Fifteen “Uncommon” Computer-Based Ways to Discover More about Your Ancestors

by Julia Morse

Genealogist Lisa Lisson of the blog Are You My Cousin?” (https://lisalisson.com/) has recently published a series of 31 short YouTube videos on “Uncommon” avenues for learning more about your family history. You can explore all the videos at her playlist, entitled “31 Days of Uncommon Genealogy Tips.”  Be sure to check out the description area beneath her videos for the related text blog post, where you can find links to key sites described in the video.  Her first web blog post on this series begins here:  https://lisalisson.com/volunteer-31-days-genealogy-tips/

From Lisa’s 31 tips, I summarize here with my own comments fifteen tips which are applicable to computer-based genealogy. Some of them you have probably used, but out of the fifteen, there are likely some that might be worth trying (or revisiting):

(1) Volunteer

Some volunteering, such as transcribing records or support for a local history organization, can be done over the computer.  

Strategic volunteering in your location or historical interest area gives you access to people and resources, so can pay back toward your own family history research in multiple ways.  I will address this in a future article (or you can see Lisa’s video for her own thoughts).

(2) Explore Genealogy Wikis. . .

. . . to learn from others. (Just search on “genealogy wiki.”)

(3) Explore Society and Community News . . .

. . . in small and rural newspapers.  Understand what was going on in the region and time that may have impacted your ancestors.

Small-town newspapers often included frequent news about visitors and travelling which can help confirm family ties, provide links to lost family, and detail the closeness of association of friends and family. I have often used such articles to confirm family relations or point to where and when family moved.

(4) Explore Religious Periodicals. 

These can be searched out on Archive.org, Google Books, historical libraries, and sometimes from the denominational archives and colleges. 

I was able to solve a decades-long mystery of a missing Missouri pioneer brother by stumbling on an 1849 Virginia church academy publication that included an article about his death.  Solving this mystery also gave us deeper insight into the religious commitment and educational background of our pre-Civil War Miller family in Bates County, Missouri. Further searching out of histories of this church community led to information on other relatives associated with the church’s work in Missouri.

(5) Join a Facebook Group Dedicated to Genealogy . . .

. . . or surname-based groups, or in geographic regions of interest. Get to know others, get insight, and reach out for help. 

(6) Learn more about DNA. 

Using DNA for genealogy research is complicated and can be daunting, but there are great videos on YouTube that will help you learn more. Lisa recommends the “Family History Fanatics” videos on DNA as a good starting place.

(7) Use your ancestor’s occupation to guide your search. 

Occupation gives insight decisions that they family made when moving. Some occupations leave specific record trails that could be explored: pastors, government positions and appointments, business advertisements, etc.

I  finally figured out what Great Grandpa Peter Y. Morse was doing during his brief time in Osceola, Missouri when I found an advertisement for his undertaking and carpentry business in the 1866 newspaper. 

For family names that are very common names or words (and thus difficult to search), searching on words associated with the occupation can sometimes help refine your search to get you to the articles of interest. This is also a method of finding articles that might be missed in searches due to imperfect character recognition in scans of old newspapers.

(8) Seek School Records.

School records are increasingly becoming available at Archive.org and digitized historical libraries.  School records are sometimes noted in small-town and rural newspapers. More likely avenues are accomplished by contacting the local historical society or library about possible physical archive records which have not been digitized. 

(9) Check War of 1812 Pension Records.

War of 1812 Pension Records are being digitized on Fold3, where you can search and view digitized records free, without a subscription.  They provide birthplace, death place, spouse, and occupation.  (These are only about 80% done, so not all there yet, but a lot are.)

You can read more about 1812 Pension Records:

(10) Explore the Mortality Schedules.

The mortality schedules of the 1850-1880 censuses record individuals who died in the 12 months prior to the census.  You can find what they died of and a general date range, whether they were single, married, or widowed at the time of death.  Mortality schedules are usually available at the same place where you access census records.

(11) Examine other “Non-Population Schedules.”

“Non-population schedules” of the censuses include an agricultural schedule which gives highly specific information on ancestor farms, such as livestock numbers and acreage. Similarly, there is a manufacturer’s schedule. “DDD” schedule lists ancestors with handicaps. “Slave schedules” provide insight for families in the slave states. 

(12) Explore ArchiveGrid. Talk to an Archivist.

ArchiveGrid helps you discover what archives might house historical documents in your regions of interest.  You can contact archivists for information of ways they might be able to help you access key information. (Sometimes a phone call to someone who knows available information can open your search In ways you never expected.)

(13) Explore WorldCat.org.

WorldCat will let you see if there are books at libraries around the world that house something of interest to your family name–books that may not yet digitized at Archive.org, GoogleBooks, or Hathitrust Digital Library.  WorldCat will list libraries where physical or microfilm copies of the publications are housed.  Sometimes books can be obtained free through your local library with interlibrary loan.

(14) Use Flickr Photo Sharing.

Many libraries and archives–including Internet Archive–are posting photographs on Flicker.  You may or may not find photos of your own ancestral families, but certainly historical photographs in regions, and aerial maps.  It is also possible for you to post your own historical family photos for others to find—which sometimes also brings you into connection to distant cousins with documents and family stories.

(15) Seek Out Maps Online

Use Google StreetView to see what that area looks like today.  Sometimes the buildings where your ancestors lived are still there, and you can see what it looks like!  Look for military maps to learn about the movements of the battles.  Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps at the Library of Congress, , have rich information on city and towns, including specific business locations types of building construction, in the latter 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Lisa also recommends exploring the Dave Rumsey Map Collection, where you can search and freely download maps by pressing the “EXPORT” option.


Many thanks to Lisa Lisson for originating these recommendations.  You can check out more at her blog, https://lisalisson.com.


Photo Credits:

  1. Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com. Used by permission through WordPress.
  2. Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com. Used by permission through WordPress.
  3. Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com. Used by permission through WordPress.
  4. Screen capture of video at Family History Fanatics YouTube Channel (8 Mar 2020).
  5. Clipping of “Morse & Stewart, Cabinet Makers, Undertakers, and Furniture Dealers” advertisement, The Osceola Herald (Osceola, Missouri), 5 Sep 1866, p. 3.
  6. Crop from “Perry’s Victory at Lake Erie,” Harry T. Peters “America on Stone” Lithography Collection, Chicago, Illinois, Smithsonian Open Access, https://www.si.edu/object/perrys-victory-lake-erie:nmah_325527.
  7. Crop from page 11 illustration of L. L. May & Co. Farm and Floral Guide (1899), St. Paul, Minnesota, p. 11, https://archive.org/details/CAT31283796/page/n1/mode/2up (public domain).
  8. Screen capture, cropped, of WorldCat.org website (8 Mar 2020).

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