One of the biggest mistakes a genealogist can make is assuming that what is true today was true 150 or more years ago. Analyzing an 1850 era probate settlement by comparing it to an estate settlement in 1990 is not the best approach. Laws are different and procedures may not quite be the same. Contemporary state statutes (many of which are online at Google Books) should shed some light on practices and procedures during the time of interest.
Undated clippings often leave the genealogist wondering from whence they came. There may be clues as to the paper’s origins on the reverse side–are any popular events mentioned, street addresses, etc. that might help determine where the item was published? On the chance the newspaper has been digitized, consider searching for key terms from the clipping (and the reverse side—just not as a part of the same search) in an attempt to find its source.
If you are trying to get additional perspective on the historical environment when a certain event in your family tree took place, consider reading some newspapers during that time. Don’t just grab the New York Times or some other large city paper–read a local weekly as well. You may be surprised at what you learn.
For most of American history, people could change their names or alter the spelling of their names relatively easily–without going to court. Among the places where you may find evidence of those name changes are probate and pension records. The court may notice that deeds of property acquisition do not quite match with the name of the deceased. Pension application examiners may notice that the name at marriage does not match the name on the application. There may be affidavits about the name differences in the record, or a judge or clerk may make some notation about it.
Most of the information given in original documents (census, death certificates, birth certificates, etc.) came from what someone remembered. Documentation was not required by the census taker when information was provided. The same thing is true of much of the information on a death certificate (especially information about the person’s and parents). Ask yourself, “what evidence” did the informant have to have to get this information included in the record? Chances are none was required.
Do you have a fairly near relative who died and who left no descendants of their own and whose siblings had no descendants? If there was no will and there was property requiring an estate settlement, that probate file may mention a number of distant relatives–and if recent enough (usually post 1900), addresses may be included.
If you’re wanting to work on your genealogy, but need something a little different, pick an age. Then determine what each of your ancestors were doing at that point in their lives. Try and answer the following questions:
- Where were they living?
- Who were they living with?
- Were they employed/still earning a living (assuming the age chosen wasn’t one for a child)?
- What immediate family members were still living? Which ones were living nearby?
- What national events were going on that might have reasonably impacted your ancestor?
Affidavits in court cases and pension applications may mention how long the person giving testimony has known the person about whom they are giving testimony. Do the math. In what year did they first become acquainted with each other? Was it when they were living somewhere else? Was it during a time when you know nothing about your ancestor? Does it mean that they had known each other since they were children?
That “length of time known” could help you trace your ancestor’s origins.
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