Friday, March 30, 2018

Thinking Outside the Box

I have been somewhat busy with conferences and speaking engagements lately. As you all read in my previous posts, I was in Salt Lake City for a week earlier this month attending Roots Tech 2018. The week after that I did a presentation for our local German Genealogy Interest Group and a couple hour talk for the Treasure Coast Genealogical Society then went up to Jacksonville for three talks at the North Florida Genealogy Conference. The next week I did a radio spot where I talked about genealogy research and had a presentation at the Martin County Genealogical Society and did a two hour program for our Stake Family History Consultants. So now I am getting ready for the Indian River Genealogy Conference coming up on April 14th where I have three more talks and am the conference coordinator. 

One of the talks I have been giving lately is called Thinking Outside the Box. This talk discusses websites that some may not have considered. The following post is a shorter version of that talk, explaining how some of the sites I included have helped me with my research. I hope you enjoy it and find something useful to take with you.

We all tend to begin our genealogy research in similar ways by looking for names, dates and places. We gather family information, visit cemeteries where our ancestors are buried, look at the books in local libraries and search the major online databases. But limiting yourself to these sites may result in you missing out on some important clues and great stories. Thinking Outside the Box is all about finding those rare and little-known stories that may be stored in the corners and attic of the internet. The sites discussed here are the ones that you may not have considered in your genealogy research but just may turn out to be treasure troves of information.

To begin thinking outside the box, you need to consider what information may have been important in an individual’s life. Consider their career, land ownership, writings, travel, accomplishments, voting, and pictures. For example, I have a relative who was a veterinarian. I happened to find an article that he had written in a veterinary journal. My wife had a relative who ran a lumber company. We were able to find a picture of his company's steam locomotive that was used to transport the lumber. In this discussion, I will give you some hints on web sites that may help you find these little known treasures by thinking outside the box.

First of all, Google is your friend. Beyond the standard Google search engine, Google has many very specific search engines.
1.    Google Books ( is a great source for out of print and out of copyright books, especially regional histories. One example that I have found is the 10th reunion of the Princeton University class of 1895. This book had a short one page biography of one of my wife’s relatives. The biography included his wife and son’s name, date of marriage and birth date of son, and some details about his business ventures.
2.    Google Scholar ( is a search engine for professional, educational and government journals and documents. While researching a family name, I ran across an article from the Smithsonian Institute about the restoration of a 19th century English papier-mache chair. You may wonder how this could provide relevant genealogical information. Well, in one of the footnotes it discussed the invention of a new papier-mache technique developed by Charles Bielefeld, one of my wife’s relatives. The footnote referenced a London newspaper from August 1853 where a story of Mr. Bielefeld had run. The newspaper story described how his new technique was used to construct houses that could be shipped in pieces (early modular homes) from England to Australia. Builders were then able to use these modular pieces to construct a small town in just a matter of days.
3.    Google Patents ( searches the US Patent Office records. If any of your relatives submitted a patent, the record would be found there. I have discovered that several of my relatives, as well as my wife’s relatives, were inventors. One of them invented the insulation for the Arctic pipeline.
4.    Google Images ( searches a large collection of images from all over the internet. These images can be used to help tell the story of your ancestors. You can find images of places, events and even people that might be important to your research.
5.    Google Maps ( is a great tool that many of us probably use frequently to find directions. But did you know that you can actually add features to the map? You can add information, like addresses and dates from a census, to a Google Sheet and then import it as a map layer. I have used this to trace migration patterns of families. You can also see landmarks such as towns, cemeteries, churches, schools, rivers, mountains, etc., that might have influenced your ancestors’ lives. These maps can be used to place your ancestors in context with their surroundings.

Now that you have explored some of the Google world, we can move on to some other outside the box sites. Since we were talking about maps, let’s look at a few real estate sites. I use Zillow and Trulia quite often to research residences. Using the address from a given record, such as the census or city directory, you can search these real estate sites to see if the residence is still there. They often give you information like the year it was built and details about the floor plans. One example of this showed that my great-grandparent’s home in 1930 was built in 1925.

Have you ever gone to an auction and found some antique that intrigued you? You might have wondered what the story behind a photograph or painting might be or who was in that image. Internet auction sites provide a great opportunity to find old treasures. One of my favorite auction sites is eBay. There you can find old family bibles, photographs, books and other memorabilia. Some of it might even belong to your families. I have been able to find tokens for a bakery that my family had run as well as Westerheide Cigar boxes and other items. You can set up e-mail notifications by saving your searches. Our most prized discovery was found in an online second-hand store in Seattle, Washington. That was a painting on my wife’s 4th great-grandmother, Sarah Pullen Walters (1816-1896). Not only is it a great painting of her, but it also had some family history information written on the back.

Many states have Memory Projects. Florida’s is located at This site has a variety of records that you can search through. They have voting records, vehicle registration records, military service cards, and a huge collection of photographs and post cards. It was interesting to learn that a relative drove a Cadillac Touring Sedan in 1913, or that one served on the USS Wissoe during WW I. We have found photographs of a relative’s front porch and even a steam locomotive with their company name emblazoned on it. All of these small items provide just that much more to the story of their lives.

There are many more sites that you can discover beyond the standard sites when you start to think outside the box. But before I end, I want to recommend that everyone take a more detailed look at social media as a research tool. Facebook has thousands of genealogy related groups and pages. A document at lists nearly 12,000 Facebook groups related to genealogy and is about 400 pages long. This list is updated regularly so you should check it often. I have found these groups to be invaluable in discovering new research sources.

I hope some of these sites give you ideas on how to think outside the box as you research your family history.


Elizabeth O'Neal said...

Great suggestions, Miles - sure sounds like you're keeping busy! I've used Zillow for real estate research, but I want to take a look at some of those Google sites, especially the patents (one of my clients has an ancestor who patented some farm equipment).

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

Wonderful post, and great ideas. I'm going to check Florida Memory for voting and vehicle records for my parents and maternal grandparents, all of whom lived, voted, and had cars in Florida at one time or another. Thanks!