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31 December 2008

Is it a Town or a County?

Locations can create all kinds of problems for genealogists. For this reason it is necessary to be as precise as possible. Some locations are logical.

For example, Knoxville, Illinois, is in Knox County, Illinois.

But this is not always the case.

Des Moines, Iowa, is in Polk County, not in Des Moines County, Iowa.

Keokuk, Iowa, is not located in Keokuk County, Iowa.

And remember there are townships as well which may or may not add to the confusion. Hancock County, Illinois, has a Webster Cemetery and a village of Webster. Webster cemetery is not located near the village of Webster.

Provide as much detail as possible when listing locations in your genealogical database. Personally I always use the word "county" in a location. It reduces confusion.

30 December 2008

A Rose by any other Name

Remember that your ancestor might have been known by several different first names. This can be especially confusing when a researcher is "fixed" on one name. My great-grandfather was actually Frederick, but sometimes he was Fred and sometimes he was Fritz (the latter more in his younger years).

Another ancestor was John Michael Trautvetter. He went by one of several different names:
  • John
  • Michael
  • Mike
  • Jahn (a German version of his first name)
  • J. M.

Some nicknames are not quite as obvious. Sally was a common nickname for Sarah. If you can't find your ancestor, learn nicknames that were derived from the original name. The ancestor might simply be hiding under a nickname.

29 December 2008

Did Your Ancestor Just Lie?

If some piece of information given by your ancestor in a record does not make sense, consider the possibility that he lied. People lied for many reasons, including

  • wanting to get married
  • wanting to enlist in the service
  • wanting to avoid the service
  • trying to escape their past (parents, spouse, children, debts, etc.)

An outright lie can be difficult to research around, but people did lie about their age, place of birth, name, marital status, etc.

28 December 2008

Estate Accountings of Money

Many times genealogists look for a will of an ancestor and stop there--especially if they find it. But records of financial accountings may clarify items that are vague in a will and mention individuals not named in a will. Some estates take years to settle. Heirs named in a will may die before the estate is finally settled. The heirs of the deceased heir normally inherit their share and these individuals may be named in final accountings for the estate. Seeing who got how much may make relationships more clear and provide you with new names of relatives. People tend to "reappear" when money is involved--even those who have been missing for decades.

27 December 2008

Lining out your Research

Do you know where all the lines are on the map of your ancestor's neighborhood? Property lines, county lines, state lines, they all play a role in your family history research. These lines change over time as new territories are created, county lines are debated and finalized, and as your ancestor buys and sells property. Getting your ancestor's maps all "lined" up may help solve your problem. And keep in mind that contemporary maps are always an excellent idea. Your ancestor probably did not live in the twenty-first century. Don't rely completely on maps created a centry after he died.

26 December 2008

Getting Guardianships?

Did your ancestor die with minor children? If so, there might be guardianship records for his children, particularly if he left real estate behind or a significant amount of personal property. For much of American history, women had no property rights and a widow by herself might not be able to receive money for her children or to manage real estate they inherited from a deceased father or grandparent. Records of the guardianship might provide more information on the children and perhaps clues as to the mother's remarriage. Researchers should always research the guardians fully to determine if they had any biological relationship to the children.

25 December 2008

Take a Break

Christmas is a good day to take a break from your research and focus on the living relatives. It also brings to mind another tip.

Take a break from that family or problem that really has you stonewalled. Work on another family for a while, putting the brick wall group aside for a week or a month. It may be that when you come back to your problem, you notice something you did not notice before. Perhaps when working on another problem, something will dawn on you regarding the original problem.

In the back of your mind the original problem is there and something totally unrelated to your research problem may cause you to have the breakthrough idea you need. Sometimes what we need most is a little "away time."

Happy Holidays!

24 December 2008

Wait to Cross the Pond

Some researchers are anxious to begin their foreign research as soon as they learn they have an ancestor born in a foreign country. This hasty approach may cause you to look in the wrong place or to lack adequate information to perform your search "across the pond." Research the ancestor in the area of settlement first, as completely as possible. Doing so may provide more detailed information about his or her origins and may also give you names of potential siblings or relatives who might be easier to track across the ocean.

23 December 2008

Use the Census as a Springboard

Before interviewing relatives who were alive at the time of the 1930 census, try locating them in that record. Note the names of neighbors and ask your relative about these individuals. Giving your interviewee specific names may help to jog memories and get them to recall events they might not otherwise have thought about.

This is helpful even if the person was not alive in 1930. Neighbors might have been neighbors for decades and even if the person did not know the former neighbors personally they might remember hearing their name mentioned.

Anything that might help jog a memory is good.

22 December 2008

Official Does not mean Accurate

Just because a record is "official" does not mean that every detail it contains is correct. A death certificate probably has the date of death and burial correct, but the date and place of birth could easily be incorrect. And there is always the chance that a death record has the wrong date of death or place of burial. An official record does not guarantee the information is accurate. Remember that in most records, the information is only as accurate as the informant and that in most records information submitted came from someone's mind and was not verified with another source or official record.

21 December 2008

Do You Know What You are Searching?

Do not mindlessly type names in database searches without first learn what you are actually searching. Is it a website that contains voluntary submissions of data other researchers have compiled? If so, it may be incomplete. Is it an official archives site? Even those may have omissions because some records were not extant. Most sites will indicate where they obtained their information. Find out and find if all records were extracted. Gaps or omissions seem to always be for the time period one needs.

Not knowing what you are searching may explain why you are not finding the information you seek.

20 December 2008

The Importance of the Original

Whenever possible, get a copy of the original of the record. Transcribers make errors and indexes are only finding aids, not an end in and of themselves.

Actual complete copies may contain details that did not make the transcription or you may interpret something differently than the transcriber did. And one should never assume any transcription is complete. I assumed a book of Revolutionary War pension abstracts was complete and nearly missed a huge clue because of it.

19 December 2008

Are they enumerated with just initials?

Some census takers were plain lazy, some couldn't spell, and some didn't care.

After you have exhausted all the variations on your ancestor's first and middle names, consider that they might have been enumerated with just their initials. Or perhaps their first initial and their middle name spelled out. I have seen entire townships where no one apparently had a first name and everyone was named with their initials. I have seen locations where census takers used initials for non-English names instead of trying to spell them correctly.

Maybe your ancestor was enumerated as J. Smith in the 1860 census. Now there's a real problem.

18 December 2008

Record Assumptions as Such

We need to make assumptions in our genealogy research. Many times assumptions are necessary in order to get our work off the ground. But after a point, it may be that the assumption is hindering our work or that we have forgotten that an assumption was made.

If you are guessing that the parents were married near where the first child was born, that is a good start. But somewhere in your notes, indicate why you believe where they were married and that you have no proof. If research does not validate your assumption, it may be that your assumption was incorrect. And if you enter your assumption in your genealogical database as fact, it can be very difficult for that information to go back to being an assumption.

Francis Beiger was born in Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois, in 1851, the oldest child of her parents. My initial assumption was that her parents were married in Illinois. Turns out that assumption was incorrect. Peter Bieger and Barbara Siefert were married in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1850, a few months before heading west to Illinois.

My assumption was a good place to begin, but in this case it was a little far afield.

17 December 2008

Those "Wrong" Places May be Clues

In a 1900 census enumeration, several of my great-grandmother's children indicated that their mother was born in Ohio. This seemed completely off the wall to me. All extant records provided Illinois as her place of birth and that place of birth was consistent with when her parents arrived in Illinois. No other record provided a place of birth of Ohio.

I almost wrote off "Ohio" as a census taker's goof.

It wasn't quite that.

Further research located information that the parents of the ancestor had immigrated from Germany, but actually met and married in Ohio before settling in Illinois. The daughter was born in Illinois, but her parents had lived in Ohio for approximately six months after their marriage and the ancestor was their firstborn child. Perhaps this is why some accidentally thought she was born in Ohio.

Sometimes our ancestors lie, but sometimes incorrect information answers questions we have not even gotten around to asking.

16 December 2008

Who Answered those Census Questions?

Family historians need to remember that for many censuses, we do not really know who answered the census questions. Was it the wife who never knew her husband's parents and yet had to answer questions about where they were born? Was it a child who had no idea when her father immigrated to the United States or when he became a citizen?

Most of us weren't there when the censustaker came to our ancestor's door. As a result, we just don't know who really gave the answers to specific questions. If the answers vary from census year to census year, it may be because the individual answering the questions varied from census year to census year.

15 December 2008

Make a Chronology

Looking at things when they are out of order only adds to the chaos.

One good data organizational technique is to list every event in your ancestor's life from their birth through their death. Viewing the chronology gives the researcher a nice overview of an individual's life. This also makes it possible to see unaccounted time gaps and possible oversights in your research.

A chronology is also an excellent framework from which to write an ancestral biography. This is especially true for those who would like to create a biography, but don't think they are really "writers."

A chronology puts everything in sequence and sometimes can make inconsistencies a little easier to spot.

Be certain to put the source for every item in your chronology.

14 December 2008

How Grandma Said It

It took me forever to find Ulfert Behrens in the 1860 and 1870 census. The problem was partially solved when I learned how he likely pronounced his name. This low-German native probably said his name something like "barns." Here I was thinking it would have been pronounced "Bear unds" (rhyming with roughly with "errands"). Once I started looking for names that sounded like "barns" I found references I had previously overlooked.

Find out how your ancestor likely said his name--you may get variant spellings that you never thought to look for.

13 December 2008


This is my newest blog, where every day a new genealogy tip will be posted. Tips will start appearing tomorrow. Feel free to share our site with others. Readers can contact me at michael.john.neill@gmail.com

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