Public Details of Private Records?

One of the reasons newspapers are valuable resources for genealogists is because they are hard to “close” once they have been published. Court cases may be sealed, but a newspaper reference to that court case is “out” forever. A birth certificate may be sealed if there is an adoption, but if the baby’s birth was in the local newspaper–it is still there.

If there’s a record you cannot access, ask yourself what you are trying to find out or discover and are there other records that may provide that same information?

From Whence it Came

A search for a relative on a “big” genealogy website may search records from a wide variety of sources and instantly pull up an image with the name of interest. Before you assume you’ve hit the genealogy jackpot there are some warnings:

  • The image may not refer to your relative. The image may come up because the name is “close,” the location is “close,” or someone else thought the record was about your ancestor. The name may not really be the same, the location may be too far off, or that other person may be incorrect. If the search parameters were set too loosely, the “match” may make absolutely no sense. Search results are not divinely inspired.
  • The transcription may not be correct. The original may be difficult to read or the transcriber may have made a mistake. Transcriptions made on Ancestry, FamilySearch, etc. are not officially sanctioned transcriptions. They are not gospel. Do not treat them as if they are. Read the document yourself. Ask someone for assistance on one of the many genealogy groups online (Facebook, etc.).

When viewing any image of a record, ask yourself the following questions:

  • what record did this image come from?
  • is there more to this record?
  • what was the purpose of this record?
  • am I using an image of the original record or a transcription of the original record?
  • who originally created this record and where are those originals?

If you don’t know what on earth you are looking at, how on earth are you going to understand and analyze it?

Don’t just ask those questions and ignore them. Get the actual answers. If you do, you are likely to:

  • make fewer mistakes
  • save yourself time
  • discover even more information

[In reference to the title of this post, I realize that some readers are vegan. If so, replace “mystery meat” with “plant of unknown origin.:]

For a somewhat lengthy example of this analysis, view a post on our sister site, Rootdig.

This Trick Will Solve Your Research Problems

The reality is that there is no trick or instant solution to genealogical research problems. However, generally speaking the following approaches are helpful:

  • citing your sources;
  • learning as much as you can about all the records in the area;
  • learning the history of the area;
  • having contemporary maps;
  • obtaining as many records as possible;
  • using compiled sources (published genealogy books, online trees, etc. ) as stepping stones to original records;
  • realizing assumptions may not be true;
  • continuing to learn about genealogical research in general;
  • proofing and double checking your work.

Not one trick and not a guarantee, but these general suggestions will go a long way.

Think, Engage, and Interact–Don’t Just React

At Genealogy Tip of the Day we want you to think about your research: how you decide what material to research, how you find material, how you analyze material. We want you to think about what sources you may not have looked at, what assumptions about your ancestor may not be true, and what conclusions regarding your ancestor may need to be re-evaluated.

Think, engage, and interact with what you find–don’t just react.

This tip was originally published in February of 2017 but is just as true today.

Grandpa Didn’t Have to Prove It…

When the census taker came asking questions, they didn’t require the respondent to “prove” the answers they gave. They took them at their word. If your relative gave clearly incorrect information, the census taker may have asked someone for clarification. But for the most part, what your relative said was what got written down.

They didn’t ask them to validate those property values in the 1850 or 1860 census. They didn’t ask to verify ages or places of birth. Answers regarding citizenship status and eligibility to vote were taken at face value (for those enumerations that required those details).

Your relative providing information may have guessed where their mother was born on their 1880 census enumeration. They may have guessed about the place of birth for their mother–in-law who lived with them and whose memory was questionable on certain days.

And when asked about the cousin of their husband who moved in ten years ago and never left, they might have said “is there a spot for ‘total freeloader’ on that there census sheet?”

They Got Served-You May Get a Clue

A notice to appear in a court case can provide a clues as to the residence of the individual being required to appear. The summons will generally be issued to the sheriff of the county in which the person resides. The difficulty is that one has to determine in which court cases a person may be summoned. That requires looking in indexes to court records for ancestral siblings, friends, and associates.

Some Popular Tips

A review of our stats from several years ago indicated that in 2017-2018 we had several tips that were significantly more popular than others. Here’s the list: What’s your favorite tip?

Service Records Versus Benefit Records

Records related to an ancestor’s involvement in the military may take the form of service records or benefit records. Service records were those records created during the person’s actual service and relate to their service, when they were mustered in, their physical description, when they were mustered out, where they were assigned, and other information from records created during their service.

Benefit records are records typically created after service related to benefits that were given to or were dur to the serviceperson as the result of their service. Those records, in the United States at least, are typically pension records and sometimes records of bounty lands that were awarded to the serviceman.

In the United States these records are at the National Archives. There may be some additional materials at a state archives or regional facility depending upon the war and the time period.

Their Relationships to Each Other—Not to You

When identifying individuals in a photograph, use their complete name (as best as you have it including name name) and years of birth and death (if you have it). If you want to include relationships in the identification, do that with respect to other people in the photograph and not to someone not in the photograph.

It can be confusing to see individuals listed as gg-grandpa of MJN, gg-aunt of MJN, 3rd cousin of MJN, etc. Personally I would leave out the relationships unless it helped to clarify who someone was in the photograph.

And don’t forget the location and when the photograph was taken–if you know it. Including who made the identification is helpful as well.

Boring Ancestors?

There are no “boring” ancestors. Everyone has a story to tell and one person’s “boring” is someone else’s “not-so-boring.” For those who leave behind fewer records and stories that on the surface seem more mundane, have you learned about:
  • the times in which they lived?
  • what likely employment they had?
  • the tools or their job or household (estate inventories are great for this)?
  • what life was like for someone in their situation?
  • what historical events actually impacted their life?
  • etc.?
The answers to those questions may not reveal a great Greek tragedy, but the result can be the development of more insight into your ancestor’s life.  It may also increase the chance that you actually learn more specific details about your ancestor’s existence. Not every relative lived a life full of drama. There’s something to be said for that. Sometimes that’s the more difficult life to lead. And it’s often the more difficult life to research.