You Don’t Need Every Rabbit Hole or to Find Kevin Bacon

There are times when the methodology of tracking all the friends, associates, and neighbors can be taken a bit too far. It’s always important to keep perspective in mind and to think about interactions with people in our own lives when researching those whose lifespan preceded our own.

The witness who appears on several deeds my ancestor signed? That’s someone I probably should research a little further to determine what (if any) the connection is to my ancestor. The lawyer who draws up his last will and testament or writes a few deeds for him? That’s someone whose background I should research, but I probably would not research the lawyer as closely as the repeating witness. Think about your own documents and records and how people from your life come to also appear in those records. Witnesses who appear on only one document your relative signs could have been witnesses of convenience, much like the assistant in a legal office who may have been the witness on your own will.

It’s probably not necessary for me to extensively research the 1900 landlord of the man who appears in my ancestor’s life once as a notary on a statement he makes when he naturalizes in 1935. It would make more sense to see where that notary worked and lived in the 1935 era–particularly if I do not know where the relative was living at that point in time.

Ask yourself, “what chance is there that information on this person gives me some good ‘background information’ to help me trace my relative?”

Remember genealogical research is not the same as “six degrees of separation” or the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

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What Could I Be Missing?

One problem-solving approach I like to use is to constantly ask myself “what could I be missing?”

That’s an intentionally broad question and does cover a lot of ground.

Do I really have every document on this person? Is there a relative I’ve overlooked? Is there a detail I do not understand in this record? Did I get everything in the file or record?

Is there something I think I understand that I do not?

And so it goes.

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Don’t Neglect the Women

There is no doubt that in local records throughout much of American history women do not appear as often as men. Genealogists know that an American women who dies before the twentieth century is more likely to have an estate settlement if her husband died before her.

But it is a mistake to assume that a woman would never appear in a court or land record in the United States before the twentieth century. While divorce was less common, it did happen. There were women who, for one reason or another, had separate property and occasionally appeared in a court record or a land record because of it.

Failing to search for that female relative in court and land records “because I have not found one yet,” means that you won’t find those who are there.

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Were They Moving, Moving, Moving?

An ancestor of mine has children who were born in Canada, Michigan, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. He and his family got around.

Never assume that your ancestor did not move. Just because he was in a specific location in 1850 and 1860 does not mean that he was there in 1855. One of my wife’s ancestral families was in Illinois in every census after 1860, but spent two years in Pennsylvania and a year in England after that. Both of these residences took place in off census years and the family was “back” in Illinois for the next enumeration.

Some city and town dwellers who rented their home may have moved frequently as well. They may have stayed in the same general neighborhood or maybe not. The same applies to rural individuals who may have moved from one small town to another.

Check out Genealogy Tip of the Day book version for other tips and questions you should ask yourself about your research.

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Those With No Children–Who Gave the Data?

Tracking down those aunts and uncles who had no descendants is advised because it helps give the researcher a complete picture of the entire family and it helps all members of the family to be remembered. Those are excellent reasons. But there’s another reason.

Some record on that relative with no children of their own could provide information on those relatives you can’t find out more about. This 1980 death certificate for my aunt listed a sister-in-law as the informant–complete with residential address in 1980. Had I been unable to track her down, the reference would have been extremely helpful.

Any record on that relative with no descendants could tell you more about your relative’s life. It could also provide information on other family members as well.

The drawback is that sometimes death certificates on these relatives only have “hospital records” as the informant. But you will not know until you look.

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Getting Around Between Census Years

I’m working on a family between the 1900 and 1930 time frame. While we often rely on the decennial federal census records to give us a scaffold on which to build research plans, it’s worth reminding ourselves that a great deal can happen in the years between one census and the next.

In the case of this family, I suspect that the man and woman who married in 1908 were divorced or separated by the date of the 1910 census. It appears that the wife did marry again but she used her maiden name when doing so. That made locating the marriage all the more difficult. All the creative searching for her under the name of her 1908 marriage would not help.

If you can’t find someone in the next census after the one in which you’ve located them, it’s always possible that they were dead. But it is also possible that there were several life events that took place that changed their name, marital status, etc.

Sometimes people are not dead. They are just dying to be found.

Check out Genealogy Tip of the Day book version for other tips and questions you should ask yourself about your research.

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Finding Old Directories

  • Google search for “countyname county directory.” Use name of the state if county name is common. You will get things besides directories.
  • GoogleBooks search for “countyname county directory.” Use name of the state if county name is common. Can also search for names. Not always able to download entire book.
  • Archive.org–same search ideas as for GoogleBooks. Can download entire book as PDF or alternate formats.
  • Hathitrust.org–same search ideas as for GoogleBooks. Not always able to download entire book.
  • Library websites in the town and county in which they town was located may either have digital images of directories or links to sites that do have these images. Google searches for “townname public library” should help locate these libraries’ websites.
  • Ask the researchers with interest in the same county for suggestions. Facebook groups for genealogy in the county and state are a good place to start if other approaches are unsuccessful.

Check out Genealogy Tip of the Day book version for other tips and questions you should ask yourself about your research.

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The Key, Intro, Explanation, Etc.

There is more to using reference materials than simply seeing if your item or person of interest is included. The publication’s preface or introduction may include additional material to help explain the reference you found to the person or item for which you were looking. There may be a list of abbreviations, an explanation of the book’s format, a summary of items used, etc. all of which are helpful in interpreting the item correctly.

Don’t just copy the page that includes that for which you are searching and quit. The front matter of these books matter if one hopes to interpret the information correctly.

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Court (or other) Records in Neighboring Counties?

When you find quite a bit on a relative in a certain county for what appears to be the entire duration of their life, it can be tempting to think that neighboring counties do not need to be searched.

That can be a mistake.

Deed, court, and probate records were easily located on a person of interest in Bedford County, Virginia. I thought I was done with that portion of the research. It turns out that I was not. A search of court records in adjacent Amherst County turned up a court case for him there as well.

I was not done with the research. The deeds had not been fully analyzed and I did not know where in Bedford County the person lived. Their proximity to the county line could have meant that they lived in the neighboring county for part of their life or frequently conducted business with individuals from that neighboring county.

Neighboring counties should always be searched. This is particularly true when the person lived near the county line or you do not know where they lived within the county.

Just because you’ve “found a lot,” does not mean you will not find more.

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