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Genealogy Update

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  • SusanneLevitsky@aol.com
    Jewish Genealogical Society of Sacramento www.jgss.org March 1, 2010 Upcoming genealogy-related TV programs this week: Wednesday, March 3, 8 p.m., Channel
    Message 1 of 45 , Mar 1, 2010
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      Jewish Genealogical Society

      of Sacramento



      March 1, 2010


      Upcoming genealogy-related TV programs this week:

      Wednesday, March 3, 8 p.m., Channel 6 (PBS), last segment of “Faces of America” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates.

      Friday, March 5, 8 p.m. , Channel 3 (NBC) -- “Who do you think you are?” 

      Follow the heartwarming journeys of Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon and Spike Lee as they embark on a journey to discover the story of their ancestors. From Salem witches to French royalty to former slaves, the stories they uncover hold fascinating twists and turns that are at times touching, at times heartwrenching and always revelatory.

      Who Do You Think You Are? also shares ideas and research strategies that could help you make new breakthroughs — and help people understand what they can discover about their own families.


      Upcoming JGSS Meetings:

      Sunday, March 21, 10 a.m.Holocaust Survivor Liz Igra

      Sunday, April 18, 10 a.m.Facial Recognition Technology, Daniel Horowitz

      Sunday, May 16, 10 a.m. ­­-- Handwriting Analysis, Leslie Nye



      Notes from February 21, 2010 Meeting

      President Mort Rumberg called the meeting to order and introduced a new member. Welcome to Suzanne Donachie, who is researching Chicago relatives.

      Mort mentioned that the Einstein Center is broadcasting live programs from New York City’s 92nd Street Y.  The lectures and a buffet dinner are $25.  For more information, call 972-9555.

      Upcoming meetings -- on March 21, we have Liz Igra, a Holocaust survivor; on April 18, Daniel Horowitz, talking about facial recognition software; on May 16, Leslie Nye will talk about handwriting analysis; on June 21, the president of Sacramento’s Root Cellar will talk about “Research out of the Box;” on August 8 (date change), Aaron Joos of Antwerp will talk about “One Foot in America,” a talk he will have given at the July conference; and on October 17, Dale Friedman will present an introduction to Jewish genealogy.

      Bob Wascou noted that a recent story in the Bee highlighted “Dr. Bob” La Perriere, who gives historical tours of the old city cemetery.  Our Bob said he will be doing some research at the cemetery, which is associated with the Center for Sacramento History.

      Root Cellar/Sacramento Genealogical Society is holding its spring seminar Saturday, March 27 from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.  The featured speaker will be Daniel M. Lynch, author of "Google Your Family Tree". He will conduct four sessions:

      1--Introduction to Google for Genealogists
      2--Using Google for Genealogy Research
      3--Google News Archive, Google News Timelines and Google Alerts
      4--Google Images, Video and other Tools for Genealogists

      A registration form and more details about the seminar are available at www.rootcellar.org.  Space is limited so don’t delay if you’re interested in attending.

      Treasurer Allan Bonderoff reports that we have $1,556.20 in our checking account as of February 21.


      February Speaker, Victoria Fisch -- Jews of the Gold Rush -- Who Knew?

      Victoria presented a historical overview of pioneer Jewish merchants in Northern California.  She has prepared a chapter for an upcoming publication by Avotaynu.

      “On Passover we ask four questions -- today I have five,” she says.  “Why did Jews come; where did they come from and where did they go; when did they come; what did they do; and who were they.

      Here is some of what Victoria mentioned in her presentation.

      Why did they come and where did they come from?

      In 1848, it was the year of the revolutions in Europe. 

      There were1848 reforms in Prussia, but they resulted in a big backlash, with anti-Jewish riots.  The Jews in Bohemia and Moravia formed militias for protection.

      Earlier in France, in 1830, the government took over control of the rabbis and Jewish institutions.  There were riots in Alsace in eastern France and some Jews crossed the border to the other side of the Rhine.

      From 1845-1871, the number of Jewish emigrants, not including those in the Austro-Hungarian empire, totaled about 110,000.  About half were from Prussia, the next largest group from Bavaria.

      1871 was the Franco-Prussian war which had an impact as well.

      Why did they come to California?

      The California Gold Rush:  In 1848, President James Polk mentions the gold in his State of the Union speech.  Within two months, there were no sailing vessels left on the eastern seaboard.

      How did they get here?

      Victoria says there were several methods of travel. The first was ships.  New Orleans was the 2nd largest port of entry during the Gold Rush, after New York.   By land, there were both northern and southern routes of travel to California.

      To get to California, ships could go around the horn, requiring an extended journey, or go through the isthmus of Panama, with cholera prevalent at the time.  Victoria read an account of the Panama travel, involving mules, malaria, cholera and heat.

      Arrivals at the port of San Francisco in 1848 totaled 98.  In 1849, it jumped to 500, and in 1850, to 12,000.

      Because the fares for steamships, stagecoaches, etc. were expensive, it weeded out those who made the trip.  “You had to have money to get here.”

      When did they come to California?

      Beginning with the gold strikes, Victoria extends the Gold Rush period to the beginning of the 20th century.

      What did Jewish immigrants do?

      They were merchants, something they were well-equipped to do, Victoria says, given their experience with agrarian economies.  They were able to do the same in California.

      The first established merchants were in big cities; then, it was typical to send single male relatives to outposts and camps.

      Victoria says the tax records for 1862-65 were filled with Jewish names.

      The Jewish experience in the Gold Rush -- Victoria says it was very unique -- different than for those who came in the 1880s and 1890s to eastern cities.

      Because there were new mining towns, it was an open, integrated situation for Jews -- the pioneer environment enabled them to participate as equals.

      Victoria cited Robert Levinson and his doctoral thesis, “The Jews of the California Gold Rush,” which we have in our library.  Levinson notes that longtime Jewish residents could not recall incidents of anti-semitism.  “The acceptance of Jewish citizens extended to newspaper accounts,” Victoria says, “and the papers always published the dates and times of high holiday services.”

      Victoria also noted that there was more assimilation with the Jews in California versus those back east.  “There was freedom to intermarry -- something not seen on the eastern seaboard.”

      I.J. Benjamin, a Moravian traveler, authored “Three Years in America,” writing about his visits to the gold fields.  He encouraged Jews to buy land and purchase cemeteries.

      Victoria provided a handout on the pioneer Jewish cemeteries (some of which the Sacramento JGS has visited and worked in over the years).  She says there are eight Jewish cemeteries in the Gold Country, along with one in Sacramento, three in Stockton.  Some are still in use.

      “I think the most beautiful one if the one in Sonora,” Victoria says.  There is one in Oroville, maintained by the city, and six under the direction of a Magnes Museum commission.

      Yolo County -- in 1891 a Woodland Burial Society was formed, with the last interment in 1939.

      A handout was distributed on cemeteries in Sacramento, Stockton and the Gold County.  Victoria also provided information on Gold Rush synagogues, congregations and benevolent societies.

      Jews were also enthusiastic participants in fraternal organizations – the Masons, Odd Fellows, etc., Victoria says.

      Victoria showed a wedding guest list for nuptials held in San Francisco -- there were 85 guests from throughout Northern California and beyond.

      “The other answer to what did the Jews do -- merchant’s fortunes were based on mine’s successes.  Some merchants stayed in a particular area, others left.”

      After 1879, only a handful of Jews remained in the Gold Rush areas -- most had moved to the port areas.

      Who were they?

      Albert Abraham Michelson was the first American to win the Nobel prize in physics (focusing on the measure of velocity of light).

      In the 1850s he lived in Murphys in Calaveras County, then moved to Virginia City.  He had gone to hi

      gh school in San Francisco and then to West Point.

      Philip Charles (P.C.) Cohn -- He had a business in New York then came west with his father for the Fraser gold strike in British Columbia (1862).  By 1863, he came back to Sacramento and started a mercantile store.  In 1904 P.C. was a California delegate to the Democratic convention and elected senator from Sacramento from 1913-16.

      He purchased 60 acres in Orangevale, 240 acres in El Dorado County and seven acres in the Tahoe area.  After he died in 1928, a park in Folsom was named after him.  “Bob Wascou e-mailed me his funeral record ... currently his headstone is missing.”

      Victoria says as more and more databases are put onto Ancestry, she’s getting more and more hits, for naturalization records, passport applications and more.  “I believe in exploiting Ancestry to the max,” she says.

      Victoria notes you can put in just the first three letters of a name, followed by an asterisk; you can do first-name only searches, and no-name searches, putting in dates or states.

      Victoria cites a few books of interest:

      -- The Age of Revolution -- “very readable.”

      -- Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries

      -- Businesses of Jews in Louisiana

      -- The Jewish Settlement in Sacramento (Wyatt, 1987)

      -- Ava Kahn’s book -- Jewish Voices of the California Gold Rush -- “very dense.”

      “My perception is that with most of the books,” she says, “your head will spin.  I don’t believe there is a book out there that gives you a comprehensive picture of the Jews of the Gold Rush.”

      Victoria brought many of the books she researched  to her presentation; several are part of our JGSS library.



      From the JGS of the Conejo Valley (Ventura County) newsletter:

      As of March 1, the National Archives and Records Administration facility previously located in Laguna Niguel has moved to Perris in Riverside County.  The move is being made for cost-savings to the federal government.  The address for the new regional archive is:

      National Archives at Riverside

      23123 Cajalco Road

      Perris, CA 92570




      Ten institutions across Europe have joined forces to provide online access to their Jewish culture collections. The joint project, called "Judaica Europeana," is part of an effort to digitize

      many of Europe's cultural resources. The European Commission provided a major grant for

      Judaica Europeana. The first phase of this project can be visited at www.judaica-europeana.eu.


      From the Orlando Sentinel:

      Daughter discovers a genealogy gold mine in father's letters

      Joanie Schirm

      Joanie Schirm talks about her father's collection of letters and documents. Since her father Dr. Oswald A. Holzer's death in 2000, she has amassed an extensive collection of his World War II-era letters, documenting the impact of the Nazi regime on his life. (Joe Burbank, Orlando Sentinel / February 15, 2010)

       Jeff Kunerth, Orlando Sentinel  February 21, 2010


      In the upstairs rec room of her home on Lake Concord, Joanie Schirm has spread her father's life over a leather-sheathed pool table. Curled black-and-white photographs spill from overstuffed envelopes. There's a stack of home movie canisters, plastic filing boxes with hanging folders of documents, and thick binders with letters written in Czech 70 years ago.

      Her father, Oswald Holzer, a Jewish physician, deserted the Czechoslovakian Army in 1939 as Nazi Germany overtook the country and conscripted the army. He ended up in
      China where, eight days after they met, he married Ruth Alice Lequear on Sept. 20, 1940.

      Nearly 60 years later, when Oswald and Ruth died within three days of each other, Schirm and her siblings discovered 534 documents dating back to 1885 and including 392 letters written to her father by 78 different people during World War II.

      "It was a great gift to me," she said. "My sense is that it was meant for me to do this. It was meant for me to free all these voices."

      Schirm is 61, a solid gold member of the Baby Boom generation that is spurring a resurgence of interest in ancestry and genealogy. Two new television shows are devoted to people digging up their past. The popular on-line genealogy website Ancestry.com has an estimated 850,000 paid subscribers.

      "We Baby Boomers are getting to the place in our lives where this craze for genealogy is going to get bigger and bigger," said Schirm, who owned a successful engineering firm and was instrumental in bringing World Cup soccer to Orlando in 1994. "My message is to do it while you can. There are so many questions I wish I could ask my parents."

      Schirm will share what she has learned from exploring her father's life at a talk on genealogical research Tuesday at the Congregation of Reform Judaism in

      Some of what she discovered includes:

      44 of her ancestors, including her paternal grandparents, perished in the Holocaust.

      •Czech is a hard language to learn.

      •The Czech tailor who made her father's Army riding britches hanging on the wall of the rec room was executed in 1942 for his role in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrick, the Nazi overlord of Czechoslovakia who came up with the plan to create extermination camps as the "final solution to the Jewish problem."

      The letters, the documents, the photographs and movies her father left behind are a genealogist's dream — a rare opportunity for Schirm to travel back in time and crawl inside her father's mind. Because Holzer kept carbon copies of the letters he wrote, she can read conversations between him, his friends and relatives that took place decades before her birth.

      The letter that means the most to Schirm was discovered eight years after her father's death on the bottom shelf of a cabinet he made that stored his children's board games.

      It was the last letter written to Oswald from his father, Arnost Holzer. It was dated
      April 21, 1942 — three days before Arnost and his wife were sent by the Nazis to the Czechoslovakian ghetto and from there to their death at an extermination camp.

      Arnost's letter begins, "My dear boy," and says, "I am not certain whether I will see you ever again, so I decided to write these lines as my good bye to you." And then it offers this advice to his son, the doctor: "I wish for you to find full satisfaction in your profession. I also wish that your profession of curing doesn't just become a source of wealth for you, but that you yourself become a benefactor to the suffering humanity."

      In those final words, Schirm said, she recognized the origins of her father's compassion for others and the stacks of billing receipts he left behind with the notation "NC" — no charge.

      She has compiled her father's letters and her own research into a book she calls My Dear Boy: A Memoir by Joanie Schirm.

      "My father would love this," Schirm said. "He was a great storyteller and in the end I'm telling his last story."

      Schirm's talk on genealogical research takes place at
      1 p.m., Tuesday at the Congregation of Reform Judaism, 928 Malone Dr., Orlando. Jeff Kunerth can be reached at jkunerth@... or 407-420-5392.

      Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel


      See you Sunday, March 21.

    • SusanneLevitsky@...
      May 26, 2015 Our next meeting: Sunday, June 14, 2015, 10 a.m. The Magners -- A Journey in Rediscovering Lost Family Heritages Our own Tony Chakurian will
      Message 45 of 45 , May 26 1:27 PM
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        May 26, 2015
        Our next meeting:
        Sunday, June 14, 2015, 10 a.m.
        "The Magners -- A Journey in Rediscovering Lost Family Heritages"
        Our own Tony Chakurian will discuss how he used traditional genealogy and DNA testing to discover and trace back the previously unknown Jewish, Chilean and Native American heritages of his Magner family line.
        In his “other” life, Tony is an environmental geologist.  He has been doing genealogy for seven years.
        No meeting in July.
        May 10, 2015  Meeting Notes
        Victoria Fisch called the meeting to order.  Mort Rumberg talked about the upcoming May 17 Jewish Heritage Day at Raley Field. We will have a booth and additional volunteers would be welcome. [Update: Kudos to Mort for his yeoman efforts on our behalf at the Festival, and to the volunteers who assisted him: Allan Dolgow, Carl and Sue Miller, Gerry Ross and Zipora Weintraub.]
        Mort says he will be attending the IAJGS conference this year in Jerusalem, July 6-10.  Next year the meeting will be held in Seattle.
        Victoria attended a convention in Birmingham on her recent trip to Britain -- at the "Who Do You Think You Are?" convention she ran into Ron Arons, who has spoken to us numerous times. She said there were many big corporations in attendance.
        Victoria said JGS member Tony Chakurian is now a member of our board.
        May Program
        Using Genetic Genealogy to Break Through Brick Walls -- Jonathan Long
        Jonathan has been involved in genealogical research for about 24 years, and genetic genealogy for about 12 years.
        He said there are three things that Genetic Genealogy is helpful for:
        1) Finding living "lost" cousins
        2) Proving suspected relationships
        3) Discovering unknown ancestors
        Jonathan said you can uncover relationaships that could not be determined using paper records.
        His talk (handout sent out to everyone May 5), discussed how to use the different tests to provide information for your family tree, which companies to ue, how to interpret the results and various tools and strategies.
        He noted that everybody has three types of DNA.   He will focus on autosomal DNA
        Historically, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a geneticist, came up with a unit of recombination for DNA, now called a morgan.
        A small number of third cousins, and a large number of fourth cousins don’t show up as matches.  So how do we make use of this DNA?
        If there are more than 10 morgans in a block, it indicates shared ancestry.
        If there are less than five, there are often false positives.
        Centimorgan – 1 percent chance a segment of DNA will recombine in one generation.
        Jonathan said that Gedmatch, 23 + Me – use 7 centimorgans as a standard threshold.
        Family Tree DNA uses a higher threshold, he said – 7.69 centimorgans and must have 20 centimorgans total to have a match, not just one segment.
                    Ancestry DNA uses 5 centimorgans for the first segment.
        Jonathan said several million people have had their DNA testing done and there is a lot of good coverage for those with U.S. ancestry.
        There are higher thresholds for endogamous populations (marrying within a specific ethnic group.)  For people of Ashkenazi descent, Jonathan says 23+ Me has been suggested as a better indicator of shared ancestry.
        DNA Testing Companies:
        Jonathan said there are only three companies people really working with:
        Family Tree DNA – in general has the best embedded tools for analysis, more conservative, lower quantity of matches but higher quality.
        23 + Me – Some Y and mitochondrial results as well, new V4 chip not comparable to other results, can’t import. Easy to stay anonymous.  Limits number of matches.
        Ancestry DNA – most generous with matches, must have trees.  Is useful because it gives you hints – quality control is suspect but does give you clues.  The search tool is the best one.  Offers DNA circles, a nice feature.
        All three of the companies provide ethnicity estimates.
        Strategies and Tools:
        23+ Me – Jonathan found living cousins – you can prove suspected relatives, discover unknown ancestors.
        Family Tree and Gedmatch  have tools for finding matches in common.
        Triangulation – searching for matching DNA segments.
        Autosomal + X  DNA can go back farther than five generations.
        X + 180 centimorgans
        Autosome –3400 centimorgans
        One cousin found on Gedmatch wouldn’t show up on others.
        Jonathan said siblings will have slightly different autosomal results.
        General strategies:
                    Form cousin networks to group matches
                    Remember siblings will have different autosomal and X DNA results.
                    Use Y and mitochondrial DNA results ( 23+ me, Ancestry)
        Who’s the oldest cousin you know of, Jonathan asks?
        More approaches:
                    WikiTree – query surname boards in search of descendants
                    GEDMatch.com – free access to all three main companies, a lot of tools for analysis
                    Ancestry DNA Helper Tool – use Chrome browser and download
                    Records all matches and ancestors, can sort (mostly in U.S. matches, not overseas)
                    Premium tool for trying to solve roadblocks – go-to site for getting new people to test
        DNAGedcom.com – Find which matches you have with your other matches at FamilyTree DNA
        GenomeMate –desktop tool, can import all your data
        Lessons –
                    “Paper” genealogy provides the foundation; DNA results help to validate your hypotheses and identify possible surname families.
                    Costs – all autosomal tests now $99 plus$10 shipping
                    There are frequent sales , including DNA day, April 25.
        Family Tree DNA offers transfers to other companies for $39.                                                                        
        Jonathan says a lot of new frontiers have opened up through genetic genealogy.  Encourage your family members in higher generations to test while everyone can enjoy the results.
        From May 11 and 17 Avotaynu E-zines by Gary Mokotoff:
        Crestleaf Identifies 101 Resources for Finding Your Jewish Ancestors
        The relatively new genealogy website, Crestleaf.com, has provided a list, "Jewish Genealogy: 101 Resources for Finding Your Jewish Ancestors," at
        http://tinyurl.com/CrestleafJewish . Veteran genealogists will find most of the sites familiar to them, but the list is worth looking at to pick up one or two lesser known sites.
        “Crowd Sourced Genealogy: Implications for the Jewish People”
        There is an interesting article online that discusses the implications of the fact that the general public now has access to their DNA profile and those of others through direct-to-consumer genealogical mapping from such companies as Family Tree DNA, 23andme and Ancestry.com. The article is titled “Crowd Sourced Genealogy: Implications for the Jewish People.”

        The article discusses implications that these tools and developments could have on the Jewish people, such as:
           • Could these new tools affect connectedness of the Jewish people?
           • Could awareness among Jews that they are “distant cousins,” based on science, create or reinforce group solidarity?
           • How should individuals who believe they have discovered Jewish roots be treated by the Jewish community?
           • How do these developments influence the way Jewish identity is conceived?
           • Could these tools be used to strengthen an individual’s Jewish identity or lead to new forms of Jewish community involvement?
           • How can the Jewish people prevent DNA tests from becoming a device of alienation?

        The article is located at
        http://tinyurl.com/CrowdSourcingGenealogy .
        Isolating Source of “2nd to 3rd cousins” Derived from FTDNA Family Finder Test
        Those readers who have used the Family Tree DNA Family Finder test are keenly aware of
         the large number of “2nd to 3rd cousin” matches it produces. It is frustrating because the Family
         Finder cannot determine which of your four grandparents is responsible for the relationship.

        I recently found a solution. A few months ago, I had my uncle (mother’s brother) take the Family
        Finder test primarily to demonstrate its accuracy. The results were that, indeed, he is my uncle.
         I used his results to isolate my own Family Finder cousins. The two persons that the Family 
        Finder state are my “2nd to 3rd cousins” are shown not to  related to my maternal uncle. This 
        immediately eliminates two of my four grandparents—these people must be related to me 
        through my paternal line. Frankly, through 30 years of research, I know all my Mokotow
         (paternal father) 2nd/3rd cousins and know most of my Wlodawer (paternal mother) cousins. 
        I now plan to ask my closest Wlodawer cousin—a second cousin—to take the Family Finder test.
        This will then determine through which of the remaining two grandparents my DNA cousins are 

        So the strategy for all is to have an aunt/uncle take the Family Finder test to determine if a DNA
        cousin is on your maternal or paternal line. Then have a second cousin (common 
        great-grandparents) on the successful line take the test to determine which one of the remaining
         two grandparents provided the DNA you share with your DNA cousin.

         Archives Portal Europe
         Gershon Lehrer of Belgium notes there is a website called Archives Portal Europe at
         http://www.archivesportaleurope.net that provides access to information on archival 
        material from different European countries as well as information on archival institutions 
        throughout the continent. It is a work in progress.

        Searching for the Polish word for “Jewish” (żydowski) produced 2,847 results. The system
         allows narrowing down results by archival location, range of years and other factors. The
         search engine requires diacritical marks. Searching for zydowski—no dot over the ‘z’) produced 
        only two results.
        There are some digital images at the site. One such is the medical records of a Dr. Otto 
        Liebfried. It includes a picture of him in a World War I German military uniform. Sme of the
         documentation includes names of persons. 

        Jewish History of Las Vegas To Have an Online Presence
        From Las Vegas’ first settlements through today, people of Jewish heritage have contributed 
        to the growth and vibrancy of the city. They filled many roles: as entrepreneurs and pioneers in
         business, as religious and political thinkers, as residents committed to the arts and education, 
        etc.This slice of Las Vegas history is now the focus of University of Nevada-Las Vegas Libraries’ 
        newest project: Southern Nevada Jewish Community Digital Heritage Project. 
        The project officially began in 2014. Later this year, the UNLV Libraries will build a web portal 
        that will make this history accessible to researchers. Digital images of photos, brochures, 
        scrapbooks, letters, drawings, videos, maps, newspapers and much more will be available on 
        this site. Additional information, including how you can participate, can be found at

        JewishGen Offers New York Genealogy Course
        JewishGen Education Department will be offering a course of New York City resources for 
        genealogy starting June 1. The program deals with more complex documents our ancestors 
        generated, including naturalization, military and governmental records, death records (probate
        , obituaries, cemeteries), sometimes via local archival research.   

        It is a personal mentoring program. Students use the JewishGen’s online FORUM to 
        post an ancestral branch, set goals for research, and work one on one with the instructor.
         Eight text lessons can be downloaded to read at your own pace. If you live local to New York
         City or are planning a trip to the Big Apple, there will be suggestions on where to research, 
        where to wander and how to get there. 
        The course descriptions and requirements (8-10 hours per week) can be found at 

         IIJG Needs More Volunteers for Its Jacobi Project
        The International Institute for Jewish Genealogy and Paul Jacobi Center initiated a project last
         year to publish the late Paul Jacobi's 114 typewritten genealogical studies of European rabbinical
         and other prominent Jewish families. Their initial call for volunteers in February to perform 
        proofreading of the text did not produce sufficient results, so they are looking for more people to
         perform the task. The entire manuscript is in English. Contact Ami Elyasaf, IIJG Executive 
        Director, at director@.... Information about the Jacobi collection can be found at
         http://iijg.org/resources/jacobi-papers. It includes a list of the names of the 114
         families that Jacobi documented at http://iijg.org/main-2/jacobimonographs.

        Any Tips for Tracing an Ancestor With a Common Name?
        Tracing Your Roots: When your genealogy search requires you to keep up with the Joneses, a lot of organization and a little creativity are in order.
        Posted: May 22 2015 3:00 AM
        Dear Professor Gates:
        I would like to know if you have any advice on how to trace one’s family with a common surname such as Smith or Jones. Any help is greatly appreciated. —T. Jones
        It can be challenging to trace a family with a common name. It often requires putting time and effort into researching individuals who may not necessarily be connected to your ancestors, just in order to rule them out. You will also need to pay particular attention to the details of your known ancestors in order to find more information on the family. It can sometimes feel as if you are putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle. Here are some suggestions that may make the process a little less daunting.
        Create Profiles of Your Ancestors
        Your ancestors were unique individuals regardless of how common their surname might be. Keep detailed notes of your ancestors to compare their information with that of others who have the same surname. Note their age, occupation, residence, spouse and children’s names, as well as any other unique information you uncover that may make your ancestor easier to identify in other records. For example, he may be one of many Tom Joneses in a particular town, but not all of them were the same age, had a wife named Catharine and were a blacksmith. Creating a sheet listing all of these facts for comparison will help you determine at a glance whether a record may pertain to your ancestor.
        Focus on Location
        Determining a specific location to search for your ancestors will help you narrow the number of people to look at with that surname. If your ancestor remained in the same town for his or her entire life, you could research others with that surname in the same location to see how they fit into the family. If your ancestor moved from place to place, create a chronology of where your ancestor lived and when. This way you can limit your search in those specific locations within a given time span. This helps to focus your research so that you are more likely to locate records relating to your ancestors.
        Research Related Families
        Even if people in one of your lines had a common surname, they may have married or were closely associated with people who had less-common surnames. If your Tom Jones married Catharine Hornburg, you’ll want to focus on researching the Hornburg family. Documents for associated families, particularly land and probate records, may mention your ancestors.
        In addition to families that married into your Jones family, pay attention to their neighbors or to people who served as witnesses to your family’s wills, land records, marriages and births. People often migrated and settled with people they knew, and if you notice a pattern of the same surnames always living near your family or participating in major events of the family, it may be worth doing a bit of research on them, too.
        Identify Someone in the Family With a Unique First Name
        It is often the case that someone with a common surname also has a common given name, which can be frustrating. If your ancestor has both a common first and last name, search for someone in his or her family (a sibling, child, cousin, etc.) who had a first name that stands out or is a bit different. A unique name does not have to be wildly different but could just be a name that is not common in that area. For example, perhaps the town where your family lived had a number of Tom Joneses but only one or two Peter Joneses. Identifying a unique name may help you determine, when looking at records, whether you are looking at your family or another.
        Create Charts to Track Information About Your Ancestors
        Organization is crucial to sorting out individuals with common surnames. Keeping a spreadsheet or a chart with information on each ancestor you identify in your search may help you sort out how they are all connected. This may be particularly helpful if you have two or more people with the same name who are close in age and living in the same area.
        Creating a comparison chart between your ancestor and others with the same name will allow you to recognize which records belong to your ancestor. As you search through records, you can continue to add to the chart any new records you can identify as belonging to your ancestor or to someone else with the same name. It also allows you to create a timeline for each person. Organizing information can often lead you to connections and can provide ideas on where else to look for new information. 
        Search Land Records
        Digging deep into land records allows you to link your ancestors to land passed from one generation to the next. Pay attention to the description of the land in the records, not just to the people mentioned in them. For example, if both Tom Joneses in town had sons named Robert, you may have trouble identifying which one is yours in a probate or vital record. Looking at the description of the land, however, may help you determine which family was connected to a particular piece of land. You can then use that description to compare with later and earlier records to see how that same land was passed from one person to the next. This could help you link generations together.
        Map the Entire Family in a Particular Area
        Sometimes the only way to fully sort out which individuals belong to your family is to conduct at least some research into everyone with that surname in the town or county where your family was living. Taking notes as you search through records for anyone with the surname Jones may help you recognize patterns within the family. This may allow you to sort out family groups. It can be a long process, but if you create a chart for each family, you can simply add to each group as you search through records.
        Researching ancestors with common names is not an impossible task. It just requires a little creativity, organization and some patience.
        Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also co-founder of  The Root.  Follow him on  Twitter  and  Facebook .
        Send your questions about tracing your own roots to   TracingYourRoots@... .
        This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org , contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family.
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