They Really Did It On a Whim

Avoid assuming that everything has a “meaning” or a “secret” behind it. For years I tried to figure out “why” my grandparents went to the town they did to elope. When asked decades ago, Grandma just said “your grandpa just got it in his head” to go there.

The town was eighty miles from where my grandparents lived and would have been a long trip on Illinois “highways” in December of 1935. There were no family members who lived there (I’ve looked).

It likely was someplace they could get married quickly and was far enough away from that the license’s appearance in the local newspapers would not be seen by relatives.

Sometimes there’s not a “real secret to be discovered,” just the fact that an ancestor tried to confuse their descendants.

When You Can’t Start From Scratch

It’s difficult to really start your genealogy research over. A researcher cannot erase the memory of what they have done or of what they have discovered. Instead of starting over, it’s best to re-evaluate:

  • how did I get these facts that I think are true?
  • how accurate are these sources I used?
  • did I use multiple sources where possible?
  • are there things I could improve about my research process?
  • how did others solve similar problems?
  • where could I have made a mistake?
  • do I have the best copy of the original record?

Making corrections, increasing your knowledge level, re-evaluating what you have done are all great ways to improve the research you’ve done.

Maybe you just need a remodel and not a complete tear down.

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About Genealogy Tip of the Day

About Genealogy Tip of the Day:

  • We’ve been writing Genealogy Tip of the Day for ten years! Longer than we ever thought we would.
  • Genealogy Tip of the Day is written by Michael John Neill. Michael’s researched his own genealogy since the early 1980s and has traveled extensively doing research, giving lectures, and leading group research trips.
  • Our tips are meant to be short, informal, and not overly academic.
  • Our tips are meant to also (in some cases) be reminders of things you knew. It’s hard to write something every day that’s new for everyone.
  • We want readers to think about what they research, how they research, and how they interpret and analyze what they find
  • Our tips are based on actual research–so they reflect my interests and what I’m working on.
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US Geological Survey Maps May Tell You if Grandpa Walked Uphill to School Both Ways!

Historical United States Geological Survey maps can be one place to find locations of old schools and other geographic features that may no longer be in existence. Maps on the site are from the very early 20th century and later, but items from earlier than that may be included. Cemeteries and other features are shown as well. The map can tell you if the cemetery was at the top of a hill–something you always can’t get from a picture on FindAGrave. It’s also possible to document if Grandpa walked uphill to school both ways, but you’ll need to determine exactly where he lived and that will not be on these maps. There’s a brief introduction to using the site in this blog post on Rootdig.

1937 USGS map for area north of Carthage, Hancock County, Illinois.

Places Not on the Map

Newspaper gossip columns may reference “neighborhoods” that have no clearly defined boundaries and do not appear on a map. This can be a problem anywhere as both rural and urban neighborhoods can have nicknames. Determining where these areas are approximately located is not impossible. The easiest solution is to ask area residents if they know where the area is or was located. Researchers familiar with the area may be able to help as well. Local libraries, historical and genealogical societies may also be able to provide suggestions. If those approaches are not successful, look for names of “residents” in contemporary census records and see where they are enumerated. That can also provide a general idea of where the place may be.


You Still Need to Manually Search Digital Newspapers

Only found when “reading” the gossip columns after finding someone on a different family. I almost missed two Troutvetter items.

Digital images of newspapers are wonderful, but they will not catch every reference to the names for which you are looking. The problem is compounded if the original print was difficult to read or the microfilm from which the digital image was made was of poor quality. While looking at a reference for a different family, I found a newspaper reference to my Trautvetter ancestor that I had not located previously using digital searches.

The name was spelled Troutvetter, but I learned years ago to include variant spellings–and that’s an easy one for that name. The image was not in my folder of references I found when going through every Trautvetter and Troutvetter reference–other spellings were used as well.

I’m not certain why the original reference was not located originally. The newspaper I was using has articles in a variety of font sizes and some of those smaller fonts are more difficult to read and tend to be blurred–sometimes.

Manual searches of newspapers are still necessary, particularly when you have good cause to think there should be an item. It’s not possible for most of us to read every page, however there are a few things to look for specifically if digital queries of newspaper images don’t bring them up:

  • vital events (birth, marriage, death);
  • anniversaries;
  • court actions (if you have the date of something)
  • and other significant life events if you have the date



Justice of the Peace “Records” in the Newspaper?

In some jurisdictions county courts may not have heard all lawsuits. Justices of the Peace may have had jurisdiction over smaller matters that took place in their local area–frequently a town, village or township (but it depends on applicable state/local law). One of the problems is that these Justice of the Peace records are often not extant–or as detailed as county or higher level court records. Newspapers can be one place to learn about some of these smaller and less significant cases.

This one from 1886 was for $15 for trespass and damage to stock–probably because someone’s cattle got out or someone crossed a property line. No other details are given, but it helps put people in a location at a certain point in time.

Newspaper Tax Lists

Newspapers occasionally publish complete tax lists like the one from 1907 shown in the illustration. Sometimes newspapers only publish lists of delinquent taxpayers–make certain you know whether you are looking at a complete list, a list of late taxpayers, or a list of assessments that have been recently changed. Property owners may not be actual neighbors if they were absentee owners. For urban dwellers, a map showing the relative positions of lots within a subdivision and relative positions of subdivisions to each other may be helpful–they’ll give you geographic perspective.


WayBack Machine

If that website comes up “not found,” consider searching for that address/page at the Internet Archive‘s “WayBack Machine” at

You Are Responsible for Wagging Your Genealogy Tail

No one cares about your research the way you do. Professionals are limited by time–and your budget. Much of what will get done to discover and preserve your family history rests on your shoulders.

Learn all you can about the records where you ancestors lived and the places and time period in which they lived—and:

  • research methodically;
  • report accurately;
  • track what you use;
  • cite what you use.

That’s a good start and hopefully some discoveries will have you wagging your genealogy tail–just like Riley in the illustration.