Discover Surprising Facts about Your Missouri Ancestry
If you live in St. Louis or surrounding areas and you’ve never made the trip to the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center, you’re depriving yourself—not just of the building’s ethereal beauty and architecture, but of the fact that you can search through the library’s incredible genealogical resources to discover previously unknown facts and information about your local relatives, as well as information about the history of local homes, businesses and buildings. Better yet, it’s free and open to the public.
Even if you do have a bit of information about your ancestry or a building of significance, it can still feel overwhelming to attempt the research process on your own. Where do you even start?
The good news is you don’t have to be a researcher or scholar to demystify the facility’s materials. Whether you’re researching your own lineage or home, staff will help you delve into the online resources, which can then connect you to a variety of materials of interest—from newspaper articles to photographs and more.
The process is not as challenging or vague as you might think. I recently attended a fascinating genealogical workshop at the library led by associate archivist Dennis Northcott, during which I learned staff are available to help connect the public to resources of interest either by phone, email or in person.
Though my mother was born in St. Louis, her family is from Colorado, and my father is from New York, and the library’s resources largely cover local lineages. I decided to ask Northcott to help me unearth information on my childhood home in St. Louis’ Clayton neighborhood instead—and unearth, he did. Before I arrived at the workshop, I had given Northcott the address to see what information may exist about who lived in it years ago. He immediately got back to me with census records, death certificates, newspaper clippings and other information that painted a captivating portrait of its previous inhabitants.
A page from the 1930 federal census showed the home was owned by a man named James Burke, when the house was valued at $25,000, and the 1940 census reported his widow, Alvina Burke, as head of the household. Northcott was also able to find a thumbnail biographical sketch of another former resident of the home from the 1949 edition of “Who’s Who in the Midwest,” and a page from the “Journal of the Engineer’s Club of St. Louis” from 1970 with an image of another. He also found a copy of Alvina Burke’s death certificate from 1944, which specified that she’d suffered a fall in the backyard of the home and died from a cerebral hemorrhage eight days later. “This is just a sampling of items regarding your family’s house. There’s plenty more to be found if you want to spend some time digging,” Northcott wrote.
For baffled researchers, I found that Northcott and the library staff are ready and willing to help anyone with the process. To begin, he suggests visiting the library’s website and searching the “Genealogy and Local History Index,” which will pull information from a variety of sources the library has on hand about St. Louis’ former residents. This can be done in person, or remotely. From there, you can begin to patch together a paper trail that can lead to much more information about your relatives that you may even have bargained for.
Northcott and a team of devoted volunteers have also been indexing names from a trove of valuable genealogical resources, from obituary scrapbooks to yearbooks, employee company magazines and more. “Another source we’ve become really interested in indexing are company magazines, from places like the Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Katy Railroad, McDonnell Douglas and more. They’re jam-packed with articles about their employees, whether they’re getting married, getting promoted, having children—all kinds of great stories,” says Northcott. They’ve even indexed questionnaires filled out by World War I veterans who enlisted from St. Louis. The library also has subscriptions to sites like Ancestry.com, which you can search for free if you visit the library in person.
The facility makes it possible to sort through a variety of records that can showcase new information about relatives—including census records, military records, maps, funeral home records and coroner’s records. Thanks to optical character recognition technology (or OCR), which renders newspapers keyword-searchable once they’ve been scanned, researchers can find information about former St. Louis residents in the form of obituaries, marriage and birth announcements, classified ads and more. The Library and Research Center holds a subscription to Newspapers.com, which includes the searchable St. Louis Post Dispatch from 1874 to 1922. “You can find a million things that way you’d never be able to find otherwise. It’s absolutely revolutionary,” he says.
With a wealth of research materials, it’s very likely that the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center will have information you may not be able to find elsewhere.
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All images courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.