When researching your family history, websites like Ancestry.com can get you started. However, the Missouri Historical Society’s Library and Research Center, located at 225 S. Skinker Blvd., just west of Forest Park, can provide much more detailed information for those with roots in the St. Louis region, both in-person and online.
Staff at the Library and Research Center are available to assist with research in person, via email and over the phone. The Library is open to the public, and novice researchers shouldn’t be afraid to come in and ask for help getting started. With help from Dennis Northcott, associate archivist for reference at the Library and Research Center, Missouri Historical Society Communications Coordinator Madeline Reichmuth learned more about her ancestors than she ever could have imagined.
“Dennis found an article about [my great-grandfather] in the 1924 St. Louis Star,” Reichmuth says. “It’s a funny article. Basically, he was arrested for careless driving. His wife starts calling hospitals and the police because she didn’t know where he was, and the police told her they hadn’t seen him. He comes home a few days later and says he’d been in jail the past two nights. There are quotes from them in the story, and that’s something I thought I’d never find.”
During her research, Reichmuth came across a big surprise. “We found out my great-great-great-grandfather’s cause of death was decapitation, which was a big shock,” she says. “Dennis went to search newspapers because if something like that happened, it would have been reported in a local paper. He was oiling a machine, which was not his normal job, and they think maybe his sleeve got caught. It’s a graphic article that gives a lot of detail; it says his head rolled to one side and his body to the other. On one hand, it’s really cool we found this, but it also makes me feel bad they had to experience this. The article describes him and his personality and says his son worked there at the same time. It brings things to life. It’s a very sad story, but it gives me an idea of what they were like.”
If you’d prefer to begin your research online, the Library and Research Center has several pathways to finding information on its website. The Genealogy and Local History Index is an ever-growing index to a variety of sources in the Missouri Historical Society’s collection. With over a million records, Northcott says this index — in the making for the past decade — is “the best place to start” when researching St. Louis ancestors.
“For example, we have yearbooks from various St. Louis schools starting in the first decade of the 1900s,” Northcott says. “One of my volunteers has gone through page by page and keyed in all the students’ names into the Genealogy and Local History Index, which is searchable online. You can key in a name with the hopes of finding something instantly … and you may find a wealth of information.” The Genealogy Resources page “provides links to valuable indexes and databases for researching St. Louis–area ancestors at other repositories,” Northcott says. All of these sources, including sites like Ancestry.com, may also be used free of charge in person at the Library.
Other sources that are searchable online include death certificates, city directories and census records. “The federal census is the bedrock of genealogical research because it’s taken consistently every 10 years and records information about everybody, regardless of status,” Northcott says, adding the census has been digitized and indexed online up through 1940. “We also have records from many organizations. When you join any organization, you fill out paperwork, and some of these records have been indexed.”
“One of the things we’ve been fanatical about indexing in recent years are company employee magazines: Anheuser-Busch, Wagner Electric, all kinds,” Northcott says. “Volunteers read through the magazines and index names. They might show a wedding photo or a picture of an employee’s baby, and there are lots of photos of employees’ hunting and fishing trips.”
Additionally, if you live in St. Louis City or County, you may be able to learn some of the history of your home. “Many people want to research a home, commercial building or neighborhood, so we always key in addresses as we’re indexing,” Northcott explains. The House History Resource page on the Missouri Historical Society website provides links to sources for house history research.
Although all of these resources will help fill in your family tree, Northcott says, “Some people have been researching their ancestors for decades because, in a sense, you’re never really done,” he explains. “Even if you have names and dates, there’s always potential to learn more about their lives.”
The Library and Research Center also offers genealogy or house history workshops, offered periodically throughout the year. Cost is $10 per person ($5 for Missouri Historical Society members) and advance reservations are required as space is limited, and workshops fill quickly. M