands on are in various parts of the U.S. and Canada. None of them are close to one another, and none of them are in what would be considered tourist destination spots, which puts paid to the idea of a family vacation to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania with a short stopover in McDonough County, Illinois (Darn!). Sadly, the same situation is true for a variety of other records including deeds, birth, marriage and death records, court records, and even manuscripts and letters.
So what’s a poor genealogist to do? My answer has been to revert to the old technology of letters and phone calls, albeit with a modern twist. Since most repositories and libraries now have websites, it’s easier than it used to be to figure out where that record you need might be found. Once a source is identified, emails can often substitute for old-fashioned snail mail requests and can sometimes garner almost instant gratification as was the case a few weeks ago when I wrote an email to a local historical society in Litchfield, Minnesota. I was looking for an article about a tragic accident that befell one of my relatives back in the 1920s; I knew the approximate date that the accident occurred and figured it must have been covered in the hometown newspapers. Unfortunately, those newspapers aren’t digitized anywhere, hence the email. Within 24 hours the historical society had responded and sent me a digital copy of the article about the accident. They did ask for a small donation for their efforts, but I got the verification of a family story almost instantly; it was definitely worth writing. Sometimes the response won’t be a quick as the one I’ve described, but almost always I’ve gotten a response, even if it was a negative one.
Telephone calls are also often overlooked as a way to request information. I’m not sure why since we all have basically unlimited long-distance calling capability nowadays so it’s easier than ever to make a call. I did just that a while ago to a courthouse in Illinois and was rewarded by receiving by return mail a copy of a will and two marriage records, none of which are online. As with the emails, I’ve never had anyone be completely unhelpful when I’ve called, although sometimes they couldn’t fill my request immediately.
There’s really no trick to writing letters or making telephone calls, but it is important to remember that the person receiving the call or letter probably won’t want to hear the entire story of your family as you’re asking them to retrieve a deed, so keep the phone calls and letters brief and to the point. Also, be aware that whomever you’re contacting probably has other things to do, so keep your requests within reason. A clerk in the courthouse might be intrigued to interrupt her day to find a will for you, but she’ll be less thrilled to be asked to find thirteen of them. If you have lots of records to gather in an area, it’s probably better to wait until you can actually get there in person or to hire someone from the area to do it for you. With those few caveats in mind, letters and telephone calls can garner amazing records. Since I’ve started using them, the arrival of the mailman has become one of the highlights of the day again. I just never know exactly what he might bring; right now I’m waiting for a court case file from a state archive, two marriage records from different counties in Minnesota and a divorce record from another state archive. If I’m lucky, one of them will be in my mailbox today!
Researcher/Director at Large