Tuesday Tips #2

How can I tell if my ancestors were Illiterate?

First, let’s define Illiterate, Illiterate means “unable to read or write” (Oxford Dictionary). Many of our ancestors were illiterate, especially if you have non-western ancestry, Eastern European ancestry, or poor ancestors. Historically public schools didn’t exist and even when they did not every child attended. Some children and adults learned to read and write at a place of worship like a Synagogue, Church, Mosque, Ect. In 1900 in America, the illiteracy rate was ten percent or one in ten (https://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp), and it was lower in the past, it’s very likely one of your ancestors were illiterate weather 100 years ago or 200 years ago.

But let’s go back to the question. “How can I tell if my ancestors were Illiterate?”, there are many ways, one common way is contextualizing our ancestors in their world. Was your ancestor poor? An Immigrant from a Non-Western European Country? These are just a few questions to ask yourself. But this isn’t a definite way to prove that your ancestors were illiterate, we can only do this with records.

One of the easiest ways for an American researcher to find out if your ancestors were able to read and write is the Census, particularly 1850 through 1930 Census. 

“United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-DRM5-9N?cc=1325221&wc=9BQL-3T1%3A1030551501%2C1032387601%2C1032387602 : 5 August 2014), Arkansas > Arkansas > ED 1 Arkansas & Chester Townships > image 11 of 53; citing NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

But not everyone has ancestors in the USA so another way to figure out if your ancestors were illiterate is if a record has a signature, if your ancestors were illiterate then they would have written their Mark and not their name. As you can see in the records below Wojciech Myszak was illiterate, but his wife Katarzyna was Literate. 

“Pennsylvania Civil Marriages, 1677-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-6957-XDT?cc=2466357&wc=QDNG-M11%3A1588753668%2C1588754300 : 30 January 2017), Philadelphia > Marriage licenses, no 334900-335499, 1915 > image 1416 of 2075; citing the Register of Wills Offices from various counties.

What other ways do you find to tell if your ancestors were literate or literate? I’d love to know! 

Tuesday Tips #1

Welcome to Tuesday Tips! You may be asking what are Tuesday Tips? Well, Tuesday Tips are little tips I will give every Tuesday. My main goal with Tuesday Tips is to educate young or not so young genealogists about the small details often hidden or overlooked in a record.
This week’s question is “What is the plus next to my relative’s name?”

“Poland, Tarnow Roman Catholic Diocese Church Books, 1612-1900,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X5S8-J6X : 11 March 2018), Edwardus Fijotek, 28 Jan 1900; citing Baptism, Wola Lubecka, Wola Lubecka, Kraków, Poland, volume years 1865 – 1941, page 124, Tarnow Diocesan Archives, Tarnow; FHL microfilm 1,956,071.

Preview(opens in a new tab)

First, this plus sign is called a crutch cross or cross potent. They have historically been used in medieval heraldry and other religious organizations like the Teutonic Order or the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

So what does the cross mean? The cross signifies that the baptized died. Sometimes there’s a date accompanying the cross but most of the time there isn’t a date, the date shown next to the cross is the death date.

Württemberg, Germany, Lutheran Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1500-1985 . Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com

Both Catholics and Protestants used this symbol in their baptismal records. Do baptismal or birth records in your country or religion use the crutch cross? Or do you have a completely separate symbol? I’d love to know! You can Tweet us at @thehiddenbranch.

National Library of Ireland; Dublin, Ireland; Microfilm Number: Microfilm 04992 / 03

Ten fun projects for kids and teens!

1. Transcribe a census record.

This is fun and easy. You can transcribe your family or a random person in the census or you could transcribe records on FamilySearch or similar websites. This project works for American genealogy as well as International research. After finishing your transcription you could try to find out what happened to the people in the census. If you’re lucky and their living you could try and contact them.

2. Do a one-street study

Research your house and streets history, in America you can use public records for more recent history and census after 1940. This is fun because you get to learn about your house and maybe even find a skeleton in the closet!

3. Make a decoupage

A decoupage is a piece of  art made from many different materials, like paper or fabric. You can make one about yourself or ancestor or just a country. There is so much you can do with this project, I really recommend making it even if you’re not into making art.

4. Make a book 

Writing a book can be fun, I’m not very good at writing so when I make a book I put as many charts and pictures as I can. You can make a book about yourself or about your family. These books make amazing gifts.

5. Start a collection

Starting a collection can be fun and you can help persevere history. People collect Prayer cards, Postcards, Photos and Trading Cards.

6. Write yourself a letter for yourself in the future

I find this super fun! You’re making a historical record. The big bonus is you get to open a letter from yourself and see how much you have changed.

7. Make a Family tree for a Movie or TV Show

This is a fun idea and can help you understand the characters and how they fit into the series. It’s also a great way to get into genealogy, especially for young children.

8. Read a history book

Reading a historical book can give context to your ancestors lives. One of the most important things in family history is contextualization, it is essential to understand the world that our ancestors lived in.

9. Draw a map of where your ancestors lived

Maps are amazing for One-Place research, maps help one visualize the area in which we’re studying. 

10. Make a diorama of an ancestors house

I find this one just plain fun. But it also is a tool, by alwaying you to get into what home life would have been and if one doesn’t know a lot about one’s ancestors home then you will get to learn about the typical house in the era you’re researching.

Polska Research!

Polish genealogy is split basically in three because of the partitions done by the Russian, Prussians, and Austrians. I would recommend learning history and about all the border changes because it can get confusing real quick. (One day you’re in Prussia, the next Russia). With each section, I will give resources I’ve found helpful and how I find them helpful, I’ll explain the challenges I have for the region and lastly a basic outline of the history.


Prussia is undoubtedly the easiest to research in, they have the most resources out of any region. I always start with FamilySearch Wikipedia because they give a quick rundown of the history, culture, and most importantly resources to use. The top resources I use are as follows, Poznan Project, this is a database that has marriages indexed from the Historic Poznan Duchy. Prussia’s Polish population was a majority Catholic population and record loss is very minimal. The challenge I’ve had with Prussia is that most records aren’t digitized but indexed, so names can be taken liberally as the indexer might not know the surname.


I nicknamed Galicia the land of fire! Because there’s so much record lost during WW1 and WW2 devastated this region which was already historically poor. Most Polish-Americans trace their ancestry to this region just for the reasons stated above. Outside of FamilySearch, I like Gesher Galicia, it’s a decent database and welling organized, I would also recommend that you look at maps as names partially in this region change and many villages have very similar names, like Olszana and Olszanka. The only challenge I have for this region is record lost, I have 2 2nd great grandparents whom villages were razed by the Germans and Russians.


    I’ll be honest I have no real experience with Polish-Russian genealogy, mostly because I can’t identify where my ancestors were from, so I would recommend that you get your family to take a DNA test and hopefully you can rebuild a tree far back enough to find a home village. If you do identify your home village I would check JewishGen and Redite ad Fontes both are amazing resources for Russian Research. If you ever hope in finding your family in the Russian partitions then I would look at learning cyclic Russian.