Keys to the Past
Accessing the MHM Online Genealogy and Local History Index
By Dennis Northcott, Associate Archivist, Missouri History Museum
“Incautious use of gunpowder in driving out mosquitoes.” Such was the cause of death of Elizabeth Weber in 1839, as entered in the record book of inquests of St. Louis County coroner Esrom Owens. A genealogist searching for information about the death of an ancestor would surely be taken aback by this curious entry. Thanks to the Missouri History Museum’s new online Genealogy and Local History Index, references to Elizabeth Weber and hundreds of thousands of other past St. Louis residents are now just a few keystrokes away.
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|The Genealogy and Local History Index includes references to nearly 3,000 letterheads of old St. Louis businesses, including this one for exterminator Frank Bliss. Missouri History Museum.|
The stacks at the Library and Research Center at 225 South Skinker are packed with publications, documents, and photographs revealing the details of the lives of countless St. Louisans. Census records, newspapers, school yearbooks, company employee magazines, and veterans’ records are among the valuable genealogical sources stored at the LRC. And although these items have been cataloged, in most cases they have not been indexed. As an example, a publication titled Southwest Saint Louis: Its Mercantile Interests and Prominent Citizens (published circa 1908) is cataloged in the Missouri History Museum’s online library catalog under the title, the author’s name, and the subject heading “Saint Louis (Mo.)–Description and Travel.” However, the names and the accompanying biographical information of these prominent citizens of southwest St. Louis have been largely hidden to all but the most skilled and diligent researchers.
Volunteer Laura Stadelman indexing the records of the Weick Funeral Home from the early 19th century. Photograph © 2008, Missouri History Museum.
Recognizing that genealogists, who represent perhaps one quarter of the LRC’s researchers, needed easier access to these sources, Associate Archivist Dennis Northcott began indexing selected books and documents that contain valuable genealogical data. He then recruited volunteers to assist in the monumental task of keying in this data. For the past few years, volunteers Laura Stadelman, Judy Kaufman, and Joan Filiatreau have visited the LRC once a week to enter data into the ever-growing Genealogy and Local History Index. Thanks to the efforts of these and other dedicated volunteers, the aforementioned Southwest St. Louis is now one of more than 200 sources that have been indexed.
|"Souvenir, St. Louis Police Department," published in 1902, contains group photographs of more than 1,000 patrolmen. Missouri History Museum.|
Along the way, the volunteers have made some interesting discoveries. While indexing a Central High School yearbook from 1933, Stadelman saw a familiar face staring up at her from the page—her mother! “I have a photograph of my mother and never knew when it was taken,” said Stadelman. Kaufman found some intriguing information while indexing a Cleveland High School class of 1925 reunion directory, compiled in 1960. “It was so interesting to see what some of these women accomplished,” said Kaufman. “There was a woman who was a doctor, a nurse in Tehran, and college professors. It was a surprise to me that women from that era had those types of careers.”
Page from "Southwest Saint Louis: Its Mercantile Interests and Prominent Citizens" (published ca. 1908), which contains historical sketches of businesses, businessmen, and commercial and manufacturing establishments. Missouri History Museum.
As the index continued to grow, the next step was to make this data accessible online. In 2007 the Missouri History Museum hired Web developer David Henry, who designed an online searchable database for this data. “My goal was to provide a simple, fast, intuitive interface that would also provide the context and detail that existed in the rich data sets collected by the archivist and his volunteers,” Henry said. “The end result is an interface where a user can quickly find all references to a certain name, address, or business and also see the context of the search result.”
Since the index was launched this past summer, it has become one of the most frequently visited pages on the Missouri History Museum website. Users can search by personal name, business/corporate name, or street address. The latter search option is offered to help researchers who are interested in the history of their house and its former residents, an increasingly popular pursuit. After a successful search, users can order photocopies of the reference(s) they find for a fee. Or they can visit the LRC to get the photocopies for 25 cents per page. Visitors to the LRC also have the opportunity to consult additional catalogs and guides that are not accessible online.
|"St. Louisans As We See ’Em" (published ca. 1903) contains caricatures of more than 500 St. Louis businessmen and professional men. Missouri History Museum.|
The hundreds of thousands of names in the Genealogy and Local History Index include some of the city’s past elite and those whose names have never graced the pages of a history of St. Louis. As volunteer Joan Filiatreau noted, “The names that I’ve indexed varied from Adolphus Busch (in a 1949 publication titled Who’s Who in the Midwest), to future actor Vincent Price (in a 1929 Country Day School yearbook), to Mattie Russell, a 19-year-old prostitute listed in an 1895 smallpox hospital patient roster.”
One of the strengths of the index is the variety of sources it contains. Several “Who’s Who” publications provide biographical sketches of St. Louis’s 20th-century business, professional, and civic leaders. Payrolls of the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company list the pay received by men who worked on the construction of the Eads Bridge in 1874. (Laborers on the bridge were paid $1.80 per day, while carpenters made $3.) St. Louis’s veterans are well represented in the index, from records of Civil War veterans’ associations to scrapbooks of newspaper clippings of World War I and World War II servicemen.
Free Negro bond of Mary Ann Johnson, dated November 2, 1860. Missouri History Museum.
Researchers with African American roots may find ancestors in more than 1,000 so-called free Negro bonds, which were required by free persons of color in Missouri prior to the abolition of slavery. The bond of Mary Ann Johnson notes that she is the daughter of Matilda Reed and the wife of Edward Johnson; her height is 5 feet, 1 inch, and she has a large scar across the left arm at the elbow.
“I have a real pride,” said volunteer Judy Kaufman, “in the fact that we are helping tons of people who are doing research on their families to find names that they may not have found otherwise. That is very rewarding to me as an amateur genealogist myself.”
So if you’ve ever wondered about your family’s history, search for your ancestors’ names in the Genealogy and Local History Index. Who knows what you’ll find? New discoveries may be just a few keystrokes away!