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31 January 2009

What Brought Them?

I am a big believer in studying migration chains. Your ancestor did not just arbitrarily move from point A to point B. Chances are someone encouraged him to move, or sent him a letter telling him how good it was in the new area, etc. Even if there was not someone from "home" living in his new destination when he arrived, chances are someone from "home" came out to settle where he did after he was there.

My wife and I have over twenty ancestral families who came from Europe in the mid-19th century. All of them (save one) came where they knew someone or else had someone come over from Europe after they did. And even those families moving across the US moved as part of a group of other families. Studying these "chains" has been very informative for my research.

What or who brought your ancestor from Point A to Point B? Take the time to find out. You might learn more about history and your ancestor than you think.

30 January 2009

Is Your Reasoning In Your Notes?

Did you do any thinking to reach that genealogical conclusion about a parentage or a date? Did you analyze several documents to reach a decision about what they meant? If so, is that chain of thought somewhere in your database? Human memories are particularly frail and writing it out somewhere increases the chance your logic and thought process gets preserved.

And remember that you could later realize you were wrong. It is hard to see an error in your line of thought if it was never written down anywhere.

29 January 2009

Turn it off

While it is not really a genealogy tip, it is a good one anyway.

When doing your research, consider turing "off" the email and some of the other "constantly on" computer applications that demand attention. Consider even getting away from the computer, unless you are searching online sites. Sometimes the constant distraction can negatively impact your concentration. Researching with several other tasks going on in the background can cause us to overlook the obvious. Sometimes multitasking is not as efficient as we think it is.

Some research tasks require concentration, whether it be reading a foreign language or analyzing 1840 census returns. Do your research a favor the next time you are working and give it your full attention. You might surprise yourself at how much you accomplish.

28 January 2009

Write it Up

One of the best ways to organize information and see what is lacking in your research is to write up the information you already have. Prove each point or statement as you work along. You would be amazed at the amount of information you have or at how little you actually do have.

I write up families all the time for various articles or columns I am working on. It is one of the best ways to really get you looking more closely at your research.

Writing for someone else to understand makes you think about things on a different level. It may help you notice gaps or errors in your own research. And if the finished product looks good to you, consider submitting it for publication in a society journal or newsletter. That's a great way to share and preserve that you have located.

27 January 2009

Recording the Execution

Keep in mind the difference between the date a document is executed and the date it is recorded. The date a document is executed is usually the day it is signed and becomes effective. The date of recording is the date the document is recorded officially at the courthouse. Documents cannot be recorded before they are executed, but there is no law that they have to be recorded within specific time frame.

Deeds may be recorded years after they are written. This is more likely to happen if a family goes to sell a piece of property and realizes the deceased owner never had his or her original deed recorded.

26 January 2009

Looking through 21st Century Glasses?

When interpreting a deceased ancestor or relative's actions, consider that they probably operated from a slightly different prespective. There are several important things to consider about your ancestor when trying to figure out what he or she did or why he or she acted in a given way.

What was your ancestor's educational level? What was his or her economic status at that point in time? What were their family obligations at that point in time? Was the ancestor isolated or did she have family support? Was your ancestor widowed with three children and no means of support? Did your ancestor have psychological or emotional problems? Was there a subtance abuse problem? Was your ancestor hiding something? How much do you know about your ancestor's "context?"

Keep in mind that you descend from your ancestor, but you are not your ancestor. Put yourself in their shoes. Take off your socks if necessary!

25 January 2009

Read the Preface

When using any published compilation, abstract, or finding aid, read the preface (or introduction, etc.). This is where the author should indicate if the original records were incomplete or if there were issues or difficulties reading and transcribing the original record.

In some online databases, this information may appear in a "more about," or "frequently asked questions" page.

Not knowing what a book or database does not contain may cause you to think you searched something when you did not.

The preface of a book of marriage records from 1829-1900 may indicate that records from 1850-1860 are missing. That is something you need to know when using that publication. If you do not read the preface, you may never know.

24 January 2009


I don't normally mention websites here on "tip of the day," but will mention Archive.org as there is a great deal of free material on this site.

I found five scanned books from Hancock County, Illinois, on the site. These books can be viewed as text files (there will be some OCR errors), PDF, DjVu, or FlipBook files. The amount of material on here is amazing. The fact that I can download entire county histories is just amazing.

The viewer options here put Ancestry.com to shame. For more information view www.archive.org

23 January 2009

Will Pencil and Paper do?

There are times when I need to chart out relationships within a family--without printing the entire tree or even the entire family group. I just need a few people. And sometimes doing that on a computer takes up too much time.

A pencil and paper gets the job done faster and I can get to actual research.

There are other times where actually just "scratching" things out on paper is faster.

Do you need a computer for every task? Is there something you could do on paper and pencil in five minutes that would take you 5 hours on the computer? Remember that you are not always creating layout for a magazine or publication. Sometimes you are just making a working chart for yourself and your own use.

And it saves time for research. And isn't that what it is about?

22 January 2009

Do You Have the Right Name?

One of my "spare time" activities is finding well-known individuals in United States census records. There are several potential difficulties I face when trying to locate any of these individuals. One of the most common: the "right" name.

While most of us are not searching for celebrities in the census, it still pays to have the correct name. If grandfather was an immigrant, are we searching for both his birth name and his Anglicized name? Was there another name he took after he immigrated, perhaps one that was easier to spell or pronounce?

And is the name we have for Grandma actually her middle name? Is she enumerated under her first name in 1900, a name that perhaps we do not know?

And there is always the chance that our ancestor changed his name a little bit to escape the law, a creditor, or a former wife.

21 January 2009

Did Your Ancestor Even Understand What They Were Doing?

I was the teller at the recent annual meeting of our church congregation. A somewhat controversial matter came up and a member called for a secret vote. We had no ballots ready made, and in haste, used scratch paper made from election ballots from the previous year's election of officers.

Voting members were told to write "yes" or "no" on the blank side of the paper. Despite repeating the instructions several times, several members put marks by the names of the previous year's officer candidates. It was clear they were confused.

Was your ancestor confused when the census taker came to his door? Was she confused when she was asked questions for her husband's death certificate?

We sometimes assume our ancestor completely understood the questions he was asked. Perhaps he was completely confused and in his confusion his answers have left us completely confused as well.

20 January 2009

Will Confusing? Look at Estate Accountings

Is great-grandpa's will confusing? Are the relationships unclear? If so, make certain you have accessed all accountings of the estate that indicate what relatives received what amounts of money. If these records exist, the disbursements may mention relatives not listed elsewhere (people tend to "appear" when money is involve). These documents may also help to clarify relationships that may be ambigious in wills and other records.

18 January 2009

No Probate? Look for a Quitclaim Deed

Have you looked for a relative's probate only to not find it? Are you certain that he or she owned land when he died? If you are, look for a quit claim type of deed where the heirs either sell to one other heir or to another party. It may be that your ancestor's estate "avoided" probate by use of one of these deeds. Sometimes these records will say the name of the deceased owner and sometimes they do not. Consequently to find these records, look in land indexes for the names of all known heirs of the relative whose probate you cannot find.

17 January 2009

Have You Researched All Your Ancestor's Marriages?

Most of us have at least one ancestor who was married more than once. Normally we do not descend from each of their spouses and we tend to focus on the spouse from which we descend.

Doing this may cause us to overlook information. Researching all our ancestor's spouses may provide more information about the ancestor.

Archibald Kile was married three times. The first was in the 1830s in Ohio to the woman with whom he had all his children. He married twice in Illinois, both times when he was in his 70s. Searching the records of these marriages located marriage applications which provided the names of Archibald's parents. If I had not located the second and third marriages of this ancestor, I would have missed a great place to learn about his parents.

16 January 2009

Re-Read What You Already Have

Sometimes a clue is not a clue the first time you see it.

I had used a deed as a sample in my early years of teaching genealogy classes. After a few years, I switched it out in place of a different example. Several years later, I switched back to the earlier example, not really reading it but just putting it in.

I read again as I lectured about it and then I stopped. The purchaser of the land in question was an ancestor--the reason I had copied it. Now years later, I stopped and looked at the name of the seller. It was my ancestor's first cousin who had "evaporated" in Ohio. Here he was in Illinois selling land to my ancestor.

Now I know to look closely at all the names on any deed where an ancestor buys or sells property. I didn't know that when I was starting my research.

How many things did you find early in your research that have not been re-analyzed?

15 January 2009

Identify People on Pictures

Do you have pictures with individuals who are not identified? Work on locating someone who might be able to help you name those people. The courthouse and library will still be around in a month (hopefully). Great aunt Myrtle might be the only one who knows who "those old people" are and her memory (or even yours) could be taken away in a moment.

14 January 2009

Lost Grandma or Grandpa?

If Grandma or Grandpa "evaporates" after the death of their spouse, make certain you have searched for all their children, not just the one who is your direct line. Your ancestor could easily have moved in with one of their adult children after the death of their spouse.

Find all the children of your ancestor. Look for them in census records. In pre-1850 censuses, Grandma or Grandpa may appear as a "tickmark" in one of the older columns. Grandma or Grandma or Grandpa may also appear in the cemetery next to one of those children. If they moved several states away to live with a child, they might not have been taken "home" for burial.

13 January 2009

Read a How-to Book or Research Guide?

When was the last time you read a research guide or how-to book about genealogy or an area where you are researching? It is easy for even the most experienced researcher to occasionally overlook a record type or not be aware of a record that has recently become more accessible. Periodically review a chapter in a guide book-The Source: A Guidebook Of American Genealogy (Third Edition) and Val Greenwood'sThe Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy are two of my favorites. And for specific areas, the Family History Library's Research Guides are excellent. We all need a refresher every so often.

And I've been known to read a chapter from one of them when I was in need of an article idea and behind on a deadline.

12 January 2009

Fudging Dates?

Always prove dates given to you by family members, especially early generations of the family. They may not be correct, for several reasons. One common reason for fudging dates is to make the first child arrive at least nine months after the marriage. One family history had my great-grandparents married a year earlier than they were to better "fit" the birth of their first child.

In another family, the birth date of the oldest child and the marriage date of the parents were modified to make the first child born a year after the marriage.

It is important to be accurate and not to judge. Great-aunt Myrtle might not like to hear that her parents "had" to get married, but she likely will get over it. It is important to remember that our ancestors were human. After all, if they weren't...what's that make us?

11 January 2009

Is a title mixed up in the name?

An ancestor of mine was John Rucker. In some records he is listed as "Captain John Rucker." In some cases "captain" ends up being his first name. Of course, this makes a difference in how his name appears in an index or an online database.

Did your ancestor have a title? Is it making him difficult or impossible to find?

10 January 2009

Names Switched

If you are looking for someone in the census and cannot find them, try reversing the first and last name. Perhaps the census taker did not know which name was the first name and which name was the last name. This problem can be compounded if the names are in a foreign language.

09 January 2009

Who Provided the Information?

When a document gives the name of an informant, consider how likely they are to know the information they are providing. Sometimes the informant may not be all that informed.

A daughter-in-law who is the informant on a death certificate probably does not have first hand knowledge of the deceased individual's parents. And yet, she may be the only person who is available to give the desired information.

Remember that even you are not a truly primary source for your date and place of birth. Your knowledge of that event is because you were told it or you read it on a document. It is not because you were aware of the event at the time it took place. Not being a primary source does not mean you are wrong, just that your knowledge of the information is not direct.

On most death certificates for someone who died and the end of a typical lifespan the informant is not someone who was around at the beginning of the person's life. That can make a difference in how accurate that information is, especially if the informant only knew the person during the last few years (or months) of their life.

08 January 2009

Family Traditions May Have a Grain of Truth

Some genealogists throw out an entire family tradition. While stories passed down from generation to generation may be exgaggerated and Grandpa's own personal tall tale, there may be an iota of truth to the story. The difficulty is finding out that truth.

An ancestor's grand story of military service may really be that he was a private.

A relative living on the castle grounds may turn out to be one who lived within sight of the castle.

Include family traditions in your genealogy, but clearly label them as tradition. Even the tall tales tell something about your family. And look at the tradition closely. Could there be a nugget of truth hiding under tons of dirt?

07 January 2009

Tracking the Source

Not all records or sources are created equally. That is why knowing where you obtained something is crucial.

If you have a copy of great-great-grandfather's deed, is it:
  • the original which passed down through the family
  • a copy of the official record at the courthouse (which is a transcription of the original)
  • a copy of a copy a relative made
  • a copy from a microfilmed copy of the original

Perhaps the copy in the courthouse had some notation in the margin in an ink which did not show up on the microfilm. Perhaps the courthouse transcription contains an error. The courthouse transcription does not contain the actual signature of the individuals, which the original should. And on it goes.

We could pontificate on citation for a long time, but I won't (at least not here). Suffice it to say that not all copies of a record are created equally. And that a complete citation should get you back to the material you copied or transcribed. Then you know what you used and if a more complete copy becomes available you might want to obtain it.

06 January 2009

Where Could the Obituary be?

Genealogists frequently look in the newspaper nearest to where their relative died for an obituary. That is a good place to start, but the search should not end there. Other newspapers may have carried obituaries as well and those writeups might be different from the one published in the nearest town.

I always check the county seat newspapers. They might have published death notices or longer obituaries for residents throughout the county, not just the county seat proper. And even larger towns in nearby counties might have published notices of your ancestor's death.

Samuel Neill died in West Point, Hancock County, Illinois in 1912. The newspaper in Carthage, the county seat, published an obituary. A newspaper in Quincy, Adams County, Illinois, to the south published a slightly different obituary. And there could be additional ones in the smaller papers between the two towns. Guess I have even more work to do!

05 January 2009

What is a Witness?

State statute determines who can be a witness, but there are some general tendencies that genealogists need to be aware of.

A witness to a document usually needs to be of sound mind and of legal age. They also should have no direct interest in the document. For example, an heir to a will should not be a witness. And the grantor or grantee on a deed should not be a witness either.

Sometimes one will hear that one witness was from the wife's side and one was from the husband's side, etc. There may be times where that happens, but it is not a hard and fast rule. A witness is saying that "I saw you sign that document and I know who you are." That's it.

Of course, witnesses to wedding may be relatives and one may be a relative of the groom and one may be a relative of the bride. And of course, the brother of a man may witness his will, as long as the brother is not a legatee or an heir. And if the man writing the will has children, the brother is not an heir. If the brother is not mentioned in the will he is not a legatee either.

A witness is only saying "I saw you make your mark." It is worth remembering.

04 January 2009

Late does not mean Dead

Remember that the use of the word "late" on a document does not necessarily mean that the person was dead. In many legal documents, the use of the word late only indicates that the person was formerly of that location.

the phase "John DeMoss, late of Harford County, Maryland" means that John DeMoss used to live in Harford County, Maryland and now lives elsewhere. Of course, he could be dead, but not necessarily.

03 January 2009

Are You Checking the Dates?

Always make certain you have the dates correct.

An attendee at a computer workshop wanted me to help them locate an ancestor in the 1880 census. They gave me her name, date of birth, and family information in an attempt to help locate her. We spent about 10 unsuccessful minutes when I asked him if he had any other information. The gentleman told me he had the ancestor's obituary. Reading it, I knew why we had not found her in the 1880 census. The ancestor had died in 1873.

Make certain the date span of the record fits your ancestor's lifespan or chronology. Otherwise you may be wasting your time.

02 January 2009

Ask Permission before Posting

Several years ago, I sent transcriptions of documents to a distant relative. She posted them to US GenWeb archives. Her submission contains a footer saying the transcriptions are copyrighted by the submitter and cannot be used, transmitted, etc. by anyone else without permission.

She sent my transcriptions to the appropriate county GenWeb sites. These transcriptions are mine because they include my unintentional errors. I know she didn't get the originals herself and retranscribe them making my exact same mistakes. I'm all for copyright protection, but don't claim copyright to something someone else sends you.

I am all for sharing and do it regularly. But if you take what I share with you, claim it is all yours, and claim copyright to it, we are done sharing.

01 January 2009

Obituaries are not always Correct

Obituaries are a notoriously secondary source. As such, they can easily contain errors or omissions. Sometimes this is done intentionally, sometimes accidentally. Regardless of the reason, care must be taken.

The spouse might not be the parent of all the children listed. Sometimes children and step-children are intermingled. The same thing with grandchildren.

Marriages may be omitted--especially if they produced no children or if there were "issues."

An uncle of mine died a few years ago. He and his first wife divorced. She was not mentioned in the obituary. Nor were their three children. His second wife was mentioned as were their three daughters. Their son was not included in the obituary because he and his mother were on the "outs" at the time of the father's death.

Obituaries are clues. Treat them as such. If you are looking for gospel truth, try the bible. You might even find a few old obituaries tucked in there as well.