Crowdsourcing Genealogy–One Grave at a Time


Valleau Cemetary, Feb. 2014 (Photo by Eileen Cosenza)

On a cold February afternoon a few weeks back  I took part in my nephew’s Eagle Scout project, participating in Billion a crowdsourcing project to record genealogical information at Valleau Cemetery in Ridgewood, N.J.  Billion Graves is one of a number of sites that rely on the participation of volunteers to photograph, map, and transcribe cemeteries to build a site where people can research their family histories and locate the missing links in their genealogy. Others include Find-A-Grave and The project highlights some of the power of crowdsourcing, building a site far larger and more comprehensive than any one person could do.

I have participated in other crowdsourcing projects before, but most involved transcribing census records, looking at old ship’s logs, or historic restaurant menus. While it is fun to puzzle through the records, the topics that you work on are randomly selected and you don’t often have a connection to them. What’s great about the cemetery projects is that you work in your community, out among the historical artifacts themselves.  Despite how wonderful digitization is for access and ease of use, there’s nothing quite like seeing and touching the original.

The BillionGraves project uses smartphone technology to not only take and upload photographs of the gravestones in a cemetery, but to also pin its GPS coordinates to the image so that someone looking for the grave at a later date can use their phone to locate the exact spot.  They have a good website with easy to follow instructions and advice on how to go about documenting a cemetery. Billion Graves also offered information for prospective Eagle Scouts, with stories and advice on how to organize a project. This is a good example of how to match volunteers looking for a project with the digital history project that needs assistance.

Headstone of Garret Ackerman and Maria Hopper Ackerman, Valleau Cemetery, Feb. 2014.

My nephew chose Valleau Cemetery in Ridgewood, N.J. in Bergen County.  The land was given to the Paramus Reformed Church in 1750 by MagdalenaValleau, and the cemetery was incorporated in 1859. The section that we worked on contained many of the common Dutch, British, and other family names of the settlers and early residents of  nearby Bergen County towns, among them:  Ackerman, Banta,  Bogert, DeBaum, Hopper, Storm, Terhune, Van Emburgh, Winter, and Zabriskie. Many of the burials we saw were clustered between 1860 and 1940, though there were some more recent than that.


Digging out and brushing off the headstones. Photo by Eileen Cosenza

Complications? Well, there was the snow.  About eight inches with a thin crust of ice on top
meant that we would not be able to document all the graves in the section of the cemetery, only those that were peeking out enough so that we could find them. We were lucky, since almost two feet more snow fell the week after our trip. We dug them out and waited for the ice on top to melt a bit, but getting crisp images of many of the headstones was not as straightforward as I thought it would be. The volunteers worked in two shifts, in the morning and the afternoon, and looking at the images, the morning light seems to have been better–by the afternoon the sky was greyer and some of the images were more difficult to make out.  It is also not that easy to insure that you have gotten a good photo because of glare on the phone’s screens. Many of the headstones were almost illegible due to wear, and others had only initials, or roles, like “Mother” and “Father.” BillionGraves suggests that you record what you see, and that the proximity to a large family stone can provide clues to the smaller headstones that are clustered around it.

I learned the hard way that it would have been better to write down what we saw while we were at the graveyard, rather than thinking we would be easily able to read the images after they were uploaded to the BillionGraves site.  Because the photographs were taken through the BillionGraves app, it controlled resolution and file size, no doubt to have faster uploading and access on the site.  But it meant that some of the images pixelated when you tried to blow them up.  Android users had more problems with the app than iPhone users, nothing that could not be overcome by checking on the site’s blogs.

On another snowy Saturday, volunteers met at the local library and transcribed the 571 pictures taken.  You can see these and other entries for Valleau Cemetery at the BillionGraves site. Will we be back for more?  I think so–but I think I’ll wait until spring!


About Cathy Moran Hajo

Cathy Moran Hajo received her Ph.D. from New York University. She is the editor and director of the Jane Addams Papers at Ramapo College of New Jersey. She was the Associate Editor and Assistant Director of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University (1989-2015), and the author of Birth Control on Main Street (2010). She teaches the Creating Digital History for the Archives and Public History Program of NYU's Graduate program in history, and Digital History for the Graduate Program in History of William Paterson University.
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3 Responses to Crowdsourcing Genealogy–One Grave at a Time

  1. Kelly says:

    I am a member of the Association of Gravestone Studies and will be taking part in leading the New York Chapter. I am so glad you shared this information. I will be sure to pass it along! Thank you!

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