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Ancestors, actors and arachnids: Interesting things found in 1 billion historic images

Lisa McBride was browsing through's digitized collection of War of 1812 military records online when she found 1st Lt. Robert Puckett of White County, Tennessee, her fifth great-grandfather. Because she knew it was his duty to keep the company rolls, it occurred to her that the handwriting on the image may very well be his.

"I connected with him and the sorrow he must have felt as he recorded the deaths of men who served under him," McBride said. "A hunch to browse through a digitized record not only proved a relationship, but told a story of a brave and respected ancestor."

McBride's experience of finding Puckett illustrates how taking the time to search through the vast collections of digital images and historic records on can yield priceless treasures of family history information.

People can also just have fun. Documents, signatures, photos and other records of famous people can be found within the massive mountain of digital data. Earlier this week, FamilySearch International announced the publication of its 1 billionth image.

"Although a few social sites like Flickr and Facebook can boast over a billion photos contributed by users, there is no site like that has published over 1 billion images of historic records online," said Rod DeGiulio, director of FamilySearch records division. "A single image can have several historic images on it, which means there are actually billions of records ... for people to discover."

Brazil's famous visitors

The website and contributor Whitney Petersen compiled a list of famous Americans who visited Brazil by searching the online collection Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Immigration Cards, 1900-1965.

The list includes Orson Welles, Eroll Flynn, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth Hill, Kirk Douglas, Leslie Townes "Bob" Hope, John Wayne (a souvenir seeker removed the photo) and the famous family of Tony, Janet and Jamie Lee Curtis.

There are also four presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who traveled to Brazil during that time span, namely Presidents David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball.


A quick search of the United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-18 yielded a few famous signatures, including musicians Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin. There is also a draft registration card for escape artist Harry Houdini.

Prominent pioneers

If you have pioneer ancestors, you might find one of their photos in the collection Utah Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah, 1847-1868. LDS Church Presidents John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow can be found in this group, along with Joseph Smith's famous Mormon bodyguard and friend Orrin Porter Rockwell.

Famous passports

One FamilySearch collection still in the process of being indexed is United States Passport Applications, 1795-1925, which makes it more difficult to search.

Even so, a few celebrities were found hiding among its documents. Author Ernest Hemingway went to Italy to help the Red Cross in 1918. Home run legend George Herman "Babe" Ruth applied for a passport in order to play baseball in Cuba. Scientist and inventor Alexander Graham Bell applied to visit his boyhood home in Scotland. There is also an application for writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To volunteer to index images, visit

Marriages, spiders and more

FamilySearch launched a campaign to digitize obituaries in February. The LDS Church-owned genealogy site has a goal to index 100 million names by the end of the year.

"This massive collection of obituaries will add a fabulous new dimension to online family history research," Kate Gale wrote in a FamilySearch blog. "Obituaries are a treasure trove of valuable genealogical information. Each is a unique story of a person’s life. Many obituaries include a photo of the person along with the names of generations of family members."

FamilySearch also has a growing collection of marriage records. Did you know that John Wayne's real name was Marion Robert Morrison? Later he changed his middle name to Mitchell. In 1946, the famous actor married his second wife, Esperanza Baur, according to his marriage license in the California, County Marriages, 1850-1952 collection.

Beyond the 1 billion, FamilySearch has also partnered with other websites to offer access to more historic photos, documents and records. One example is the BYU George Edward Anderson photograph collection. When searching a name, such as the T.L. Hardee children from Huntington, Utah, click on the blue "Visit Partner Site" button to see a photograph from the Brigham Young University's library special collections website.

The U.S. Census records are another source for interesting information about families. Inventor Thomas Edison and his family participated in the 1900 census. Walt Disney and his family are found in the 1940 census.

Sometimes historic images contain interesting things that have nothing to do with family history, as was the case with a document in the Mexico, Oaxaca, Catholic Church Records, 1559-1988 collection. FamilySearch personnel found that a spider had been smashed into one page and had fun speculating when it happened.

"It's just funny," said Jennifer Davis, a project manager at FamilySearch. "When did the spider get in there? Was the priest writing and smashed it into the book? Was it when we filmed in the 1970s? Who knows? It's still pretty funny."

Susan Wilhelm

While finding famous people and smashed insects is fun, there is nothing more meaningful than finding something that helps you connect with your family heritage, according to Susan Wilhelm.

Wilhelm knew her parents, Gerhard and Ursula Schmidt, immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1950s but hoped to find something a little more specific. She was recently searching online from home when she discovered the manifest of a ship called the MV Italia. Not only were her parents on the passenger list, but she also found a daily passenger schedule, menu and other insightful information. Then she Googled the ship's name and found photos of the ship. She also found photos of the tourist class quarters where the Schmidts lived during the voyage.

"I knew when they came but never the name of the ship. I did a little search, and ... there it was," said Wilhelm, a longtime family historian who doesn't consider herself a great researcher. "To suddenly see the passenger list with their names and ages, I’m thinking, 'Oh my gosh, at 32 and 28, would I have been able to leave my home and go to a country where I couldn’t even speak the language?'"

Wilhelm tried to imagine making that journey while pregnant with twins, just as her mother did.

"She was seasick the whole way. When they got here, because she was ill, they made them remain in New York for a few days to make sure it wasn’t contagious," Wilhelm said. "I don’t think pregnancy is contagious."

Wilhelm described the growing collections available on as "priceless."

"Where else are you going to find these records? You would have to go to the country. You would have to search microfilms. I've done that, and it's tedious. It's amazing how technology has advanced. What used to take weeks and weeks of research will now just pop up and say, 'Is this yours?'" Wilhelm said.

"There is nothing like … getting to know who your ancestors are, how they lived and what their life was like," she said. "You see when their children died. You see they had heartache and sorrow. It makes them more than a name on a page; it makes them real. There is nothing like knowing where you came from and what you are made of."

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