Researching People

Our identifications run the gamut from George Washington to one of Jane Addams' neighbors in Chicago's 19th Ward. Depending on how prominent the person is, your research tactics will be a little different.

Learn to be creative in constructing searches and you will be successful!

Google It!

It is not a bad first step to Google the person's name, in quotes, to see immediately whether or not they are reasonably prominent. Google searches can lead to:

  • Wikipedia articles, which can provide a quick overview and factual summary of the person's life;
  • Archival finding aids will often provide a biographical entry on the individual that provides much of the information we need. Be sure to cite it!
  • Historical society pages or other public history sites can provide biographical information, images, information on writings by your subject, or
  • Digitized scholarly articles
  • Digitized newspapers
  • Digitized books
  • Images
  • General web pages

If the person has a common name, try adding a location or a date of birth if you have one, ex.

George Washington Mount Vernon

"William Smith" "Sioux Falls"

Remember, after finishing the research on a subject, try Googling them again with new information to see if you missed any important sources or information.

Newspaper searches

We have access to a number of subscription newspaper databases. Some are stronger than others and have better search engines to help you narrow results. Newspapers can be your first step when trying to identify a person's full name, such as Alderman Jones, or when you are having trouble reading the name in a letter but you understand the context.

  • One way to locate relevant articles quicker is to limit the results by the year of your letter or the state that the person is associated with.
  • Use quotes, especially with common first and last names, but be willing to drop them if you are having no luck.
  • Sometimes people use initials, so if you can't locate "Charles Harris Mills" try searching for "C. H. Mills"
  • When trying to find a woman, you may want to search for her husband, as they were often referred to simply as Mrs. John Smith, even in their obituaries.
  • If you are getting nowhere and think your person should be in the papers, try variant spellings. it is always possible that your document is incorrect.
  • An obituary should always be ONE of your sources, if it is available.

Ancestry and Genealogical Records

The Ancestry databases are powerful tools that can help us identify the famous, but more importantly, the ordinary people that fill our documents. Genealogical records can help to prove which John Smith in Chicago is the one who wrote our letter, or help us fill in the blank metadata fields.

  • Among the records that Ancestry contains are census and city directories, military records, immigration and naturalization records, vital records of births, marriages, divorces, and deaths, and more. There are millions of records, so you need to cross-reference and check them to insure that they all refer to the right person.
  • Census and immigration records are extremely useful in identifying the given names of women and children, who are often left out of obituaries of their husbands and fathers.
  • Passport applications often contain photographs, specific dates of birth, and signatures of the applicant, which can help when trying to verify if the author of your letter is this person. They also often have additional documentation following the application which can provide further biographical information.
  • You will often have to piece together the lives of "ordinary" people, picking up a birth date from one source, an address from another, and a death date from a third source. You just need to be careful to link them properly, especially when the person's name is common.
  • Ancestry family trees often pull information from a variety of source together, but we want to cite the specific sources used, not the family tree itself. These can be changed or taken down and are not as good a source.
  • Ancestry should always be one of your stops when trying to pin down birth dates, places, death dates, and the names of spouses and family members.
  • Find A Grave is a source that often includes lesser-known people. Link directly to the Find A Grave site when you use it, rather than the Ancestry record.

Online and Paper Encyclopedias

General encyclopedias are fine sources for historical figures, famous artists, writers, and the like, especially when they pre-date newspaper obituaries.

Internet Libraries

When searching internet libraries, use the capability to limit your searches by date of publication, to cut through some of the false hits.

Other Helpful Resources


Our goal is to provide general sources of the information in the entry as a aid to our readers. You do not have to put every thing you looked at, but should include the most important and the sources of the factual information— dates, full names, etc.

  • If there is a Wikipedia page for the person, always add that. Wikipedia entries are a good first start for a researcher who wants to know more and have citations that they can follow.
  • We always want to check SNAC and create a link to the record. Sometimes there are multiple records for a person in SNAC—choose the one that has the most hits associated with it. SNAC sometimes has a biography pulled from other sites, but it is the links to archival collections that we want to provide our readers.
  • Obituaries are excellent sources for biographies; they often lay out the person's most famous deeds and offer a contemporary look that you sometimes lose in the encyclopedias.
  • Don't include links to sources that you did not use (except SNAC and Wikipedia). We are not creating a whole bibliography for the topic.


If you come up with a new name or correct a name while doing research, please correct it in the creator field and the title field of the documents related to that person, if necessary. If there are a lot of names, you can add an item on Basecamp to highlight that item-level editing is needed to correct the name reference.

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