What Did He Know About the Half-Siblings?

A relative made out an affidavit in Bedford County, Virginia, in the 1820s. In it he mentioned the older half-siblings of his wife. Those half-siblings were the result of his mother-in-law’s first relationship. While court documents are “supposed” to be correct, they sometimes are not. Based upon other contemporary records, it appears that the son-in-law knew the first names of his wife’s older half-siblings, but referred to all of them by their maiden names throughout the affidavit, even though they were married.

It’s very possible that the family of someone’s second marriage did not have overly detailed knowledge of the family of the first marriage. That’s especially true if second family lived a distance from the first or if there was a falling out between the two families.


How Burned Was that Burned County?

“The courthouse was burned” is one of those phrases that causes a significant amount of genealogical swearing. When you hear this phrase, remember to ask:

  • Did the entire courthouse burn?
  • Were all offices in the same location?
  • Were any records salvaged?
  • Were some documents “restored?”
  • Were residents asked to bring any originals in to be recorded again?
  • Would newspapers hold some of the missing information?
  • Are there federal records that would provide the same information?
  • Have I asked locals knowledgeable about the local records what materials might be available?
  • etc.


Knowing About “My Now Wife”

A will refers to the wife of Thomas Smith as his “now wife.” It does not mean that Thomas had been married before. It does not mean that he was planning on divorcing his current wife and marrying someone else.

It was an inheritance device. It was estate planning. It is done legally…just in case the situation changes before Thomas gets a chance to have his will rewritten.It was done to make the inheritance clear and to confuse genealogists who didn’t bother to learn what it really meant.

Thomas and Mary Smith had several children together. Thomas wants to write his will to make his intentions clear. He wants his wife Mary to have use of the farm for the duration of her life and then to go to the children they had together after her death. But there’s always the chance Mary dies and he marries again–perhaps to a woman named Mary. After all, certain names are fairly common.

If he gives his property to “my wife Mary,” that could create difficulties–should the second wife Mary get it…and would that second wife’s children (who may not be his) get it at her death? If he gives it to “his wife” using that phrase, a second wife, named Mary or not, could get it and the property could go to her children (who may not be his) at his death.

Lawyers put contingent phrases in legal documents all the time–especially wills.


When You Use an About Date

It is often necessary to approximate the date of a birth, marriage, or death. This is more likely to be the case in those areas that do not have vital records of these events. If you have to approximate the year something took place, have a reason. Include that reason in your database–preferably with some type of source or note included. That could be:

  • The marriage date is estimated to be between 1820 and 1821 for Johann and Antje because their first child was born in 1822.
  • The birth year for Thomas is estimated to be 1800 or before because he was married in 1821 and probably was at least twenty-one when he was married.
  • The death year for Susannah is estimated to be between 1853 and 1860 because the last probate record she signed for her husband was in 1853 and she is not listed in the 1860 census (in that case, indicate where you looked for her in the census and how you looked).

Don’t just put an about year with no justification to back it up. And if you have no justification at all, contemplate whether you really want to include the date in your database.


Family Dynamics Can Be Different

How much of your research methodology is based upon social constructs in your family and how your family of origin interacts with other family members? Have you considered that in families you are researching that family members may relationships entirely different from the ones with which you are personally familiar? Some families are very apt to separate geographically once the children are adults. In others, the geographic distance is never great.

Just because it’s how your family always interacted with each other does not mean that it’s the way all the families you may be researching interact with each other.


As Many As You Can

Try and talk to as many family members as you can–even about the same people and the same events. Different family members will have different recollections of the same individuals and events. Relatives who lived through the same event will remember different details and may tell versions that are not entirely consistent. And for stories about long-dead ancestors, not all members of your family may have heard the same stories.


Maybe Not the Reason You Think

In December of 1905, my great-grandparents mortgaged a 1/10 interest in a piece of property, signing a five-year note. They paid it off in June of 1907. They may have paid it off early to save on the interest or they may have paid it off because in the summer of 1907 their mother wanted to sell the property and could not sell it with the mortgage unpaid.

Sometimes there’s a reason why things happen when they do.


Mortgages Without Deeds of Ownership

I almost overlooked a real property mortgage my great-grandparents executed in 1905. I didn’t think they owned any real estate so saw no reason to look in the mortgage records.

However, they did use my great-grandmother’s 1/10 interest in her father’s farm as collateral for a mortgage. There never were any land deeds for the property in her name as the property was involved in an unrelated court action after the mortgage was paid off.


Facial Recognitions That You Don’t See

I really think my daughter bears a strong resemblance to my paternal grandmother, Ida (Trautvetter) Neill (1910-1994). Others may not agree and I’m not the only person who has a picture of an ancestor that they thinks look like another relative or one of their children.

You may not see the similarities that a relative sees between two pictures. Sometimes if we have a strong emotional connection to the people in the two pictures, seeing a resemblance between them may partially be due to our connection to the individuals and our desire to connect them.

That’s ok and, because of the similarities that I see between these two pictures, I completely understand it.

That does not mean that we rely on “that old picture of that woman kinda looks like my daughter, so it must my great-grandma” or other facial characteristics as proof of parentage or ancestry. It also does not mean that we reject a series of documents that consistently provide one date of birth when we “think they have to be wrong” because our gut says so.

If seeing a facial similarity between two identified people helps your relative to connect with their own past and to see their part in it, that’s ok–even if you don’t see the similarities.