Looking for information about one’s ancestors can be a daunting (and sometimes expensive) task. There are quite a few online databases and websites like Ancestry.com or Genealogy.com that can help fill in the holes of your family tree, but they are not cheap. Here at Special Collections, researching family trees has become a bit of a hobby for one of our employees. We are extremely lucky here to have plenty of resources in a number of forms including print, digital, and microforms. However, a lot of people have no clue how to begin to look for an elusive ancestor. Although census records and birth certificates can tell a lot, they sometimes do not tell the whole story about a person.
Take for instance the story of a 56 year old gentleman, George Valentine, who lived in what is now Ritchie County, West Virginia in 1862. The census records during his lifetime can give information about his name, occupation, family, where he was born, and age (thereby cluing the researcher into George Valentine’s birth year). However, if you search alphabetically in the Union Provost Marshals’ file of Papers Relating to Individual Civilians, you will find that George Valentine was arrested by Union troops for being a noted rebel in October 1861 and shipped off to Camp Chase in Ohio, a notorious Union prison where 2260 prisoners died from bad conditions including lack of food, water, clothing, and sanitation. You would also find a letter, hand-written by Mr. Valentine’s captor to the Governor of Ohio, giving Mr. Valentine over to the governor’s care.
If your ancestor possibly attended the University of Missouri, you should check out Special Collections’ MU collection. We have publications from various departments on campus. One of our biggest periodical collections is the MU Savitar. The yearbook, which ran from 1894-2005, includes photographs and stories of thousands of students who have roamed the hallowed grounds of Mizzou for over one hundred years. If you are too far away from the MU campus, you should check out the digitized Savitar collection here.
Plat books contain a wealth of names and information of landowners in a particular county or state. Like the Savitar, most of the Missouri county plat books have been digitized, making it convenient to access nice clear scans of every page from anywhere. If you have an approximate idea of where an ancestor lived at a given point in time, you can usually find their name written in a plat book and estimate how much land the owned.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps date back to 1867. They were originally created to assess fire liability and risk, but are used now to see a snapshot of a town or city during the past. This is a great way to find the general store that your great-grandfather ran back in 1905, or his house in 1912. Not only does Special Collections hold an extensive collection of Missouri Sanborn maps, but they have been digitized and put online as well. Furthermore, other states have also digitized their collections.
Finally, Special Collections is the home of one of the largest microform collections in North America. Many of these sets come with their own print guides and indexes. Various microform collections that might of interest to genealogical researchers include the “The Immigrant in America”, extensive personal papers and correspondence of many American pioneers, and our large volume of early American newspapers and periodicals. We also have indexes of many major American newspapers like the New York Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the Atlanta Constitution, so it is easy to look up someone’s name or a historical event and find the exact date and page number where they were mentioned.
As Missourians, we are truly lucky to have so much in genealogical information readily available. Although there is a lot that has been put online for easy access, we also have a small staff here at Special Collections ready to help you find what you need up on the fourth floor of Ellis Library. Even though none of us are trained genealogical experts, we can usually point you in the right direction. For Missouri-specific inquiries, the State Historical Society is housed in the same building, and can often provide information that we may not have here. Furthermore, the largest free-standing genealogical library the Midwest Genealogy Center, is located near Kansas City. Finally, if you find yourself lost, contact us and we can provide you with names of local professional genealogists.