Thursday, February 24, 2011


Someone please help me figure out what the hell Icedoth is.

The underlying goal of my research is to find where in Germany my family originally came from and to go back and visit that town. So naturally when I found that “Icedoth, Ger” was listed as my great-great-great grandfather's country of birth in the 1920 census, I became super-excited thinking I had already accomplished what I set out to do. I was wrong.

I do not know what Icedoth is supposed to be, but I'm starting to believe it's a cruel joke planted by either my ancestors or the 1920 census taker (or maybe both) that's playing out 90 years later. Through me.

I have searched countless sites through Google, Cyndi's List, and other genealogy blogs. I even found Kartenmeister, a nifty site that has a searchable list of old Germanic towns with a spell guesser that's supposed to help German language lightweights such as myself. Even with all those resources and references at hand I still can't find diddly squat that even comes close.

Now I'm not sure what you see when you read the picture above, but I see Icedoth and apparently I'm wrong. I even tried searching for alternative spellings (Iceduth, Iceduth, Fceduth, etc.) and have the scratch pad I scribbled all this gibberish on to prove it. This doesn't mean there aren't other ways to source my family's origins – it just means it will take that much more digging and ponying up cash for NYC record requests.

I've come to find in a very short amount of time that misspellings are such a pain in the butt when it comes to genealogical research and have been a hindrance to my research on more than one occasion. I recently received my great-grandfather's birth certificate from 1894 where they decided to spell the last name “Kahler.” I was able to confirm it was him through his mother's last name and through cross-referencing other documents but his birth certificate also uncovered an additional odd factoid. Apparently my great-great grandmother's name, despite being Mary Zugner on some documents I have in my possession, is also Lena Zugner. What a shock it was to me that after finding this out and plugging the info into, I was able to find an enormous wealth of hits on my family that I wasn't able to find before. And I'm talking big finds, like birth dates and anniversaries.

For anyone that's starting out and having a terrible time locating any information on their ancestors, my best advice is to just stick it out and keep digging. If the information isn't coming up with what you're searching on, try alternative spellings of names where you can. As I found out, it can literally mean the difference between wasting your time and finding gold.

Except, of course, if your family is from Icedoth. Then you're SOL.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Family Stories

One challenge I’ve encountered with genealogy research is making my ancestors more than just names and dates on a family tree. The problem is aside from oral history, I really don’t know of any other ways that family stories are passed down through the ages. I’ve heard stories of people finding that their relatives are famous, influential, wealthy, etc (there’s even a group called the International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists who apparently regal each other with stories on being related to not-so-nice people in history). I can’t for the life of me figure out how they know this.

Waiting for public record requests (which takes upwards of 6 weeks per record) leaves a lot of downtime to explore the ins and outs of your family history. This has led me to wonder who my ancestors were, what they liked, disliked, did for fun, and other random tidbits. For all I know and suspect, this information is lost forever but I really want to know how some people know so much about their great-great grandfather’s grass cutting techniques while I rejoiced at just finding out my great-great’s name. I’ve done a few newspaper archive searches to test the water but to no avail. I only know of the few stories that were told to me and they really only extend back to my grandfather’s generation.

The best stories are those my dad told me about my grandfather John Koehler’s time in the Korean War. My grandfather was a radio repairman during the war with somewhat of a hot temper. According to my dad, my grandfather was promoted and then summarily demoted several times for fighting with people. My favorite was a story about one time my grandfather beat the living hell out of guy who, in a state of shell-shock, tried to hide in my grandfather’s work-tent and knocked over all the equipment he had just fixed. There’s another story about my grandfather receiving a Bronze Star for taking the reins of gun placement and beating back an enemy advance after the person manning the station was killed. I can't confirm this, however, since a huge problem with the Korean War records I’ve found on Ancestry and on Cyndi’s List is that they only have the casualty lists online. There isn’t anything about links to record requests for those who came home alive.

Now I would love to know if these stories are real but I have not had luck in getting responses to my FOIA requests for my grandfather’s Korean War records and I haven’t found any sites with good leads yet for that information. That is why I have decided to enroll in a non-credit genealogy class through Portland Community College. It’s my hope that I’ll be able to learn a little bit more about how professional researchers don’t’ just look for names in public records but look for the the people behind the names on a piece of paper. I’d also love some input on how to look for non-casualty Korean War records. Wish me luck!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Research Your Genealogy Without Breaking the Bank

One thing I've learned from working on this project is how to pinch pennies while still gathering valuable information. I don't have much in the way of new research findings to share so instead I'll share with you how I do my research without spending an inordinate amount of money. Researching your genealogy should be fun and not discouraging because you can't afford to do so. If you're interested in researching but not sure where to start or don't have cash to blow, try out the below resources.

Relatives: This may be the most obvious step but you'd be amazed at what you can find out from your own family. When you're researching genealogy, you're piecing back together family memories and the older living members in your family are a fountain of this invaluable information. If you are fortunate enough to still have this resource at your disposal, stop reading this and talk to them... NOW! Not only will they give you clues for names, dates, and locations, family stories can provide a lot of context for your research that you couldn't possibly gather from vital records. That context is what makes the research experience that much more fulfilling so please don't ignore this source if you have access to it.

Family Search: is a free genealogy research site run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and it is an absolute gold mine. There is a wealth of free material here, ranging from old census searches, complete vital record indices for some states, the Social Security Death Index and beyond. Even more interesting for beginners such as myself were their free video classes. I took comfort in knowing that they have a 48 minute video dedicated to researching German town origins (which I've already started struggling with but that's a different story). They have videos for how to search the censuses as well as practical researching advice. This site is really worth checking out as a first stop in your research.

Local Libraries: I would not be able to do my research if it were not for my library. Your local library is a very good place to start when it comes to beginning your genealogy research. In a lot of cases, your local library will have a public license to at least one of the major private research databases ( and are the two big examples that initially come to mind) that you can use for free just by being a library patron. Compared to what would normally be a $200 annual subscription just for one major database, I'd say you got a good deal right there. This is not to mention all the other goodies you could find there, such as local historical records if your family has lived in the area for a long time and old newspapers. This is probably one of the best single sources of information I can think of so trust me when I say do not ignore your library. If you can find your family's burial site, then you are likely going to find A LOT of data for multiple deceased family members at once (birthday, date of death, possibly where they lived depending on the cemetery record). contains thousands of cemetery records based on location and lists of who is buried there. While I have not personally had luck with this site yet, you can take it from me that there is some great data here. The site seems to be regularly updated by their dedicated volunteers so the information here will just keep getting better as the cemetery rolls become more comprehensive. It will be a lucky find for the descendants of those it currently has included in its search.

Religious Records: If the parish your families attended still exists, you may be able to uncover some surprisingly easy to find and valuable data. Depending on how well the records of the religious institution are kept and how long your family lived in the area, you may be able to find baptismal, marriage, and burial records all in one place. I don't care if your queasy about religion - for the sake of your research, put that bias aside and don't be afraid to contact the institution you know your families worshiped at. At worst, they won't have anything and you'll be where you would have been anyway. At best, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you stumble across.

Cyndi's List: Cyndi's List is the equivalent of a genealogical flea market. They have everything and you'll be amazed at what you can find. Need a list of New Zealand birth and death records? They have it. If you want links to old newspapers from around the world, it's there. Interested in other genealogy blogs but don't know where to look? I got two words for you: Cyndis' List. There are such a mind-boggling number of sites and databases on the internet, it becomes difficult to track. Cyndi's List breaks the multitude of these sites down into categories and from there, you'll never stop being amazed at what you find (I personally only just discovered the free New York Times archive search through Cyndi's List). If you're just starting out, this site may be a bit confusing since you have to know what you want to find something of value so I'd say hold off on this until you have some sense of direction. However, when you get that direction, go to Cyndi's List.

As I get further into my research, I will undoubtedly find other cool sites I'll add to this list. If anyone knows of any other sources, please let me know through the comments as I do not claim to be omniscient in this field =)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Meet My Great-Great Grandparents

I have very exciting news! After complaining in my last post that New York records take forever to process, I received a letter in the mail from the NYC Archives that contained my great-grandparents marriage certificate! This is the first significant find I have ever had in my genealogy research and I am absolutely ecstatic!

I'm not sure where to even begin. The certificate has confirmed that the 1920 census match I found where a George and Florence are living together with my great-great grandparents (though not as the heads of the household) is actually them. This means I know not only where they lived but also the names of George's parents and siblings. I am actually able to fill in an additional generation on the Koehler side! As you can see below, my great-great grandfather George Koehler (apparently there were many Georges in my family history) and my great-great grandmother Mary Koehler have been added back to the tree in my RootsMagic account. Not included in this screenshot (because RootsMagic doesn't have space for siblings) is George Jr's sister Lela Koehler.

It's really exciting for me to have this document on hand not only because I re-discovered another Koehler generation but also because I can now trace back where my family lived at one point. I had mentioned in my previous post that I stumbled upon the Italian Genealogical Group site by accident when reviewing historical Bronx neighborhoods. Well, now I know that my great-grandparents were living at 997 Washington Ave when they were married and that the Catholic parish they were married at still exists.

It's funny because the area they lived and married is not far from Yankees Stadium and I've been to a few Yankees games when I still lived in NJ. I had no idea I was traveling so close to where my family historically once lived. I will definitely have to take a trip to check out the church and re-walk their steps. A quick street-level walk with Google Maps has confirmed that the building they lived at no longer exists but at least the church has stood the test of time.

My next step now is to try to trace my great-great grandparents back far enough to find the names of George Sr's parents. According to the 1920 census, George Sr's parents were born in Germany which means I am that much closer to finding the exact origin of my family before they came to America. I'm not currently able to locate George Sr and Mary in either the 1910 or 1900 censuses (always baby-step progress) so I'm going to do another record request but for my great-grandfather's birth certificate. Hopefully that will tell me where they were living when he was born so I can cross-reference their location on the earlier censuses and track them backwards one step at a time. We will see.

For now, I am just simply going to enjoy the afterglow of having my first real success in building out my family tree and brushing aside nearly 100 years of overgrowth.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Trail Magic

There is a phenomenon known as "Trail Magic" to hikers of the Appalachian Trail which is an event that lifts your spirits and gives you hope of continuing after flirting with thought of giving up. "Trail Magic" could be anything, ranging from a break in storm just long enough for a hiker to progress along a dangerous pass to free cookies from a nice picnicking family. Although I have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing "Trail Magic" in its original meaning, I have certainly just experienced the genealogical research version of it.

I FINALLY HAVE A LEGITIMATE LEAD!! And it was completely by accident that I found it. While doing some 1920 census record checking, I stumbled across a match on Florence and George Koehler living in the Bronx. If this is my great-grandmother, she would have been the correct age of 20 at the time of the census (I still don't know when George was born so I can't cross-reference his age of 25 against anything yet) and they were apparently living with George's parents. While that wasn't enough to make an assertion that it was really them, I got very giddy and decided to see where they lived in the Bronx. It was in doing this that I found the coolest website EVER for NY genealogy research.

New York is particularly annoying when it comes to genealogy research. I love the city for its culture and museums but they are absolutely terrible when it comes to working with genealogical data. Their Hall of Records is a nightmare of bureaucracy and from what I can tell, a lot of valuable information is kept hidden behind lock and key. That is why me finding is so great. Whoever you are Steven, I love you! The site is chock full of historical maps to the city (updated for the modern era and lain over a Google maps picture of the city so you can locate where your ancestors lived) and vital records! Vital records are extremely difficult to find if you are not sure of a specific date and/or location of the event and New York charges $20 per date just to check if a record exists (they keep the money even if it doesn't). I am lucky enough to know from my grandmother's important date list that Florence and George were married on December 7, 1919 but was never able to confirm it. Thanks to Steven Morse, I was able to!

There is a link from his site to the Italian Genealogical Group who have done a fantastic job putting old marriage and death records from NY online (located here If you're not familiar with genealogical research, it's difficult to explain how annoying it is to have to reference all the different sites that MIGHT have your family information in it. Its not until you dig around a little bit on Goggle that you stumble across this gem of an organization that has hard to find records not even paid sites like Ancestry have and it's entirely free! It was through this site I was able to confirm that New York City does in fact have a record of a George Koehler and Florence Black being married in the Bronx on Dec. 7, 1919.

There are so many things this means, I cannot even fathom the depth of its importance to me. Aside from being able to research one generation closer to when my family came to the US, I am also putting back together pieces of my family puzzle that were lost decades ago. I will be able to trace my family movements, where they lived, who they were, what they did. I'll finally know my great-grandfather's birthday and the information about my great-grandparents so I can add them back to the tree. Then again, it's not that they were ever gone from it; the overgrowth of time had simply gotten to thick so see through on the Koehler family tree. These sites truly were accidental but amazing finds.

I submitted for a copy of the marriage record about a week ago and, in a few weeks, I will have it to review and add to my tree. I could not be happier! Trail Magic indeed!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Uncle Charlie"

An interesting, and very distracting, aspect of the genealogy searching process is that you get to see how all the unspoken and locked away family rumors play into your research hunches. For example, according to my father there is an "Uncle Charlie" somewhere in my family ancestry who fought in WWI. Now I have no idea if this person even existed. No proof at all. Even if he did, I don't know if he would be my dad's "uncle," my grandpa Koehler's "uncle," or a mean-spirited 100 year old joke where I give up my genealogy search and cry "uncle" in frustration? All scenarios at this point are equally likely.

Despite the fact that I don't even know if "Uncle Charlie" was real, I found myself last night locked in census search battle trying to narrow down which George Koehler in the endless sea of George Koehler's was mine. I don't know George Koehler's birthday, so that eliminates a useful narrowing tool. I still can't pinpoint a match in the records where my great-grandparents George and Florence were living together, so that was out. Most surprising to me, I can't even cross-reference my grandfather's very existence (he having been born in 1927) to find his father because, according to the 1930 census, there is no John J son of George and Florence. But here are the top search results when I plug in my grandfather's information:


Georgette Koehler! Now there's a match!

With results like that, I was getting extremely short on ideas and in my desperation I decided to look for "Uncle Charlie." And wouldn't you know it, there were some hits in the 1910 census records where a George and Charles Koehler lived together and were of about the age where they could have been in WWI. The only problem is I still had no idea which George Koehler is my George Koehler so I was essentially going off of a rumored hunch.

I so desperately wanted this person to be my George Koehler just so that the hours of research could bear some fruit. So desperate that I spent about an hour researching an alternate Koehler family history where my great-grandparents met in Philadelphia, moved to New York, split up, and remarried all while John J lived with Uncle Charlie's family in Gloucester, NJ (backed up by another family story where my grandpa lived on a farm somewhere in his childhood). All the census records could, sort of, prove this. They couldn't prove it much more than the below picture proves that 9/11 was predicted by The Simpsons but if your mind wants to believe it, you'll do anything to force that circle through the square hole.

The real truth is that I have no proof of any of the Koehler alternate history stuff or even their real history stuff. I still primarily just have a collection of leads and dates to work with. I was just getting desperate and was willing to waste precious research time chasing a silly idea based on an old family rumor and one hell of a weak connection between a George and Charlie Koehler.

So why am I telling you all this?

So you don't do what I did. When you are doing your research, stick to good searching techniques and make sure you know what you're looking for before you start looking for your "Uncle Charlie."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Research Organizing System and Updates!

In the past week, I've actually made some decent progress in terms of getting my research organized and seeing how much work is really ahead of me. I chose a system to organize myself with and it's awesome! Truth be told, it's a little daunting considering I'm still barely ahead of where I started but having all the information in one place is extremely useful.

I chose to use RootsMagic Essentials which is a free genealogical research organizing software. For how good (and for how free) it is I was surprised at how versatile the program is. I really like this program. The screen shot below is what information I have gathered so far for my family tree. Even though I'm searching primarily for the Koehler side of my family, I was able to fill in as much information for my maternal ancestors as I could for my father's. I like having this tree available to look at because it motivates me in two ways. On the one hand, it lets me know how much work still needs to be done. On the other hand, it reminds me of what I have already and it's a good feeling.

One thing I immediately noticed when I started work on this project was the amount of scattered notes I had made. It made keeping track of my data and sources difficult to say the least. Now I would have been happy with the RootsMagic system if I only had the family tree feature but simply double-clicking on a family member's name launches a pop-up where you can input an amazing array of data. I like that I can double-click on my great-grandmother's name and in one screen can view all her birthday, anniversary, and other personal information.


This is not to mention that I can also keep track of where I found out about this information. The system has pre-built source templates to store where you found the information. In other words, this system is pretty bad-ass for free! I highly recommend it for anyone starting out.


If anyone knows of any other systems they'd like to share or prefer to use, please feel free to let me know. I'm pretty sold on the RootsMagic system and I've started using it already but I'm always open to suggestions.

I have also had some pretty good success this week in terms of research! I have a list of birthdays and anniversaries from my grandma Koehler that has proved absolutely invaluable. It has the anniversary date for my great-grandparents wedding and my great-grandmother Florence's birthday in 1899 (strangely, she did not include my great-grandpa George Koehler and I have no idea why). Using the birth date from my grandmother's list as a cross-reference, I was able to locate the Social Security death certificate for Florence Koehler in New York! That's the first public document I found proving she even existed so I am super happy. Genealogical research is measured in very bite-size progress, so no matter how small the morsel I'll take it!

My next step is to try to find ANY information on my great-grandfather George Koehler which sounds easier that it has been. He has proved rather elusive in my research - I cannot find anything on him at all. Aside from his name and marriage anniversary to Florence in 1919 (at least according to my grandma's anniversary list), I know nothing about the man. This makes it impossible to confirm that any of the George Koehler's I've found in census records are him.

Even more annoying to me is that I can't find any instances of a George and Florence Koehler living together in the census records. Since I know my paternal grandfather's birthday is in 1927, I figured I could search the 1930 census for George and Florence Koehler with a son John and I'd find them. Wham-bam - seemed easy enough. I was wrong. I couldn't find anything that matched that so I've hit somewhat of a brick wall there. All I really want to do is find out the names of my paternal great-great grandparents so I can fill in the blanks on the family tree but since I can't find anything on my great-grandfather it's rather difficult to do so.

I need some sort of a clue here but I'm stuck. I'm going to try to do a Freedom of Information Act request for my grandfather's NY National Guard records. I'm hoping those records will give me a hint of where my grandfather was living when he joined in 1952 and, possibly, lead me on another route to my great-grandfather's personal information. Stay tuned for that and if any one reading has any hints or tips for me, please let me know. I could use them =)
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