One key piece of advice experienced genealogists give to
beginners is start with yourself and work backwards. This means researching
records for evidence of living family members or those born between 1901 and
2000. Some of the records you consult will be similar to those you’ll use for
earlier generations, but a few are unique to the twentieth century. Kathleen W.
Hinckley’s Locating Lost Family Members & Friends (Betterway,
1999) is an excellent guide to twentieth-century resources nationwide. This
column will offer advice on how to uncover this recent history in Rhode Island.
We will review a few sources covered in earlier columns, as well as some that
apply only to the twentieth century.
This is pretty basic, but oral history needs to be verified
or you can end up barking up the wrong family tree. Start with a list of simple
questions — birth, marriage, residences, schools attended, and employment, and
then approach your relatives for their life stories. This may produce some
surprising results. During the interview process I discovered that females in my
family generally use their middle names for everyday documents except when the
record seems “official” — then they use their first names. Needless to say, this
business of interchangeable first names makes the verification process a little
One Year at a Time: City Directories and Telephone
After asking lots of questions, work backwards in history for
each person and create timelines of events that include source evidence for each
fact. Don’t forget to track yourself as well. You may be surprised by the amount
of misinformation that you will discover.
A wide variety of records await the twentieth-century
researcher. . Start your year-by-year chart of who was where with the help of
city directories. Directories generally list heads of households and can include
any employed resident, but coverage is spotty for some neighborhoods. Major
cities like Providence, Pawtucket, and Newport have annual city directories, but
smaller cities and towns are often grouped together into volumes and issued
sporadically. The best collections are at the Rhode Island Historical Society,
the New England Historic Genealogical Society, and the Library of Congress. Some
directories are available on microfilm from the Family History Library and
others are online at Ancestry.com.
Telephone directories — in print form, on CD-ROM, and online
— are commonly used today to track living or recently deceased relatives.
Telephone books are available from the late nineteenth century to the present
day, and are often found at the main branches of public libraries. Use care when
using them because they were printed on poor quality paper that becomes brittle.
Online directories: Hinckley did a comparison of the major
online telephone directory sites and found several discrepancies. This means you
should check each one to be thorough. The four that gave consistent results as
of the publication of her book were Anywho, Bigfoot,
InfoSpace, and WhoWhere.
CD-ROMS: InfoUSA and Phonedisk Powerfinder offer updated directories on
Follow Hinckley’s advice in Locating Lost Family Members
and Friends and record the name, address, and telephone number for each
individual. Don’t forget to check for individuals listed under first initials
and watch for widows who continue to maintain the listing under their husband’s
There will be times when you’ll be denied access to certain
recent records because of confidentiality laws. This is especially true with
vital records and court documents. To receive a copy of a birth or marriage
record less than a hundred years old or a death record less than fifty years old
from either the Rhode Island Division of Vital Records or a city or town clerk
you will need to show a relationship, supply information (see below), and pay a
fee. Make your request in writing and provide the following: name on the record,
date of the event (birth, marriage, or death), city or town where it occurred,
your relationship to the individual, and why you need the copy. If you are
requesting a birth record, you will also need to supply the name of the father
and the mother’s maiden name.
According to the Judicial Records Center website, access to
twentieth-century civil, criminal, and divorce records are “available to
researchers in accordance with the laws of Rhode Island and the operating rules
of the department.” A driver’s license or Rhode Island Identification Card must
be shown in order to view a case file. For more information on obtaining access
to these materials or for a list of their holdings see their website.
The Full Story
In the twentieth century, home ownership is a reality for
many, school attendance is mandatory, and news is everywhere.
In Rhode Island, real estate and land records are not
available on the county level, but rather at town and city halls with access
through grantor/grantee indexes. Even if your family never owned the building
they lived in they might have owned land, a cemetery plot, or income property
like an apartment house. Tax records are also available to the public at the
town or city hall.
You might be able to find out if your twentieth-century
ancestors were good students and maybe even see their school photo by contacting
the private or parochial school they attended for records. Public school records
are usually the property of the municipal school department. School yearbooks
and class photographs may exist in the collections of local historical societies
or public libraries.
News outlets offer unique opportunities for twentieth-century
research. Most local newspapers are now online, and many have obituary archives.
Search the name of the paper online in Google or Yahoo
and see what the paper keeps in their online archive. Be prepared to pay a usage
fee to obtain any pertinent information. The Providence Public Library has a
card index to significant news events published in the Providence
In the 1970s the Rhode Island Historical Society began
collecting news footage from the three local television stations. Most of the
collection is still unavailable to researchers unless they know the specific day
that a story aired. The exception is the film from the station WJAR, for which
an index now exists. Bear in mind that this archive only includes major local
news stories and that duplication may not be possible. Contact the Graphics
Department at the Rhode Island Historical Society for additional details.
Tracking a relative through twentieth-century documentation
can help you learn more about your family, locate lost relatives, or assist you
in finding past friends. Earlier columns covered state and federal census
records, church documents, and immigration information.