A Picture Isn’t an Object


My daughter recently shared this quote by Jim Flannigan with me. It struck a chord with me as a family historian. Having a photograph taken back in the day truly was an event! But more than that, those family pictures are a time machine of sorts. They transport us to that moment, captured by light and lens.

“A picture is not an object. A picture is an event.” Thank you, Jim Flannigan.

How to Find Genealogy Information When a Record Doesn’t Exist

The other day, I was helping someone with his genealogy research in Indiana. He had what seemed to be a simple question. He was trying to find a birth record of his ancestor who was born there around 1840. Just one problem: Indiana didn’t keep civil birth records back in 1840. So how do you find genealogy information when the record doesn’t even exist?

Stop Focusing on the Record

Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders.

Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders.

Looking for a record can be like putting on blinders. We get hyper-focused on finding that birth, marriage, or death record. We do need to make diligent searches and consider various places where the record might be.

For example: the state of Virginia claimed to not have my grandmother’s birth certificate. Imagine my surprise when my dad gave me a copy along with some of Grandma’s papers. (“Oh, you’ve needed that?”) I should have looked through her papers sooner.

But what do we do when the record truly doesn’t exist? What do we do about an 1840 birth in Indiana, when the state didn’t start keeping birth records until 1882?

That’s when we need to take off the blinders. Stop focusing on that record and look around at other resources that are available.

Start Looking for the Information

Think about why you want that record you’re looking for. There are two main reasons to look for your ancestor’s birth record:

  • You want to document his or her date and place of birth
  • You want to identify his or her parents

Ask yourself what other records might contain the information you’re looking for. The person I was helping said that he wanted to identify the parents. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Baptism record
  • Family Bible
  • Probate (looking at the people he was living with in 1850)
  • Civil War pension (he was a prime age to have served)
  • County histories published during his lifetime
  • Death record
  • Obituary

Of course, the accuracy of some of those records are are going to be dependent on the knowledge of the informant. (Did the informant on the death certificate really know the names of the parents or was that just his best guess?)

Finding the Information: Let Your Goal Be Your Guide

Instead of being disappointed or frustrated when we can’t find a specific record, let your goal be your guide. Think about what it is you want to use that record for and then consider what other types of records would have that same information.

What “other” records have you used when the record you originally wanted didn’t exist?

How to find genealogy information when a record doesn't exist

Sorting Dates in Excel for Your Genealogy Timelines

Timelines are awesome tools for genealogy. They can help us spot inconsistencies and identify gaps in our research. Spreadsheets, such as Excel, make it easy to list the events. But there’s a problem with Excel. When it comes to sorting dates before 1900, Excel doesn’t know what to do with them.

Here’s an example of a work-in-progress timeline. Yours might look like this as you’re beginning to compile it.

A work-in-progress timeline in Excel. Note the dates are not in order.

A work-in-progress timeline in Excel. Note the dates are not in order.

I’ve entered the events as I came across them, so they are not in chronological order. He needs to enter the army in 1862 before he’s discharged in 1864. Also, his wife’s death in 1903 occurred before he died in 1910.

So what happens when we sort on column A?

The timeline after sorting on column A.

The timeline after sorting on column A.

Here’s where Excel is exceedingly stupid. It put the post-1900 dates in order, but because it doesn’t recognize anything before 1900 as a date, it treats those entries like a string of characters. That’s why we have a date in October (10 – that’s a one and a zero) coming before April (4) and May (5). And the years? Those are pretty much ignored since Excel didn’t need to go that far down in the string to sort them.


Here’s How to Trick Excel Into Sorting Dates Correctly

Since Excel apparently thinks that time began in 1900, we need to force it into looking at the entire string and to put those strings in what we know is chronological order. There are a couple of ways to get Excel to sort the dates correctly.

Option 1: Format Your “Date” Column as Text

Excel has this nasty habit of assuming it knows what you want a cell to be. For example, if you type in 1-31-05, it will assume you mean January 31, 2005 and reformat that cell as a date. Even if you type in 1-31-1905, it will still assume it’s a date. The problem is that it doesn’t assume that 1-31-1899 is a date.

Before you start entering, format that column as Text. Here, I highlighted the column where I’ll be entering the dates. Then I clicked the dropdown on the Number formatting and selected “Text.”

timeline-3I’m on a Mac. If you’re using the Windows version of Excel, this might look a little different. However, the same functionality is there for you, too.

Now when I enter a date, I enter it as YYYY-MM-DD. Here’s that same work-in-progress timeline with the date column formatted as Text and the dates entered as YYYY-MM-DD.

timeline-4Now let’s see what happens when I sort on that column:

timeline-5We have a winner!

When you use this method, it is important that you make the month and the day 2 digits, otherwise, you’ll have October (one zero) coming before February (two).

Option 2: Record the Day, Month, and Year in Separate Columns

You can also set up 3 separate columns for the date: one for the year, one for the month, and one for the day. No formatting of the columns is required.

timeline-6Then when you sort, tell Excel to sort first on the year column, then on the month, then on the day. Here’s how that option looks on my Mac. I clicked the + button to add the additional columns I wanted to add to the sort order. (Windows might look a bit different, but it has the same functionality.)

timeline-7Here’s how it sorted:

timeline-8Use Whichever Method Works Best for You

One of the things that I love about Excel is how flexible it can be… except when it isn’t! Even though it isn’t smart enough to figure out that there really are dates before 1900, we can still bend Excel to our will and make it sort the way we want it to. Whether you use the format-as-text method or the separating-year-month-and-day method, you can get Excel to create a timeline that’s in the right order.

(Thank you to Michele Simmons Lewis, who inspired this post.)

Why I Skipped Going to the Family History Library

writing-828911_640I recently took a trip to Provo, Utah. (Yay! Utah!) Provo is an easy 45-minute drive south of Salt Lake City. (Yay! Salt Lake City!) And guess what — one day of my trip had nothing scheduled. No meetings. No conference calls. Just freedom.

I had a rental car with unlimited miles and a schedule with nothing on it. It’s easy to imagine what any red-blooded genealogist would do in this situation: Jump in the car and head north to world renowned Family History Library.

But that isn’t what I did.

What I Did Instead

Caught up on email. Wrote. Reviewed some genealogy files that I brought with me. Wrote some more. Worked on an upcoming presentation. Wrote some more again.

Why I Didn’t Go

Frustration avoidance. The Family History Library can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a plan. (It can be overwhelming even with a plan!) Honestly, real life hadn’t afforded me the opportunity to sit down and make a research plan. I didn’t want to set myself up for frustration.

Quiet Time. Just because I didn’t go to the FHL doesn’t mean I didn’t do some genealogy. The time that I spent reviewing the files I brought with me was quite productive. I noticed some things in my ancestor’s probate file that I hadn’t caught before. I also made good progress on his timeline that I’ve been meaning to work on forever.

Didn’t Want to Add to the Piles. You know the piles I’m talking about. Those piles of photocopies that you bring home from any trip to the library. The piles that seem to grow exponentially. The piles that when you go through them later you’re on an archeological expedition. Those piles in my office are big enough already.

Why I Don’t Feel Guilty

My friend and colleague Mark Lowe has a wonderful theory about the need to “mull and ponder.” While we need to gather information, we also need to take the time to really go over what it says, to think about the implications, to consider what new paths of research it opens up for us.

I knew that if I went to the library for a few hours without a plan and without a clear goal in mind, I would simply be adding to the documents. It wouldn’t further my research and wouldn’t be a productive use of my time.

Instead of just adding to the documents, I spent some hours reviewing, analyzing, writing.

Yes, I had a free day in Utah and didn’t go to the Family History Library. And my research is actually better off because of it.

Have you ever felt guilty about not going to a genealogical hotspot?

Family History Library, Salt Lake City

The Family History Library (where I didn’t go on my free day in Utah).

Do You Have a Defective Ancestor?

Nancy Bane was a 62 year old housewife living in Gallia County, Ohio. Her attacks of mania started when she was 47. She was often kept under lock at key for at least part of the day.

She was defective.

William Davis entered the Gallia County Infirmary in March of 1878. “Habitually intemperate,” he was there at the expense of the county.

He was dependent.

Henry Hunson was doing 60 days in the Greene County, Ohio jail for larceny.

He was delinquent.

The terms “defective,” “dependent,” and “delinquent” aren’t my terms. They are how Nancy, William, and Henry were described on a special schedule of the 1880 census. Once we get past the shock of those terms, we can find some detailed information about the people so classified by the Federal government.

The 1880 Special Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes

Besides the “regular” population schedule that we usually use in the census, some years have other schedules. In 1880, the Special Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes (sometimes called the DDD Schedule) gave further information about people in seven different categories:

Insane: The schedule lists the “form” of the person’s insanity (melancholia, mania, epilepsy, etc.), history of “attacks,” if they need to be under lock and key, type of restraints (if any), and history of institutionalization.

It’s important to remember that it was often a family member giving information about the “insane” person. Even if it was a physician, the understanding of mental health was barely in its infancy. Epilepsy was considered a form of insanity, as was postpartum depression. Where today we would recognize the problems that Civil War veterans had as PTSD, back then they were simply “insane.” (Even the term “shell shock” wouldn’t come into use until World War I.)

Idiots: An idiot for this schedule was defined as “a person the development of whose mental faculties was arrested in infancy or childhood before coming to maturity.” Questions included if the person was self-supporting, age at which idiocy occurred, supposed cause of idiocy, size of head, training school history, and other disabilities the person had.

Deaf-mutes: Enumerators were tasked with not listing those who were only deaf or hard-of-hearing or those who were only mute. “A deaf-mute is one who cannot speak, because he cannot hear sufficiently well to learn to speak.” Information includes if he or she was self-supporting, age that deafness occurred, supposed cause of deafness, history of institutions, and other disabilities.

Blind: The semi-blind could be included, but not those who could see well enough to read. The form asked if the person was self-supporting, form of blindness, supposed cause, the age that blindness occurred, institutional info, and other disabilities.

Homeless Children: This is a bit of a misleading category. Rather than for homeless children, it was for children in institutions (children’s homes, poorhouses, etc.) Information includes their residence when not in the home, if the father and/or mother were deceased, if the child was abandoned, if the parents had surrendered control to the institution, if they were born in the institution, year admitted, if the child was separated from his/her mother, the child’s criminal history, and disabilities.

Inhabitants in Prison: This section gives information about the prisoner’s residence, type of prisoner, why they are in prison (awaiting trial, serving a term, etc.), date of incarceration, alleged offense, sentence, and if the prisoner was at hard labor.

Paupers and Indigent: Similar to the Homeless Children section, this part of the schedule was for those who were “in institutions, poor-houses or asylums, or boarded at public expense in private houses.” Information includes residence “when at home,” how he or she was supported; if the person was able-bodied, habitually intemperate, epileptic, or a convicted criminal; disabilities; year admitted; and other family members in the institution (spouse, parents, children, and siblings). There was also a section at the end about the institution itself.

Portion of the 1880 Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes, Dover Township, Fulton County, Ohio. Image on Ancestry.com.

Portion of the 1880 Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes, Dover Township, Fulton County, Ohio. Image on Ancestry.com. (Click to enlarge.)

How to Tell If Your Ancestor Is Included in This Schedule

There are two easy ways to tell if your ancestor is listed on the 1880 DDD schedule.

Is he or she living in an institution, such as a county home, infirmary, or jail? If so, he or she is likely on at least the “Pauper and Indigent,” “Prisoners,” or “Homeless Children” lists. Depending on their mental and physical health, he or she might also be on the other schedules.

If your ancestor wasn’t living in an institution in 1880, take a close look at their census listing. Look in the section labeled “Health,” and see if anything is checked in the columns for blind, “deaf and dumb,” idiotic, or insane. If something is checked, that person should be on the appropriate part of the 1880 DDD.

You can make sure that you’re looking at the right person by comparing the household and family number on the population schedule with the household and family number listed on the DDD schedule; they should match.

Nancy Bane in the 1880 census, showing her as insane.

Nancy Bane in the 1880 census, showing her as insane. (Click to enlarge.)

Finding These Records

Although the 1880 DDD schedule was part of the Federal census, not all of the states turned over their copies to the National Archives. Some loaned them to NARA for microfilming; those states are available on Ancestry in the collection “U.S. Federal Census – 1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes.” Some are available on microfilm through FamilySearch; look in the catalog using “defective” or “nonpopulation” as part of the title.

Some states still have their copy in their state archives or state library. Also, Family Tree Magazine published a list of where some of the DDD schedules can be found. Though it isn’t comprehensive, it should give you a good starting point.

Two Last Notes About These Records

The 1880 Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes gives us great detail about these individuals. We can see what the supposed cause of their disability was, as well as glean clues for further research. (Did they attend a school? Go look for those records!)

It can be difficult to read these records. I don’t mean in terms of finding them or in the handwriting (though that can be a challenge at times). I mean it by the details you might find. Discovering that your ancestor was kept in restraints or that he was “habitually intemperate” can be disconcerting. Keep an open mind about them and the person who recorded the information.

Boy's Home, Los Angeles, California. Library of Congress image, downloaded from Flickr Commons.

Boy’s Home, Los Angeles, California. Library of Congress image, downloaded from Flickr Commons.

How You Can Honor America’s Second War for Independence

American’s Second War for Independence? Didn’t we only have one? Yes… and no.

While there was only one war where America formally declared its independence from Britain, it took the War of 1812 to cement America’s position as an independent nation. Though this war is largely (and regrettably) overlooked in many history classes, it was a pivotal time in American history.

Almost Lost to Time

The pension files of the War of 1812 veterans total nearly 7.2 million pages. These are pages filled with information about these men and their families. It isn’t unusual to find pages from family Bibles, marriage records, and affidavits about family relationships.

These pension records have never been microfilmed and are among the most heavily used records at the National Archives. All of that handling takes a toll on the paper. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Preserve the Pensions Project

The Preserve the Pensions project is a joint project of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Archives, Ancestry, and Fold3. The goal is to digitize those 7.2 million pages of War of 1812 pension files and make them available to everyone for FREE. (Yes, free!)

They’re making great progress. They’re already posted pensions files for veterans A through L and are starting in the M surnames. See the pensions that are already available!

Marriage record found in Lewis Clemmer's War of 1812 pension file.

Marriage record found in Lewis Clemmer’s War of 1812 pension file.

Think of the Possibilities

Think what research possibilities will be opened when 7.2 million pages of these files are available. Yes, they will be a boon to genealogists. (They already are!) But they’ll also be a great resource for history students. With dwindling education dollars, teachers are looking for free resources. Not only is this free, but it’s the actual primary document, not just an index.

Making Donations Count

It costs 45 cents to digitize and add metadata to each image. (If you know anything about large-scale digitization projects, you know what a low price that is!) So normally, a $45 donation would digitize 100 pages. However, Ancestry is matching all donations dollar for dollar — making your donation go twice as far.

I’ve Helped — and So Can You!

I’ve set up a recurring donation for $18.12/month. My total donation of $217.44 will digitize 483 pages. Plus, Ancestry’s match will digitize another 483 pages. So for less than the cost of a pizza per month, I’m helping to digitize 966 pages of War of 1812 pension files!

Donating to Preserve the Pensions is easy. You can do it online or mail in a donation to Preserve the Pensions, P.O. Box 200940, Austin, TX 78720-0940. Do it today!


5 Things to Do When Applying to a Lineage Society

You’ve decided this is the year. You’re finally going to apply to that first families program, the DAR, or whatever your lineage society of choice is. Before you fill out the form and send in your check, here are five things you should do first.


1. Read the Current Rules

Different societies have different rules about what they will accept as proof. Some require certified copies; others will accept regular photocopies. Some will accept sources like a book of tombstone readings; others won’t. The society’s rules for documentation should spell it out.

Even if you’ve applied to that society before, don’t assume that the rules are the same now as they were then. They could have tightened up the requirements. They also could be like the DAR and started accepting DNA as proof.

This is also a good time to see how the society wants you to label your documentation. Some will want a citation written on the front; some will want you to number the document and put the citation on a separate numbered list.

2. Make a Work-in-Progress Copy of the Application

There are a lot of things that will need documentation. Generally, you’ll have to document each person’s birth, death, marriage, and proof connecting them to the generation before. You’ll also need to prove whatever criteria your ancestor fits. (If you’re applying to the DAR, that would be proving your ancestor’s patriot service. If it’s for a first families program, it’s proving residency before a certain date.)

What I’ve found helpful in applications that I’ve done is to take the application form, fill it out, and make a red checkmark next to every event that I have documentation for. It’s an easy way to see exactly what I still need to compile. When I’m ready to apply, I fill out a new copy to send in.

3. Make Copies of Your Documentation

Never EVER send in an original record or photograph. Always send a copy. First, you probably won’t be getting your application back. (Preserving your research is one of the reasons for applying in the first place.) Second, if your application would get lost, that documentation would be gone. Lots of copies keep stuff safe. Send a copy.

While we’re on the subject, put those copies in a file folder just for your application. This will save you a TON of time later when you’re ready to send it in.

4. Ask Questions

You might have questions even after reading the current rules for that society. If you do, ask! The registrars and chairpeople want you to succeed. They want you to honor your ancestor. They’re not trying to trip you up. (If there is a registrar or chairperson out there who IS trying to trip up applicants, stop it! This is supposed to be a positive experience!)

Not to say that they won’t enforce the rules — the rules are there for a reason. They will help you interpret them. But you need to ask.

5. Start Early

If the society you’re applying to has a deadline, don’t wait until the week before to start working on it. Believe me, it will take you longer to compile than you expect, especially if it’s your first time applying.

Give yourself time to compile and to ask questions. You’ll also want to leave yourself time to get any further documentation that the society asks for.

When I was chair of First Families of Ohio, we had a December 31 deadline for induction at the OGS annual conference in April. It never failed that the majority of the applications came in during the last two weeks of the year. The applications were reviewed in the order received. I felt bad for the ones that arrived on December 31, as they usually weren’t reviewed until late January. It often happened that at least one of those applicants didn’t have time to get more proof that was needed. Start early.

How About You?

If you’ve applied to a lineage society, what advice do you have?

Et Al and Et Ux: Two Latin Phrases You Need to Know

Finding a resource you want to dig into is a great feeling. It’s even better when it has an index! But did you know that not all indexes include every name?

Records like deeds and court records can contain the names of numerous people. Sometimes the clerk who created the index didn’t make an entry for each person. Instead, he could have used two common Latin phrases: et al. and et ux.

Et Al.

Et al. is an abbreviation for et alii, meaning “and others.”

Let’s say that John Ramsey died intestate (without a will). His heirs would have sold or released their claim to his land. If several of them did it in one deed, there could be any number of people listed as the grantor (seller). It could read something like, “James Ramsey, William Fullerton and Elizabeth his wife, George Ramsey, Margaret Ramsey, Francis Murphy and Ellen his wife, and Thomas Ramsey, heirs of John Ramsey deceased.”

That’s all well and good — yay! we have a list of at least some of John Ramsey’s hers! The problem is that the clerk didn’t feel like making entries for all of those people in the index. Instead, he made one entry using the first person listed:

Grantor: James Ramsey et al.

That’s fine if you’re looking for James Ramsey, but what if you’re looking for George? He’s in the deed, but he’s not in the index. Instead, he’s hidden in the “et al.”

Et Ux.

Et ux. is an abbreviation for et uxor, meaning “and wife.”

This is commonly used in deed indexes. Rather than making a separate entry for the wife, the clerk will make an index entry only under the husband’s name with the notation “et ux.”

Grantor: David Stephens et ux.

(Would it have killed him to make the entry “David Stephens and his wife Ann” or “David and Ann Stephens”? Sigh.)

You need to keep this in mind when you’re researching females. They could be in the record, but are hidden behind the “et ux.”

What We Need to Do

When we’re researching, we need to think about those other people associated with our ancestors, especially the siblings. When we see a record that lists a sibling and it has the phrase “et al.,” we need to take a look at that record. Our ancestor might be in there, but not indexed.

When we’re looking for females, we need to consider her husband. When we see a record with his name and “et ux.,” we should take that as a sign that we need to look at that record.


Genealogy and Elitism: It Isn’t What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Imagine that you’re in a painting class. You’ve only dabbled in painting — bought a small paint set when it went on sale, watched a video or two on YouTube. But you want to get better, so you sign up for a class at the local rec center. After a few sessions, you’re feeling pretty good about what you’re creating. You show your handiwork to the instructor… who rips it apart.

You don’t have enough contrast.

There’s no clear focal point.

The technique is sloppy.

Now stop and imagine how that would make you feel. You’d probably feel deflated, dejected. You probably wouldn’t feel inspired to keep trying, and you certainly wouldn’t feel encouraged to do so.

university-206683_1280It Happens in Genealogy

Michael John Neill recently republished his post “The Genealogy Elite and the Genealogy Police.” He defines the elite as inhabitants of ivory towers, passing judgment on all things genealogical. The genealogy police “protect the genealogy elite and dispense genealogy justice.” He goes on to say, “I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogical elite and I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogy police.”

When defined that way, I have to say that I don’t believe in them either. However, to say that there isn’t at least the perception of judgment misses the issue.

Most of the “top” names in genealogy are incredibly giving with their time, talent, and expertise. But that isn’t who or what people are referring to when they say they’ve experienced the genealogy elite (or the police).

“Elite” isn’t a person. It’s an attitude. It’s a perception.

Misplaced Passion

Genealogy is inherently personal. When people start digging deeper into their family’s history, it’s easy to become passionate about it — both what is found and the process for finding it. That passion is a good thing. It keeps driving us to find more and to become better researchers.

The problem is when the passion is misplaced. The problem is when we allow our passion for doing genealogy correctly to overshadow our passion for doing genealogy.

Consider that art instructor at the rec center. She is passionate about painting. She wants everyone to experience what she does when she paints. But she allowed her passion for doing it correctly to be louder than her passion for painting. So instead of inspiring you as a novice painter to keep trying, she ended up frustrating you and making you reconsider your desire to pick up a brush.

It Isn’t What You Say. It’s How You Say It

I was researching at the library one day when a person came in and asked for help at the volunteer desk. He had recently started climbing his family tree. As he talked to the volunteer, he pulled out notes and photos and documents and scribbles and everything else he had collected about his family. He had amassed quite a pile of “stuff.” There was a ton of information, but it was a jumbled mess. So what did the volunteer say to him?

“I don’t know how you expect to do anything without filling out a family group sheet.”

Really? This was a person just starting on the journey of discovering his ancestors and you’re going to scold him about not filling out a form that he’s probably never heard of?

Yes, he needs to organize what he’s found. No, he’s not going to be able to make much progress without doing that. But scolding him isn’t the way to do it.

Scolding can work for employees and children. It doesn’t work to scold someone who is doing an activity that they don’t have to do. After all, they can simply stop doing the activity and move on to something more enjoyable.

What that volunteer could have said was “You have a lot of information here. There’s going to come a point where you’re not going to be able to keep track of it all without some help. Have you ever used a family group sheet?”

Same message, but without the scolding.

The Elephant in the Room: Source Citations

When you hear discussions about “elitism” in genealogy, the topic eventually hits on source citations. Here’s the thing about source citations. Nobody started doing genealogy because they were looking for a hobby where they needed to create great footnotes.

Citations are incredibly important. There will come a point when you will need to know where that particular piece of information came from. I can barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone remember where great-great-grandpa Starkey’s death date came from.

But if you don’t have source citations, my scolding and shaming you about it likely isn’t going to convince you to add them. Instead, you’re going to feel like a grade school student who got a D- on her book report.

Stay Positive

Genealogy is supposed to be enjoyable. When someone asks us for help, we should always find a way to be positive first, before offering any constructive criticism.

On the flip side of that, we shouldn’t take it personally when we run across people like that volunteer at the library. As Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Try to pull out the “constructive” part of the criticism and see where you can improve. Don’t let that bad experience keep you from your journey.

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts on this? I’d love to hear what you think about attitudes in genealogy. Feel free to leave a comment!

Scolding doesn't help anyone in genealogy.

Scolding doesn’t help anyone in genealogy.

How to Decode a WWII US Army Serial Number

Gerald Ridenour, an Aviation Cadet in the U.S. Army Air Force, died in World War II. He was just shy of his 21st birthday. When my mom showed me his grave at Highland Cemetery in Perry County, Ohio, I knew I had to find out more about him.

The Casualty List

I found him listed on the WWII Army and Army Air Force Casualty List on Fold3. The information includes name, serial number, rank, and something pertaining to the death.


From World War II Honor List of Dead and Missing: State of Ohio. Online at Fold3 (titled WWII Army and Army Air Force Casualty List).

It was when I looked for the meaning of “DNB” that I discovered there is meaning in the serial number, also referred to as a service number.

WWII US Army Serial Numbers: Meaning in the First Digits

The U.S. Army began issuing serial numbers to help avoid mixing the records of people with the same name. (A genealogist’s dream come true!)  When we dig a little deeper into the number itself, we can learn a bit about the person.

Look at the First Number or Letter

Some prefixes were used in World War I. However, the following system began shortly before World War II.

The first character gives us a lot of information.

  • 1 = Enlisted in the Army (in other words, volunteered rather than drafted)
  • 2 = Federally recognized National Guard
  • 3 = Drafted
  • 4 = Drafted
  • O (that’s the letter O, not a zero) = Male commissioned officers
  • W = Male Warrant officers
  • T = Flight officers (Army Air Force)
  • L = Commissioned officers of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC)
  • V = WAC Warrant officers
  • A = WAC enlisted women
  • R = Hospital dietitians
  • M = Physical therapy aides

Looking back at the casualty list, we now know:

  • Gerald Ridenour enlisted
  • Arthur Porter was in a federally recognized National Guard unit
  • Robert Pratt and Wilfred Ratliff were drafted
  • William Petruzzi was a commissioned officer. (We also knew that from him being listed as a 2 Lt. But if his rank hadn’t been listed, we would have discovered he was a commissioned officer based on his serial number.)

Look at the Second Number

When you have an 8-digit serial number, the second number shows the Service Command. This narrows down where the person enlisted or was drafted. If you have a serial number for a member of the WAC, look at the number after the letter prefix.

There’s an exception. Remember those serial numbers that begin with “2,” showing National Guard service? You need to look at the 3rd digit. (The second digit for those will always be a zero. You knew there’d be some exception, didn’t you.)

  • 1 = Connecticut Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont
  • 2 = Delaware, New Jersey, New York
  • 3 = Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia
  • 4 = Alabama, Florida, Georgia Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee
  • 5 = Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia
  • 6 = Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin
  • 7 = Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming
  • 8 = Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas
  • 9 = Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington
  • 0 = When the first number is 3, the zero means he was drafted outside the U.S. (301 indicates Panama; 302 indicates Puerto Rico)

Since the second digit of Gerald Ridenour’s serial number is 5, we now know that he enlisted from either Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, or West Virginia. The same for where Robert Pratt and William Ratliff were drafted. Arthur Porter, from the National Guard, also enlisted from one of those four states, since the third number of his serial number is 5.

A Note About Twins

According to the introduction to the World War II Honor List of Dead and Missing:

“Serial numbers are assigned with great care and according to a set of regulations. Consecutive serial numbers, for example, are not assigned to twins since this might cause confusion of identity between two persons with the same birth date and same general physical characteristics.”

Other Resources



“General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order of the day, ‘Full victory–nothing else’ to paratroopers somewhere in England, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe.” Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.