Sunday, February 10, 2013

How To Expand That Big Picture

Old family letters often open up further research possibilities by introducing us to names and relationships not previously anticipated. Ella Shields Bean’s letter home to her father in Fresno, California, certainly helped introduce a few others in her family.

I already had the names and pertinent information on several of Ella’s siblings, but a look at two resources told me I was still missing something.

First, in the census after Ella’s father’s passing, I found Ella’s mother listed as a widow next door to the home of some of her grandchildren—and their father, Ella’s brother-in-law, along with a wife by a different name than that of Ella’s sister who had married him. That, alone, tells me there were some significant changes since the prior census was taken.

The key item in that census—a next-to-impossible page to read in the 1910 census, by the way—was that, even though Ella’s mom was now a widow, the total number of her children, including those still surviving, was still enumerated on the record. That number, incidentally, exceeded the count I had on record by two.

Who were those two?

A lot can happen in a ten year span, and the distance between 1900 and 1910 held a lot of changes for Ella’s family. I had that funny feeling that I was missing something when I stumbled upon another helpful resource—which also demonstrated the importance of not overlooking local resources.

While the Internet may be the darling of many genealogy researchers, it just doesn’t serve up every document detail that would help us flesh out the picture of our families’ lives. On the other hand, local agencies and organizations dedicated to archiving city or county histories are sometimes a loosely-organized patchwork of exactly the documents that could help uncover the answers to our family mysteries.

Connecting the needy researcher and the resource-rich but digitally isolated local organization can be a challenge. Sometimes, though, when those organizations create their own website—be it ever so humble—we researchers may then begin to access those far-flung local collections via our computers.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little time and patience with a Google™ search.

Since I’ve been working on this series regarding the Bean and Shields families, let’s take this instance of Ella’s siblings. Thanks to one local collection, I’ve been confronted with names and details that I hadn’t known about the family previously—stuff that tells me I need to dig deeper.

That collection was referred to online, thanks to the website of the San Mateo County Genealogical Society. Unfortunately, that website does not assign separate addresses for each page in their site, so I can’t provide a specific URL for the page where I found Ella’s family information. But I can tell you how to navigate the site to find it.

The collection that opened my eyes to the Shields family information I had missed is called The Schellens Collection. This is a 191 volume manuscript, compiled by one local history enthusiast named Richard Schellens. This was his lifetime labor of love, a collection of abstractions, newspaper clippings, photocopies, hand-drawn maps, and many other secondary resources. The original collection was organized into binders by the Redwood City Archives Committee.

The only drawback was that the original collection lacked one thing: an index.

This is where the local organization entered the project. The San Mateo County Genealogical Society spearheaded the volunteer effort to create the index for the immense collection. That index is now provided on their website. You can find it by going to the main website page, looking down the left margin to the heading, “Library,” then clicking on the entry labeled, “Databases.” That brings up a new screen on the right. Scroll down that right screen about mid-page, where it reveals the clickable choice, “Schellens Collection Index.” That provides an approximate alphabetical range to help you get started. (I say approximate because I had to reverse gears and go to the slot labeled “Bar” to obtain my “Bean” entries!)

It was there, in a 1902 entry for Mrs. Leon Bean (that would be Ella), that I saw the note, “death of David Shields.”

David Shields?

Could that be one of the missing Shields children referred to in mother Elizabeth Shields’ 1910 census entry?

To find out, I have a few options. First, I can take that year and name and try some searches of my own in collections of archived historic newspapers online. provides me that option—though the collection for Fresno newspapers doesn’t always include the dates I’m seeking, and the search for which Bay Area newspaper also ran the article might get overwhelming.

There are other historic newspaper collections, too—such as a thorough, clickable resource Heather Kuhn Roelker mentioned in her blog, Leaves for Trees, or the list Kenneth Marks rounded up in his recent Google+ Hangout and recapped in his blog, The Ancestor Hunt.

In case I don’t want to be so thorough about my online efforts, I can contact the San Mateo County Genealogical Society. Just like many other genealogy societies, the San Mateo organization offers to conduct research for a reasonable fee, and locating items cited in the Schellens Collection is their forte.

Then, another option—especially for me, considering the short distance involved—I can make arrangements with one of the two libraries in which The Schellens Collection is housed, and go there to do the research, myself.

With the many entries in the collection’s index for the Bean, Shields, and related families in the Redwood City area, that last option suits me best.

Just like the San Mateo County group did, hundreds of other genealogical societies across the country have contributed countless volunteer hours to collect, organize and house significant items of interest to local area historians and genealogy researchers. While you may not be pursuing family history in the northern California county of San Mateo, you likely could have your own research augmented by material on hand at county organizations such as this one. Thankfully, many of these societies have an online presence, whether directly accessed through a website, or indirectly reached through a page on Facebook or even a blog. Thanks to the capabilities of search engines, it makes it easier for us to connect with the local societies concerned with the areas our ancestors once called home, and we can repaint that picture and soak up that ambience through the help of those who call that same place home, now.


  1. Thanks goodness for indexes and the people that volunteer to write them:)

    1. Indexing is a lot of work--and can be such drudgery, if taken in large chunks. With the examples we've had lately, of everyone coming together to get the job done, we've done ourselves a great favor in producing a usable resource that will be tapped into over and over again.

  2. I have made that 1910 Census a bit more readable Jacqi. Send me an email and I'll figure out how to get it to you.

    1. Great news, Peggy! Thanks so much. I'll send you an email.


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