Book: Raking The Ashes

Effects of the earthquake and fire

Last week’s post on “The records of death” — about the heartbreaking stories told of the 1906 Great Earthquake and fire in the records of what was then called the Coroner’s Office in San Francisco1 — raises a wonderful genealogical question.

If those records, from before and after that disaster, survived for us to use today, what else did?

And there’s a wonderful resource out there with the answers for anybody who’s interested in San Francisco research.

It’s a book called Raking The Ashes: Genealogical Strategies For Pre-1906 San Francisco Research,2 newly published in its second edition, and it’s an absolute necessity for your bookshelf if you’re looking at that place and time.

Written by Nancy Simons Peterson, CG, the research director of the California Genealogical Society, this 242-page paperback takes the researcher through the issues of what did and didn’t survive, what workarounds exist for things that didn’t survive, what additional resources are available, and even what research techniques are particularly applicable to solving difficult problems of pre-1906 San Francisco.

An appendix catalogs the availability of pre-earthquake newspapers.

For $25 ($20 for members of the California Genealogical Society ordering through the CGS website), it’d be a steal just for the research techniques discussion by itself.

You can get your copy through the California Genealogical Society website (the information page is here and the order page is here), through the website for the book (here) or even through Amazon (here).

And, by the way, at the book’s website, you will find not only more information about the book, but the author has painstakingly added updates even since the 2012 publication of the second edition.

To whet your appetite more, if you need it, the table of contents:


Extent of the Record Loss
How to Use This Guide
Background and Acknowledgements

Part I: Original records: What Did and Did Not Survive, with Work-Arounds for Lost Records

Vital (Civil) Records: Birth, Marriage and Death
Mortuary, Crematory and Coroners’ Records
Cemetery and Columbarium Records
Religious Records
Newspapers: Films, Indexes, Abstracts and Online Digitizations
Census Enumerations and Indexes
San Francisco City Directories
Municipal Records: Annual Reports, Tax Records
Land Records
Original and Appellate Court Records: Naturalization, Probate, Land, Divorce and Adoption
Voting Records
Immigration: Overland Arrivals, Passenger Lists and Passports
Military Records
Records of Fraternal Organizations and Benevolent Societies
Institutional, Business and Occupational Records
Pre-Statehood Spanish and Mexican Records
Diaries and First-Hand Accounts
Ethnic Records and Resources

Part II: Continuing the Search: Additional Resources

Biographical and Historical Publications
The California Information File
Records of Pioneer and Other Lineage Societies
Help from Internet Resources
Family History Library Resources
Local Repositories
Professional Research Assistance

Part III: Research Techniques for Solving Genealogical Problems

Assembling and Assessing Evidence
The Basics: the Census and City Directories
A Quick Survey of the Most-Used Sources
A Less-Used Source: Religious Records
Location, Location, Location
Expanding Your Search: Wider and Later
Naming Complications
Thinking Beyond San Francisco
Source Summaries: Where to Find What
Putting It All Together

Appendix: Pre-earthquake Newspaper Collections: Titles, Local Sources and Dates of Coverage

Raking The Ashes: Genealogical Strategies For Pre-1906 San Francisco Research.

Highly recommended.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “The records of death,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 24 Apr 2013 ( : accessed 28 Apr 2013).
  2. Nancy Simons Peterson, Raking The Ashes: Genealogical Strategies For Pre-1906 San Francisco Research, 2nd ed. (Oakland, California : California Genealogical Society, 2012).
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4 Responses to Book: Raking The Ashes

  1. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    I haven’t heard of this book before, but maybe I should get one. On my side there was no one in California until much later. However, on Tom’s side there is one brother of his gggrandfather who left Oregon for California in the late 1860′s “and was never heard from again” according to one family “researcher.” I searched for years and could never find him. Then one day, out of the blue, he turned up in a search as a voter registrant in San Francisco in 1870 and I verified that he actually went to Californi, that his middle name was Gibbs (which I had assumed was a good possibility because that was his mother’s maiden name and the middle initial was consistently “G.”) Many different birth dates have been attached to him but, for now, I’m assuming that he is the most likely to know his own year of birth which is on the record. While he may not have been still living at the time of the 1906 earthquake, it is certainly likely that some of his records might have been destroyed. It would be very helpful to know alternative places to find him. The cost of this book would be well worth it if I could find out a little more about him!

  2. Judy, thank you very much for shining a spotlight on Nancy’s book. Nancy has been a tireless volunteer for the California Genealogical Society and it is wonderful to see her work acknowledged.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      And a great big thank YOU to Nancy for writing the book and to the California Genealogical Society for publishing it!

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