Unsealing the Deal

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

For all you online genealogists who hate spending money on pricey databases, have I got a deal for you: The Godfrey Memorial Library <> in Middle-town, Conn., has created a portal to some of the Web’s most valuable subscription data — and offers access to any Internet-enabled family historian willing to plunk down a $35 annual membership fee.

What does your money buy? For starters, “Godfrey Scholars” (the library’s label for paying members) get to surf HeritageQuest Online <>, a data-subscription service sold only to libraries and other institutions. Its resources include images of all federal censuses (plus head-of-household indexes to most), a collection of 25,000 digitized family and local history books, and the Periodical Source Index (PERSI), a 1.6 million-entry catalog of the contents of 6,500 genealogy periodicals published since 1800.

If that isn’t enough, you also can search 12 million pages of historical newspapers from more then 400 cities and towns; some editions date back as far as the 1700s. Godfrey’s online offerings aren’t strictly all-American, either. You also get access to the Irish genealogy databases at <> (including the essential 19th-century Griffith’s Valuation tax records), as well as historical books and newspapers from Scotland and the United Kingdom.

No doubt about it: The Godfrey Scholar program has been one of the Net’s best-kept secrets — until now. With these hints for cashing in on the site’s data, you can ensure maximum returns on your investment.

Registering your savings

To become a Godfrey Scholar, download the online application and send a check — or for instant access, call during regular business hours and pay by credit card. You can’t try before you buy, but nonmembers can log on as guests for links to dozens of free online databases. Subscribers sign on using a unique 14-digit ID and the password godfrey.

After logging in as a subscriber, you’ll go to a screen with a search box at the top and a directory of resources below. The directory groups individual databases into broader categories (biographies, military, France) denoted by yellow folder icons; clicking a folder icon will show all the databases in that category. Members-only databases appear under the heading Godfrey Scholar — Online Resources.

If you see a check box next to a database, you can search it using the Godfrey Web site’s “meta search” (meaning it can simultaneously comb the contents of multiple external Web sites). Just select at least one database, then enter your keywords in the search box. (Warning: When you click the check boxes, the page may take awhile to reload.) You can target your search using Boolean operators such as and, or and not, as well as “wildcard” characters.

If you enter multiple keywords, the meta search automatically plugs in the Boolean and. So a query for cairo illinois (or illinois cairo) will return results containing both those words. Some databases require quotation marks to hunt for an exact phrase; for example, “nancy hendrickson” generates pages with the two words in that order. Click on the Help tab at the top of the page for tips on constructing advanced searches. When you’re ready to start a new search, click the Clear Resources box at the bottom of the page to deselect any previously chosen databases.

Only a handful of the databases (mostly library catalogs) are part of the meta search. The others — including the Godfrey Scholar databases — have globe icons next to them, which indicate links to external sites. So rather than searching those resources from the Godfrey Web site, you’ll click to go to the databases’ own sites, where you can take advantage of each one’s unique features.

Unveiling valuable data

To start mining the members-only resources, just pick a database and click its globe icon to launch the site in a new window. I chose HeritageQuest Online’s Revolutionary War database of pension and bounty-land warrant application files first.

My search for the surname Faulkenberry yielded only one name: David Faulkenberry, a soldier from South Carolina. When I clicked on his name, the next six pages contained digital images of his actual pension file. At that point, I had the option to save the file to my computer, print it or view the image as a positive or negative image. (It’s sometimes easier to read old documents by viewing them as white letters on black backgrounds, like photo negatives). You can save your searches in a private online notebook — just click the link at the top of the page.

Faulkenberry’s pension file contained an affidavit detailing his service as a baggage-wagon guard at the battle of Hanging Rock, SC; the names of his commanding officer and some of his fellow soldiers; and his later residences in Clarke County, Ga., and Rutherford County, Tenn. (Daughters of the American Revolution, here I come!)

Next, I did an identical search HeritageQuest Online’s collection of family of HeritageQuest Online’s collection of family and local histories. That turned up 10 books, three of which contained promising leads for further research. A PERSI search found three articles on Faulkenberrys — and the site even provided links to order copies of each from PERSI’s creator, the Allen County (Ind.) Public Library <>. Not bad for 15 minutes of poking around in three databases.

Getting in on the secrets

You can apply the search strategies from the previous page to both the meta search and the premium databases. You’ll get more results by mixing up your search terms, phrases and spellings. Try variations of your ancestors’ names — and use wildcards to net multiple spellings at once. For example, I employed an asterisk (*), which replaces multiple letters, to expand my results in the Revolutionary War database: Hendrickson yielded 15 results; Hendri* brought back 63. Likewise, you can substitute a question mark (?) for any single character, so searching for Shel?on would find both Sheldon and Shelton. (But keep in mind that not all databases support wildcards; if you get zero results, try again without them.)

Next, search for places, particularly if your family lived in a small town or village. When I searched both PERSI and HeritageQuest Online’s digitized books, I discovered several accounts detailing the history of one of my ancestral hometowns. Such place-focused articles often contain those fascinating tidbits that bring your family’s history to life.

Be sure to save important search results from HeritageQuest Online in your notebook — this will save you time when you come back three months later and can’t remember what you’ve already found. I also suggest downloading your findings and adding them into your genealogy software.

A final place-based tip: Check for state-specific databases in the Godfrey site’s resource directory. Most of those databases don’t require a Godfrey Scholar membership, so anyone can search them.

But even the most frugal genealogist will agree the paid resources are well worth their modest price tag. In fact, with the Godfrey’s plans to add new databases — including a vast archive of African-American newspapers — this is the best $35 you’ll ever spend online.
(Note: HeritageQuest Online is no longer available through the Godfrey Web site.)

From the June 2005 Family Tree Magazine