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The USGenWeb Phenomena: A Progress Report

Carmen J. Finley, Ph.D., C.G

[NGS/CIG DIGEST, Vol. 18, No. 2

(National Genealogical Society Computer Interest Group, March April 1999), p. 1

Reprinted by permission of Carla Ridenour, Editor.].

It has been three years since the USGenWeb came into being in the Spring of 1996. The establishment of this system of county-centered online information for family researchers was first documented in the NGS/CIG DIGEST in the September/October 1997 issue. What has happened in the intervening time? Many things have happened. At the county level, coordinators continue to add information and databases and a large majority of them have mailing lists devoted to their county. Query systems have evolved and developed to the point that it is possible to search not only nationwide, but worldwide, for queries and other information that has been posted about surnames of interest. New large-scale projects are being developed; among them are the Archives, Census, Tombstone, Lineage, and Kidz Projects. One of the most exciting things is that actual images of primary/original source records are beginning to appear.

County Level Activities

As one might expect, there is wide variation in the quality and amount of information now available from county to county. There are many excellent sites which grow and develop with each passing day. However, there are still a few "orphan counties" that need to be adopted and developed.

Mailing Lists

One of the most exciting developments at the county level is the rapidly growing availability of mailing lists. Just think of it--a mailing list devoted entirely to the research interests of folks in a given county. In Augusta County, Virginia, for example, a list established about a year and a half ago now has approximately 700 members--all of whom have interests in that county! And there is a search engine on the Augusta County page that will call up all the information on a given surname since the list began. This writer has found participating in a mailing list to be a very fast way to get helpful leads. It depends, of course, on the size of the mailing list and the interests of those on the list at any given time. It may not be possible, because of time constraints, to join and remain active on many lists, but it is easy to subscribe for a brief period, unsubscribe, and then go back later as your research needs develop.

Search Engines

Another relatively new development which has become available through Rootsweb, home of many of the county sites, is a search engine designed for county level use. In other words, the visitor can enter a surname and find all references to it at that county site. Some county pages have grown so large that a search engine represents considerable savings in time to find those things of most interest to any researcher.


The use of maps is always a welcome addition for the family historian. While many counties have been using a county map, some are also using township maps, and a few are using plats which show the actual names and locations of early settlers. One of the most innovative uses of maps is found is Tom Agan's treatment of the map information provided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Orange County, Indiana. BLM is discussed in further detail in the section on images below. Tom has taken this information and created colored sections showing the position of each early patent holder. See:

and scroll down to "Land."

Following Tom's example, see more BLM maps at Hillsdale County, Michigan, and Howard County, Indiana, which are being developed by Tracey Morris:

Excellent use of Township maps can be see at Muskingum County, Ohio, developed by Melanie Cox:

Also see Van Buren County, Iowa, coordinated by Rich Lowe:

And Dickinson County, Kansas, developed by Kathy Welch Heidel:

For an example of plats showing early patent holders in the Beverley Patent, 1736, see Augusta County, Virginia:

Many counties have taken advantage of the offer made by Gold Bug Historic Maps and Software. Gold Bug has provided about 200 sites with historical maps to post for their county. For example, see Augusta County showing county boundaries in 1738, 1770, 1776, and 1791:

Not to mention a wonderful map which unfolds to show the development of America at various periods from 1650 through 1982, developed by Ed Stephan.


Many counties are making good use of photographs. A particularly interesting page has been developed by Valerie Brown on Rehoboth Church, now in Monroe County, West Virginia. The First Methodist Church west of the Alleghenies was dedicated in 1786, and she intersperses the history of this church with photos.

Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church, established in 1740 in Augusta County, is another example of a photo album and early church history.

Jones County, Iowa, maintained by Richard Harrison, has a "Missing Person" section showing early photos of persons whose identity is not known.

Tracey Morris has made good use of postal cards of early 1900 scenes of Kokomo in Howard County, Indiana.

In Webster County, Kentucky, Carole Palmer has a page devoted to the Providence High School Class of 1924.

A substantial photo gallery of Orange County people and places has been developed by Tom Agan in Orange County, Indiana.

Locating Exemplary Sites

It would be impossible to identify all of the superior sites, but there are a couple of ways to get a good sampling. A USGenWeb Virtual Tour was established last November. Initially set up by John Schunk, the objectives of the USGenWeb Virtual Tour are to exchange ideas and information on the design, content, and presentation of USGenWeb county and state sites for both the tourists and the hosts. Now managed by Darilee Bednar, you can find this site at:

During the summer of 1998 a number of Palmer Awards were made to evaluate content, overall presentation, and ease of navigation. This site can be found at:

However, there is one county coordinator whose hands-on approach really deserves mention. Shari Handley, who is webmaster for Somerset and Wicomico Counties, Maryland, has for two years organized two special events involving local researchers. In Shari's words:

A county or regional mailing list can be used to create excitement about your county sites, and to motivate subscribers to donate transcribed records and such. I run the 650+ member LOWER-DELMARVA-ROOTS mailing list, and have for the last two years organized a yearly double event during our one week vacation to the area. One event is what we call our annual "CemTrek,"and the other is the "Research Jamboree" that takes place at the Nabb Research Center for DelMarVa History and Culture.

Last year, there were eight CemTrekkers who braved the hot sun, humidity, brambles and chiggers to transcribe another bunch of cemetery data. Afterwards, we had a wonderful dinner of the best the Eastern Shore has to offer at the Red Rooster in Wicomico County (Newt Gingrich ate here!) We had a total blast! Then, the next day, there were about 40 list members who came to the Nabb Center for the Research Jamboree. Folks came from as far away as the Netherlands (!), California, Rhode Island, and Michigan for this event, and I expect even more this summer.

When we return from the CemTrek and Research Jamboree, I write a detailed report of both events for the whole list to read and upload the cemetery data we've transcribed. People seem to love to read the trip report, and I know they appreciate the data.

The Query Systems

From the very beginning of the USGenWeb project there has been high interest in providing a place where visitors could post their queries and read those posted by others. In response to the growing interest and the difficulty in efficiently locating surnames of interest, two systems have developed to the point where it is now very easy to search these massive databases.

Surname Helper

Created by Patty Lindsay, Surname Helper is a surname searchable database of queries and surname registrations posted on various genealogy sites. Participating sites include both USGenWeb and WorldGenWeb sites as well as others. As of January 1999, there was a total of 3,203 sites using this system, of which 2,666 were members of the USGenWeb or WorldGenWeb systems. When this writer searched for "Finley" on the total system, 328 listings were returned. In addition to just queries, there was also found a number of biographies, cemetery, census, death, directory, history, military, newspaper, pension, and will records which come from the GenConnect system describe next. To access the Surname Helper search engine:


GenConnect is a query board system where a researcher can post queries and share data. A query board system is where the responses to an initial query are threaded so they appear together as a set of information as the data accumulates. Started in December 1997 by Nancy Trice with a single county in Kentucky, the demand soon spread nationwide and worldwide. There are three types of boards, (1) those where you can post to and respond to queries, (2) those you can post to, but queries are not allowed, and (3) boards which are read only boards. Types of boards at this time, include: Bibles, biographies, deeds, obits, queries, pensions, and wills and as of January 1999 there were 6,008 boards in use. A global surname search on "Finley" on GenConnect returned 206 listings. To access this search engine:

Major Projects

The Archives

First of the major large-scale projects to appear was the USGenWeb Archives initiated by Linda Lewis. Established in July 1996, the goal of the Archives Project is to put public domain records online so that they are freely accessible to everyone. Included are probate, land, vital, church, court, military, Bible records, obituaries, and passenger lists among others. There are now two search engines--one to search by state and the other to search nationwide. To search by state:

To search nationwide:

A detailed report on the archives, authored by Linda Lewis, appeared in the January-February 1998 issue of the NGS/CIG DIGEST.

Several sub-projects have originated from the Archives Project, namely the census project and the tombstone inscriptions project.

Census Project

The USGenWeb Census Project was started in February 1997 with the mission of transcribing all of the US Federal Censuses. This, of course, is an enormous job and transcribers are busily at work, but more are needed to extract the census data from the original rolls. The project got off the ground with about twenty-five people and there are currently more that 500 volunteers at work. Kay Mason, director of this project, wrote a detailed account which appeared in the November-December 1998 issue of NGS/CIG DIGEST. The most exciting development is that the actual census images are also becoming available and eventually the researcher will be able to read the transcribed version and then look at the actual image to verify the information. Linda Lewis is responsible for the image version of the census. More on this in the section devoted to images.

You can view the status of the census transcription project at:

You can view the progress of the census image project at:

Keep in mind that, because of its enormity, this is still a fledgling project, so you may not find your specific county and year of interest. As of now it is not indexed, nor are the transcriptions linked to their corresponding images, but these sites are well worth watching and re-visiting often.

Tombstone Inscription Project

The Tombstone Inscription Project, started in March 1997 by Pamela Reid, was originally designed as "a lasting tribute to our ancestors." Pam's project is organized state-by-state, cemetery-by-cemetery and she encourages anyone with data to contribute it, or to go read the stones of any cemetery in their area and contribute the data. The NGS/CIG DIGEST carried her report as a lead article in the March-April 1998 issue. Check to see if any of your ancestors have been included; visit her site at:

The Lineage Project

The Lineage Project provides a place where individuals can list a specific ancestor, give a minimal amount of information about that person and a way to contact the submitter. It was created by Megan and Barry Zurawicz as one of the USGenWeb special projects. Coordinator Sam Sneed and family have volunteered their services for the past year in maintaining submissions upkeep to the project. Hundreds of researchers weekly, from around the world, e-mail their surnames with accompanying data in hopes of linking others to their personal e-mail address or home pages that contain additional information.

Kidz Project

The Kidz Project is The USGenWeb Project's resource page for kids. Jen Bawden and Dee Pavey coordinate this project.

Images Are Beginning to Appear Online

Images of actual documents (primary, original) are beginning to appear online. There are not many, but the mere fact that someone has the foresight to get them started is significant. Some are directly a part of the USGenWeb project or a spin-off of the project. Others, mostly from government agencies, are also beginning to appear and USGenWeb county coordinators are quick to recognize them and make links available to them.

The Census Project described above is by far the largest USGenWeb sponsored attempt to get images online. This project has been given a boost by John Schunk of S-K Publications who produces census images on CD-ROMs. Their offer states:

As each county/year census is completed, a copy of the scanned images will be donated to the USGenWeb Project for non-commercial display on the World-Wide Web. THUS, YOUR PURCHASE OF A CD, IN EFFECT, PROVIDES ON-LINE RESEARCHERS EVERYWHERE WITH ACCESS TO THE COUNTY AND CENSUS YEAR YOU HAVE SELECTED. It's as if you purchased a book and then donated it to your library or genealogy society--except that, in this case, it's not a local library or society, but a world-wide library, easily accessible to everyone!

As of this writing, this process is happening for the states of California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

One of the first affiliates of a county page to complete a significant project of online images was done by Angela Ruley and Marilyn Headley. They scanned 1,354 images of Rockbridge County Marriage Bonds (1778-1801). These images were scanned directly from the original marriage bonds located at the Rockbridge County Courthouse in Lexington, Virginia. They are well indexed and other helpful information concerning bonds and consent is included.

They enjoy a close working relationship with the Rockbridge VAGenWeb site coordinated by Yvonne James-Henderson at:

Ruley provided details of the development of this project in the May/June 1998 issue of NGS/CIG DIGEST.

The Wilderness Road Regional Museum located in the historic town of Newbern, Pulaski County, Virginia, started scanning in December 1998. Their collection consists of court records, and indexes to wills, deeds, marriage, and Bible records. This project is being done by volunteers at the museum but is facilitated by Mike Gwinn, Pulaski VAGenWeb coordinator. See:

In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, coordinator Barry McGhie has recently launched a project to reconstruct two early will books covering the period August 1824 through April 1830. Using recordation dates (the dates documents were ordered by the court to be entered into the will books) in conjunction with the folios (page numbers) and libers (books) written on many of the documents, the will books are being reconstructed in the form of digital will books into which transcripts and images of original documents will be entered. See:

Notable efforts are also being made by government agencies and many USGenWeb coordinators are taking advantage of this by linking to them.

The Library of Virginia has Land Office Patents and Grants images online. These are recorded copies of those documents by which the Crown (between 1623 and 1774) and the Commonwealth (from 1779) transferred new land to individual ownership:

The National Archives and Records Administration Archival Information Locator (NAIL) is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA's holdings across the country. You can use NAIL to search descriptions for key words or topics and then to retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings. Their introductory page says, "Although NAIL contains more than 384,200 descriptions and 101,180 digital copies, it represents only a limited portion of NARA's vast holdings." You can see a sample of recently added data at:

The Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States, General Land Office provides a database and images to more than two million Federal land title records for the Eastern Public Land States, issued between 1820 and 1908. The states included are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

This site offers researchers a source of information on the initial transfer of land titles from the Federal government to individuals in the specified states.

In November 1998 the GLO began expanding this site by including "serial" patent records issued after June 30, 1908. This also includes records for the western states. More than 1.24 million "serial" patents will be added to the web site during the next three years.

What Others Say About Us

For over two years this writer has carried an evaluation form on her pages. Here are some of the comments which have been received:

I appreciate all the lookup help I have gotten, particularly from the people in St. Clair County, Illinois, and in Scioto County, Ohio. What I find to be most valuable is information that is placed online for folks to view. For example, the Scott Co., Virginia, page had marriage records that provided information on several ancestors. At other sites I've found valuable census information, the online cemetery files at the Scioto Co. Genealogy hotspot are great, and Civil War rosters have all proved really valuable.

I especially like things like the 'family files' on the Orange Co., Indiana, site-- they also have cemetery lists and searchable census records! It would be nice if all the county pages could have their queries set up to be searchable, and if they would all have maps like some of the Virginia and other pages which show the outline of the county on a state map. Also it's very important to include information on the history of the county, when it was formed, and from what counties, etc. On the whole I think the rootsweb/Genweb archives are the best things going in genealogy today--I live in the Czech Republic and do a lot of research in archives here--without these county pages and on-line archives I would be completely cut off from doing research on my own ancestry, though. I'm trying to use some of the ideas of the county pages for my own page on Southern Quakers-- I've set up a page on the Wrightsboro Monthly Meeting and am trying to encourage others to do the same for other monthly meetings.

I would like to see more census records. I enjoy any of the pages having to with the Civil War. Thanks so much for all the information that is being added all the time, I check back to all the sites occasionally.

I really appreciate your putting this information on-line. Living in a rural area four hours drive from the nearest substantial library, I often have difficulty finding information. On your web site, I found ownership maps of Augusta County which will help me confirm inheritance of a son who was not mentioned in a will. Thanks so much.

I think your sites are wonderful. I don't see how you could improve, except to keep adding more files to the Archives. These are so great for those who can't get out or don't have access to family history centers. I really enjoy your area histories. A great deal of that information came from your sites, or contacts I made on your sites. Do I think you're great? You better believe it!

Carmen, you were one of the first to introduce research material on line with your Chalkley project. The amount of online databases is really exploding across the system which is making USGenWeb really valuable. The county mail lists are also a powerful tool. I just joined yours but am on several of the mail lists in the Northeast.

You're doing a great job--I especially like sites where I can access book texts, as I can here. Yours is one of the best I have found. I sometimes think that counties are pretty stingy about what they post--can't understand it, but that's the feeling I get when I visit one and find virtually nothing that I can get to without having to write, send a check, etc. Your website is very generous and I appreciate the work I know it takes to maintain something like this. I like it!

You're doing Great! and have come a long way. You can`t move mountains in One Day--and if you think about it, that's what you all are doing. Patience is what it takes. Thank you, for all that you are doing and all that you will do.

And on and on!!!

Rootsweb and USGenWeb

The reader may have noticed that many of the URLs above are located at Rootsweb, the Internet's oldest and largest genealogy site. Founded by husband and wife team Dr. Brian Leverich and Karen Isaacson, Rootsweb offers free space to any organization that legitimately offers free genealogical information to the genealogical community. They do, of course, accept donations and have a graduated set of services which are provided for different fee levels. Never-the-less, this writer availed herself of their "free" offer to house the Augusta County VAGenWeb site for well over a year before deciding this was the best thing going since the invention of the postage stamp. The July-August 1998 issue of NGS/CIG DIGEST carried an article written by Karen Isaacson which gives the details of their operation.

Is it Payback Time for YOU?

How many of you have received a bundle of information through the USGenWeb system that takes you back another two, three, four or more generations on one of your family lines? Many persons probably have, and as a result may have had a surge of that feeling, "How can I ever pay you back for this?"

Rarely is there ever a way to "pay back" the individual who provided that information, but there are other ways to express your appreciation to the genealogical community at large. If you have primary or original documents--Bible records, wills, land, vital or other records--the Archives is ready to receive them. If you have cemetery records, the Tombstone Inscription Project would like to have them. If you have old photos, contribute them to the appropriate county. If you would like to help develop the census records, let the director of that project know. All of these can be found through one easy address: