Obstacles to Genealogy Research

A genealogical friend from Eastern Pennsylvania asked me recently what I might consider to be obstacles to research in Western Pennsylvania. I think that the number of minor civil divisions, neighborhood names, unincorporated villages, and railroad names that researchers encounter in Pittsburgh and Western PA is the biggest headache that many of my patrons deal with.

Unlike Philadelphia, Allegheny County still has 130 active minor civil divisions (cities, boroughs, townships). The City of Pittsburgh itself grew by annexation, so researchers are always finding references to long-gone places like Birmingham, East Birmingham, Temperanceville, McClure Township, Ormsby, Monongahela Borough, South Pittsburgh, West Pittsburgh, Allegheny City, etc. in their research. There were even two locations called Duquesne!

Pittsburgh in 1902, from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection.

The Pittsburgh city wards were re-numbered several times, most notably when Pittsburgh absorbed Allegheny City in 1907, which resulted in a major shift between the 1900 and 1910 census enumerations. Many duplicating street names in the two cities were changed at that time as well. Also, Pittsburgh has 89 (more or less!) neighborhood names still used within the city. Then we have the old unincorporated places in Pittsburgh such as Bayardstown, Cowansville, Minersville, Riceville, Sidneyville, Sligo, etc.

There are many similar place names in Allegheny County as well: post office names, railroad station names, clusters of houses with names which pop up on documents to confuse the researcher, such as Bakerstown, Barking, Ferguson, Library, Linhart, Option, Semple, Wildwood, and many, many more. The best thing researchers can do for themselves is make friends with maps – both current maps and maps of the time periods they are researching! Then, if they have a question, they should just call us; we can usually steer them in the right direction, right away.

Sometimes it’s as simple as interpreting old handwriting. I had a patron looking for “Millersville Cemetery” the other day, but I knew that wasn’t right. I looked at the document in his hand and saw that it was “Minersville Cemetery” instead. So just ask us – it saves wear and tear on everyone! Our sister organization, the Western PA Genealogical Society, also has several publications which can help: their reprint of the 1911 street atlas (which shows the street names and ward changes) and the Allegheny County Cemetery Directory, which they compiled.

There are very few older Pittsburgh records online as of yet; however, WPGS coordinated a project with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka, the Mormons) to index the Pittsburgh City death records for 1870 to 1905, and they are online via FamilySearch. The Allegheny County Courthouse only has indexes for marriages after 1995 online on their website thus far. The Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Department now has the vital records which the county used to have – they passed them on to us in 2006. We also do research in our collection for patrons for a fee–click here for details.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is to e-mail us at padept@carnegielibrary.org, or call us at 412-622-3154.

–Marilyn

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Obstacles to Genealogy Research

  1. I can only imagine these obstacles repeated elsewhere throughout the country–you must have so much information about Pennsylvania that you could use it as a case study to understand the modernization and development of other parts of America and the world, even in different times periods.

  2. Bette Douglas

    I’m in need of a death certificate from 1905. Who do I contact for that?

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