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If the past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and the surest emancipation.
Lord John Acton (1834-1902)
To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marriage Records Video and Ancestry Day in Philadelphia, Pa.

Our ancestors got married and we get the gift. Marriage records can include details that can spur our research back in time, but even beyond the names and dates, our ancestors’ weddings marked a big turning point in their lives. I often wonder about their stories. How did they meet?  What kind of wedding did they have? Who stood up in their wedding? I know the answers and have some great stories for some of my close ancestors, but for others, their big day remains a mystery—and I love a good mystery.

In today’s desktop education video, I talked a little about finding marriage records and some alternatives that may give you a little better look at your ancestor’s wedding. You can view it here on the YouTube channel.

Ancestry Day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 3 March 2012
In the video, I mentioned Ancestry Day in Philadelphia, where we’ll be teaming up with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with a full day of workshops to help you jumpstart your family history.  You can learn more and register for the conference here. 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Mysteries and other stories in the family tree

By Juliana Smith

Marissa Tomei’s journey into the past on last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (Fridays 8/7c on NBC) centered on the untimely death of her great-grandfather. At the start, he was little more than a name in the family tree and the subject of speculation—of the shadiest type. But his reputation got a makeover once Tomei dug into his story.

That’s the wonderful part about going beyond a name on a family tree—digging into the story brings people to life. And adding off-the-beaten-path resources like newspapers, which helped Tomei get the real story of her great-grandfather’s murder and its aftermath, makes the truth that much more vivid.

My first research experience with newspapers was also one of the first real research trips I took with my mother. We went to the Chicago Public Library, where we spent hours scrolling through microfilms of old newspapers, looking for mentions of her client’s ancestors. Although I was supposed to be searching for an obituary, I kept calling my mother over to see my exciting discoveries. Unfortunately they were not about her client; they were just interesting articles from the era we were researching.

I’ve never lost that fascination with old newspapers and still enjoy trolling through the pages of dailies and weeklies from places where my ancestors lived—and pretty much anywhere else.

Historical newspapers offer a firsthand look into the times and places our ancestors inhabited. And that glimpse into bygone eras often provides insights that can’t be found elsewhere. You’ll find the newspapers collection through the Search tab. Click on it and look for Stories & Publications on the right side. Then use these search tips to find your family in the news.

·         Specify “Exact.” Restricting your search to “exact” can help narrow the results. For names, click the Use Default Settings links below the name fields and select the appropriate restrictions. For keywords, click the Exact box following the keyword field.

·         To narrow your search to a particular time frame, enter a date in the year field under Publication Info. You can click the Exact Only box, but also allow a little wiggle room by entering +/- 1, 2, 5 or 10 years (e.g., a search for a publication date of 1850 with +/- 10 years will search newspapers for 1840–1860).

·         If you want to search for a phrase, put it in quotes. This tells to look for that exact phrase—for example,  “California emigration”—rather than pages that mention California in one article and emigration from Sweden in another.

·         Search beyond your ancestor’s stomping grounds. Like they do today, newspapers often picked up stories from places across the country. Try searching the entire collection for a place name (town or county) instead of a person.

Make some time to search or browse newspapers from the era of your ancestors. Bookmark your “favorites,” and when you find a few spare minutes, curl up with the laptop and take a quick trip through the past with some real pages of history. And be sure to add them to your family tree, in case you ever have the needs to unravel a family mystery, too. You’ll find information about doing just that at is a sponsor of the Who Do You Think You Are?.

Don’t miss Marisa Tomei on tonight’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”

On this week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? award-winning actress Marisa Tomei searches for the truth behind her great-grandfather’s rumored murder. Learn what she uncovers and how getting a look at the big picture changes an entire generation’s view of one hardworking man in the family tree. is a sponsor of Who Do You Think You Are?,  which airs Friday nights at 8/7c on NBC. And join throughout the season at for advice, tips and more to help discover more about your own family’s history.

Freedman’s Bank Records, 1865-1874

The year 1865 found many African American Civil War veterans and ex-slaves with a little money in their pockets and there was a need for an institution where they could start a savings account. The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (often referred to as the Freedman’s Bank) was incorporated on 03 March 1865 to meet that need. Unfortunately mismanagement and fraud led to the failure of that institution in 1874 wiping out the savings of many African Americans. While some were eventually able to recover about two-thirds of their savings, many never got any of their money back.

The signature registers of the Freedman’s Bank were preserved and eventually wound up in the National Archives, and in 2005, indexed these records and made the index and images available to members. For purposes of identification, these registers asked personal questions of the account holder and as a result, many contain a goldmine of information regarding family structure. Names of spouses, children, parents, siblings, and even aunts and uncles can be found on the signature registers. Other information may include physical description, place of birth, residences, occupation, employer, and some earlier records will even include the names of former slave owners—a critical piece of information for tracing a slave beyond the Civil War. Here’s a sample record from Louisiana, 1867 (image 3).