Tips for Tracing Your Ancestors in the Midwest | Exploring the Midwest Podcast Episode 34

Last Updated on April 21, 2022 by Jody Halsted

October is Family History Month, and I am honored to partner with Visit Fort Wayne and the Family History Center at the Allen County Library to bring you information to help you discover your own family’s history.

Allison Singleton is Senior Librarian, Virtual Programming Coordinator, and Acting Genealogy Services Manager in the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library.

Learn more about The Genealogy Center here

Loads of Halstead books found at The Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Loads of Halstead books found at The Genealogy Center.

How to Begin Midwest Genealogy Research

In the grand span of time, the Midwest is really quite young, with only 200 years of state history (give or take). Here are some resources and tips for digging up your Midwestern roots — and seeing where they lead.

“I absolutely love researching the Midwest,” says Singleton. “And there are a lot of really unique, interesting resources. And I think something that people forget is that everybody had to come through the Midwest to move further west. So you probably have records here, even if your family is now in California, or if they’re in Minnesota or Iowa or Texas. If they moved west from an East Coast state, you’re probably looking at Midwest research.”

The easiest place to start is on a database. Singleton says she usually recommends ancestry.com because it’s so easy to use. Familysearch.org is another that has an amazing collection and is easy to use. It’s also free for anyone to access from anywhere.

Ancestry.com and other databases are typically free to use at local libraries.

Look at the original records to see if can find any of the births, marriages, or deaths. Then take a look at census records, tracing that family back, and eventually you’ll use other records to build that story.

Family History volumes at The Genealogy Center

Using Local Libraries for Midwest Genealogy Research

“At smaller local libraries, you’ll want to look for the state room,” says Singleton. She suggests finding the librarian who understands the local history. “There’s always one,” says Singleton. “Take that person, get that information and find out what resources they have.”

Although each library is different, the basics you’ll want to look for are the county histories. They may even be digitized if they are old or out of copyright.

Find a list of cemeteries. See if there are any indexes to births, marriages, and deaths. “Sometimes there are lists at a local level that you can’t access on any of the major databases,” says Singleton.

Find out if there is anything that is local specific. An example may be a newspaper and its own microfilm. A lot of them aren’t digitized because of copyright, so utilize those resources, the local historians and librarians. “They’re the gold that will help you find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” says Singleton.

Nicholas County KY histories

Researching Different Nationalities in the Midwest

Many places in the midwest have “pockets of nationalities.” For instance, some areas have Scandinavian immigrants or German immigrants. Singleton suggests using the “FAN Club.”

“You’re looking at the friends, associates and neighbors of your family,” she says. “You want to look at who is surrounding your family because a lot of times it was chain migration. One person would come over, find a job, then write back to the family and the home country and say, ‘Hey, this is a great gig, send whoever over.’

And they would keep coming, and it wouldn’t be necessarily family. It would be people from the same town. So somebody would know somebody and then they’d come over. So you want to make sure that you’re looking at that because that’s going to give you a fuller picture. And it’s one of those people that may give you that hometown in the old country as well if you don’t have that information.”

subscriptions to genealogy and history newsletters from across the globe

Using Land Records to Research Genealogy

The Bureau of Land Management has a great website that lists the original land claims made. You can search to see if your ancestor was one of the original settlers. If not and the ancestor came over a bit later, there would be deed records that would chase who owned what land when.

“A lot of times these deed records have been digitized and put on FamilySearch.org, but perhaps not indexed,” says Singleton. “So you may have to go into the catalog to look for them, but a lot of them are there and then you can chase your family that way. But it’s really interesting to see how a piece of land transferred from one family to the next, and sometimes within the same family, just generation after generation.”

County records can be helpful, but they can be a bit more difficult to get at the county offices because they are with the government. So Singleton recommends starting with the local library to find out where those records like abstracts and titles are and what access to those is like.

“You also want to make sure you know what records you’re looking for, because all over the United States, we have different names for courts, and it can get really confusing,” says Singleton. “You may be looking for something that is a probate record and you may think, oh, it’s just going to be in probate court. Well, it could be in a circuit court, it could be in a supreme court, it could be in a court of common pleas. It could be in something completely different. You don’t know where the records are until you make that discovery. So utilize the knowledge of the locals to find that information.”

Piles of books hide genealogists at The Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Piles of books hide genealogists.

How to Research Native American and African American Ancestry

Following a path back East or South, especially for Native American and African American ancestry, can come with its own challenges. “It’s not going to be the same type of research as European Americans,” says Singleton. “Ask for help from experts. There are also so many classes that have been put online now, where you can just Google and find experts in specific topics you’re researching.”

In Native American research, it’s about finding the records that prove you have Native American ancestry. “At the turn of the 20th century, it was a badge of honor to be able to trace your ancestry back to Native American. Sometimes people made up stories because they wanted to have that link,” says Singleton.

Another issue is that there was a Fraternal Order of the Redman and then the female auxiliary was the Daughters of Pocohontas. They would dress up in brown face and costumes and pose for pictures. “A lot of times, people bring in those pictures and say, well, this proves it, but not really,” says Singleton.

The Underground Railroad is exciting for people to research, but it’s usually more the people whose ancestors helped with the Railroad who are more interested than the African Americans whose ancestors may have used it. “What is more interesting to African-Americans that I’ve noticed is that they want to be able to get their families back pre-1870 and that is what is important,” says Singleton.

The Genealogy Center has a Native American Gateway and African American Gateway. These are collections of resources for researchers. “We have websites and then we have a bibliography for both. And these bibliographies are books that are within our collection, but you could always take a title that looks interesting and throw it into Google and see who else might have it or if it’s been digitized,” says Singleton.

Pages of family history found at The Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Pages of family history found at The Genealogy Center.

How to Begin Your Genealogy Research

First, look at your own family. Start with yourself and go back from there. “It’s easier to research people who are deceased and people born before 1940, but you want to get all of the information on your immediate family and going back, and that’s your framework,” says Singleton.

The framework includes the names, dates and places. Collect as much of that as you can to fill in the blanks. “That’s the whole goal of family history is to fill in the blanks and put the puzzle together without knowing what the pieces are,” says Singleton. “So think about what you want to know. It starts with the question.”

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