Not Like You..In Some Ways

Genealogy “brick walls” come in a variety of styles. Some result from inadequate research. Some result from records that are unavailable, unindexed, or difficult search. Some result from records that were never kept. Some result from incorrect stories family members told us–either orally or in information they left in official records.

And some brick walls stem from our own misconceptions or lack of understanding.

Sometimes it’s a word or legal document that we do not understand. Sometimes it is a church record or process that is unfamiliar to us. And other times it’s because we assume that our ancestors were “just like us.”

In some ways they are. But in other ways they are not. Your ancestor’s life was different in ways beyond how they got their food, how they got their news, and where they used the restroom. Those differences are important, but they are the easiest differences to see. It’s the ones that are not always so visible that can be more of a challenge. Your ancestor in 1800 may have had an entirely different perspective on life based upon their own social class, ethnic group, educational background, childhood experience, etc. All of that may have been different from your own experience. And all of that could have impacted personal and financial decisions they made throughout their life–and the records they left behind.

Did Your Ancestors Get Federal Land?

The Bureau of Land Management website ( allows users to search patent database of individuals who obtained federal land. The database contains an image of the actual patent and should describe the federal act under which the individual obtained the land. The BLM site does not contain any of supporting documentation used to obtain that land. Those files are in the National Archives in Washington, DC. Generally speaking federal land could be obtained via:

  • cash purchase;
  • military warrant (issued based upon military service in specific wars);
  • homestead;
  • pre-emption and various other claims.

The amount of paperwork in the application file varies dependent upon the type of acquisition process.

this tip originally ran in 2018

How Did It Get On There?

Understanding the record creation process can help us to understand how mistakes and errors creep into records. That entry for mother’s maiden name that we are viewing in the birth register. It could have been transcribed by the records clerk from the actual birth certificate filled out by the doctor whose handwriting was not the best. The doctor asked the baby’s mother what her maiden name was and really could not understand what was said.

There are several steps from your ancestor’s mouth to your eyeball:

  • ancestor’s mouth
  • doctor’s ear
  • doctor’s brain
  • doctor wrote it down
  • clerk read it
  • clerk’s brain
  • clerk wrote it down
  • record was microfilmed
  • record was digitized
  • record got to you

Not every record has all these steps–some have fewer and occasionally there are even more. At any point the process (especially before the microfilming or digitizing), there are possible errors of interpretation.

Never hurts to ask yourself “how did this information get from my ancestor to me?”

US Naturalization Records Webinar

Join us–or pre-order a recorded copy of
Naturalization: An Unnatural Process

Naturalization: An Un-natural Process

This presentation will focus on US records of naturalization. There will be discussion of Colonial era naturalizations as well as those into the 20th century. Emphasis will be on records that were created, how those records fit into the larger naturalization process, and how to access and interpret those records. A variety of records and research situations will be used to illustrate key principles and concepts. Handout included.

Session will be held live at 2:30 pm on 2 April 2021–recordings can be ordered for those who cannot attend live.

Live attendance registration 2 April 2021 at 2:30 pm central —$14.00 (limited seating)

Pre-order recording–$12.49 (recording available and sent on 3 April)

Some Short Notes

There are times where all a person needs is a snippet of material from their database to help remind them of key details on a family or group of individuals.

When working on an aunt, ,her two marriages, and her husband’s two (or three?) marriages, names and dates were running together. I did not need all my data in front of me while searching. I did not need an extensive chronology in front of me. I just needed the key marriage dates and names to keep myself from getting confused and having to constantly refer to my database.

The little chart is not comprehensive. It is not cited. It is for my use only to keep me from getting totally confused.

Local Knowledge

Many times when aske da question about records access–whether the records are available, what records were maintained, how are records accessed, are they still extant, etc. –the answer depends on the specific location. No one can be knowledgeable about all areas and time periods. Someone with general California knowledge can provide broad ideas about what records are available for Colusa County, California, but the best answer will be given by someone who has specific knowledge about that location.

There may be localized genealogy groups on Facebook where these questions can be asked (but keep in mind that not everyone who says they “know their stuff” actually does). One may also reach out to local historical or genealogical societies, local libraries, or even the local courthouse–to see if they know, or if they don’t, if they can point you in the direction of someone who does.

Derivative Citizenship

A derivative citizenship is one that is derived from someone else’s naturalization or citizenship status. If your immigrant ancestor stated that they were naturalized and they were born outside the country, look closely at the citizenship of the parents–especially the father. Your foreign-born ancestor who claimed in a US census record he was naturalized at the age of five may have been–through his father’s naturalization.

In pre-1906 US naturalization records, children and the spouse are not mentioned, but their citizenship status would have followed the father’s through his naturalization. The exception would be children at the age of majority when the father naturalized.

Is It Extant?

A relative died in Hancock County, Illinois, in the 12 month period before the enumeration of the 1870 US population census. She should have been listed in the mortality census that was taken for that year and I was anxious to find the reference to her.

Online indexes did not make it “obvious” that the mortality schedule from 1870 are not extant for Hancock County. After searching for a few minutes and not finding her, I decided to look at the National Archives website to see what counties in Illinois had extant mortality schedules for 1870. The alphabetical list of counties started with Kendall. That explained why I could not find the person for whom I was looking.

Before you spend too much time looking for that elusive person in an online index, make certain the records for the specific location you are looking for are actually included.

How Precise Is that Record…Really?

Grandma was born at her parents’ home on what’s now the highway west of town in 1924. That’s where all her siblings were born.

Grandma’s birth certificate indicates she was born in Prairie Township, Hancock County, Illinois, in 1924. That is as precise as it gets. There is no address listed. My transcription should only indicate what is given on the certificate. If family tradition indicates the place of birth more precisely, that should be put in the notes–along with the individual who provided the information or my reason for believing it. Always include a source.

Earlier records may not be as precise. Some marriage records only indicate the county of birth–so that’s what I should list as the location of the event. For some individuals my knowledge of the place may only ever be as specific as the county–and even then that may be speculation.

The same thing goes with dates of birth. For many of my Virginia ancestors before the early 19th century, my “dates of birth” are only as specific as the year and the location is as specific as the county. Even those locations are based upon where the mother was presumed to have been living at the time of the birth.

Finish the Grantor/Grantee Search First

When searching local land records and using the grantor/grantee indexes created by the original record holder (like the digital images of deeds at FamilySearch), go through all the indexes before you start looking at individual deeds referenced in the index.

Going back and forth can be tempting, especially when you find something “really interesting.” But if you are not careful, index pages or entries can easily be overlooked in all the going back and forth. And that item that slips past you will be the one that has the good information.

Sticking to one task at a time also makes it easier to concentrate.