Did They Just Make It Up?

I have a friend whose first name is a combination of both her grandmothers’ first names. Another relative’s somewhat unusual first name was chosen simply because her mother “liked it.” Another relative never would tell me if the first name given to a child had any significance or meaning.

Sometimes people just make up an age when asked.

It happens. People sometimes make things up for no reason. But there are differences. Making up a name for a child on a whim and having that child use that name consistently for their entire life is different from changing your age constantly when asked. A name pulled out of the blue makes the researcher wonder where it came from but makes the person easier to trace. An age that changes all the time presents an entirely different research challenge.

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Clue Pointing You?

Winnie’s probably thinking of bacon treats and not her canine forebears.

This picture, with the dog’s ear apparently pointing towards something, serves to remind us of at least two things.

One is that most documents contain clues pointing us in one direction or another–we just need to take the time to see them. Those clues can be direct, in-your-face statements. Those clues can be subtle references to a person’s age, religious affiliation, military experience, previous residences, etc. The person’s presence on a document may indicate they were “eligible” for one thing or another–to vote, to register for the draft, to serve on a jury, to own land, etc.–that is a clue.

And the ear? Well it suggests listening to what the document or record has to say. Reading it out loud is not necessary, but thinking about what it says is.


Newspaper Citation

Tracking where you got information is important, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. Remember for an online image of a old newspaper item (not a contemporary one), include at the very minimum the following:

  • Name of newspaper,
  • Location in which it was published,
  • Date of publication.

Those above items are essential. Ideally also include the following:

  • Website where you found it–if publication was online. If newspaper was on microfilm so state.
  • Page the item was on.
  • Date you obtained the image.

Citation geeks will take me to task for this post. But if you have the first three things and need to get an academically completely correct citation for one reason or another it can be done. If you don’t have the first three things, that process is significantly more difficult.


Where Were They in One Year?

If you’re needing a genealogy activity and your ancestral research stymied, consider making a map of the locations where your ancestors were living at one point in time.

For those whose ancestors lived in areas that took censuses, pick a year and map out where all your direct line ancestors lived. Ancestors living in other countries could also be mapped if you have an idea where they would have been at that point in time.

One page from a project my daughter did on
where her great-grandparents were in the 1930 census.

At the very least it will cause you to review your records and who knows what omissions you may find out that you have? If you’ve got them all mapped out, think about how their descendants moved around until you were the result?

This can also be a great activity to do with a child–just modify it to make it age appropriate. It can involve more than one academic discipline, including my personal favorite–math!

There’s history, geography, art, math, writing, problem-solving (if you make the person try and find the people themselves), and more.


Timber Claims

The “Timber Culture Act” was pass in 1873 and was intended to encourage the planting of trees in Great Plains and western parts of the United States. In some places it worked as intended and in others it did not. The requirements to obtain land under the Act changed over time, but always centered on planting trees on a requisite number of acres.

In some areas settlers or others completed their timber claims and obtained title to the land–generating a patent that transferred title to the property. In many other areas claims were not completed, either because the land simply was not suited to grow timber or the claimant was trying to gain use of the land for a time. Incomplete, relinquished, or abandoned timber claims would not have generated a patent because title was never transferred to the claimant.

Patents transferring land for completed claims are on the Bureau of Land Management website. The application files are at the National Archives. Incomplete claims did not generate a patent. Those files are at the National Archives as well, but the researcher would need to know the location of the claim in order to locate the record. Timber claim files generally do not contain quite as much genealogical information as do homestead files.

There’s more information on timber claims in this article on the Minnesota Historical Society website.


Every Directory Every Year

City directory work can be tedious.

If you are stuck on a family (and even if you are not), tracking them through every extant city directory could answer some of those nagging genealogical questions. Entries could reference deceased spouses, contain an employment reference of which you were unaware, document a short term move across town, or provide other details about your urban relative.

Don’t forget to look in the “back” of the directory for reverse directories (people listed by address), business directories, church directories, and whatever other gems an editor decided to include.

Occasionally cities have multiple directories for the same year printed by different publishers. Make certain you’ve seen each one.


Before You Hire a Professional

Before you hire a professional researcher:

  • Decide what it is what you really want to know about your ancestor or family.
  • Organize the information you already have. Cite the sources.
  • Ask questions about your family in appropriate online groups or forums. Don’t necessarily hire someone who responds to your question. In many groups soliciting customers from those who ask questions is not allowed.
  • Make certain there’s nothing you have overlooked accessing yourself.
  • Decide specifically what it is you cannot do yourself that you need someone else to do for you.

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Picking Out the Pieces

The online trees I tend to use the most for research “suggestions” are ones that contain sources–that cuts down on the number quite a bit if you also eliminate those that only cite other online trees. Sourced trees may reference items that I have overlooked in my research or that I simply have not yet had the time to look for.

Online trees can be full of errors–sometimes. There are times where the compiler has merged people with similar names into one person or has taken several people with similar names and melded them into two individuals.

Other times the compiler has pulled one record from beyond left field to be included in a person’s file when the rest of it is spot on. And occasionally the compilation is entirely correct. Don’t just copy the information from the trees into your own–even if it appears to be correct most of the time. Use the tree for clues.

If you decide to use an online tree for clues, pick apart each specific statement it makes (about a birth, a death, a residence in a location, a marriage, etc.). Look at each record entry individually and ask yourself, is this for the same person? Could this one entry be for someone else?

Also make certain that the record has been transcribed correctly and that there are not clues in it that have been overlooked.


Relatives With No Descendants Could Help You from Beyond the Grave

Determining relationships of your DNA matches can be problematic if you don’t have all the relatives of your great, great-great, and great-great-great-grandparents traced down. One place to get some help with that are intestate probate records for relatives who died without children of their own. Siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, etc. may be mentioned–usually by married name. If recent enough, addresses may also be included.

This case from 1972 documented all the living descendants of a couple who were married in 1881 and died in 1913 and 1932 respectively. A great help tracking down long lost relatives.


Leaving Out the Obvious

Genealogists often lament the fact that documents fail to include “extra” details that they would like to know.

The deed between two men with the same last name that does not state their relationship.

The newspaper item that mentions someone from out of town visiting a local resident without stating their relationship.

Frustrating, but it is worth remember that, in the case of the deed, legal documents are created for a specific purpose–not for leaving behind details of the relationship between the individuals signing the document. If the relationship is germane to the transaction (they were both heirs to the property, for example) then it may be stated–but not always. The newspaper is about “news” and the “news” is that someone visited–not what their relationship was.

Ask yourself “Is there a reason this record would mention the relationship? Is there a reason the document would have to mention the relationship?” It may be frustrating, but many times the answer is simply “no.”

And have you signed a legal document involving a relative where your relationship is not stated? What would the lawyer have said if you had insisted that the relationship be given? I think my lawyer would have rolled his eyes if I had insisted it be included in recent documents I signed involving my brother.