With more than 11 billion historical records in its online archives, Ancestry.com is often the destination of choice for first-time genealogists seeking to track down information about their family history. It can be a pricey proposition to search out Great-Grandpa, though: Yearlong access to the site ranges from $155 for US records alone, and costs $299 for 12 months of access to records from the rest of the world. And here in America, who doesn’t have ancestors from elsewhere?
There are free options for genealogy searches, however, and the first stop for more information is the local library. In New Paltz, the non-circulating research section of the Elting Memorial Library on Main Street houses the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection, a repository for primary source material and published works relating to the Hudson Valley. Although its genealogical and local history collection has a primary focus on New Paltz, researchers all across the mid-Hudson Valley region will find valuable information within its archives.
Carol A. Johnson is coordinator for the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection. She has been with the Library in New Paltz for more than 25 years, and she has seen the changes in how genealogical research is conducted since the advent of computers and websites like Ancestry.com. When she first heard about the FindaGrave.com website, she had her doubts about its usefulness, but since that time has come to be an ardent supporter of the free resource for genealogical information.
Along with many other volunteers, Johnson has so far uploaded photos and records of some 1,100 of the 6,500 interned in New Paltz Rural Cemetery to FindaGrave.com. “I get quite a few queries having to do with people buried in local cemeteries,” she says, “and in doing my own genealogy and helping people out with theirs, I see how much joy the information in ‘Find a Grave’ brings to people, and how much help it has been in gaining information.”
Recently, says Johnson, a woman in California put in a photo request for her grandparents’ grave in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery. Johnson went out the same day and took the photograph, uploaded it and within an hour had received a thank-you from the gratified woman, who had never been able to see her grandparents’ gravesite before.
Johnson is interested in encouraging new volunteers to help upload photographs of graves and headstones to FindaGrave.com, whether it’s someone seeing a beautiful headstone and taking a picture of it to upload, or someone focused on contributing photographs of a single family. Memorials on the “Find a Grave” website may contain pictures and biographies or more specific information, and members can leave remembrances via “virtual flowers” on the memorials that they visit. Membership is free, and visitors only have to register to contribute information; one can simply search the site without signing up.
The website was founded in 1995 by self-described “nerd” Jim Tipton, who was unable to find information online at the time to satisfy his hobby of searching out the graves of famous people. Since then, the site still offers information on the graves of celebrities, but also serves the wider function of helping millions of people research their ancestry. The site gets five million hits a day, says Johnson, and more than 800,000 people contribute to its archives. E-mail addresses remain private and are not sold.
The resources of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library include a public computer for genealogical purposes and access to online subscription databases and websites, including Ancestry.com. For a nominal fee, microfilms from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City can be ordered and viewed. Founded in 1894, the Family History Library is the largest facility of its kind in the world, featuring more than 3 million genealogical records from over 110 countries.
The extensive collection of indexed Hudson Valley records, from Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Greene, Columbia, Putnam and Sullivan as well as miscellaneous other counties, includes maps and atlases; obituaries, birth and marriage announcements from 1860 forward; census records; genealogy on Hudson Valley families; vertical files with newspaper clippings and ephemera related to local families and organizations; an extensive collection of materials relating to the history and architecture of the houses, farms and commercial buildings within New Paltz; locally published magazines, newsletters and yearbooks; photographs, slides and postcards dating from the late 19th century; biographical information on approximately 2,000 New York State families; and special collections including account books, invoices and business ledgers from the Minnewaska hotels, the Pine Funeral Home records, Civil War letters, deeds, diaries, family papers and records of local clubs and organizations.
The Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection keeps different hours from the rest of the Elting Memorial Library: Closed on weekends, it’s open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 1 to 5:30 p.m.
Another free resource for genealogical searches is the Hudson River Valley Heritage site, a searchable online resource of the Hudson Valley region including materials from the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection and other historical societies, libraries and museums in the Hudson Valley. Visit www.hrvh.org.