Author Archives: michaeljohnneill

About michaeljohnneill

Genealogy author and speaker.

Never Bothered to Naturalize?

Your immigrant ancestor might not have even bothered to become an American citizen–particularly before the naturalization reform of 1906. Voting was the main benefit that came from citizenship. Unnaturalized aliens could usually own property, bequeath property, etc. without becoming American citizens (check contemporary state statute to be certain). If you are unable to locate a naturalization for your 19th century American immigrant and you have looked diligently for it, it may that your relative never bothered to naturalize.

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The Estray Book

If you come across an “estray book” at a courthouse, it is a book where residents could register lost property they had located, usually animals. Before the Civil War, slaves may also be listed. There will not be an overly large amount of detail in these books, but a reference to your ancestor in an “estray book” can indicate residence in a certain place at a certain point in time.

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Proofread One One One More Time

Before sending a message, putting information in your genealogical database, or posting family history information online: proofread–one more time.

Make certain you’ve copied that date and location correctly, double check that interpretation of a word or a phrase, re-evaluate that conclusion, and see that words are spelled correctly. Grammar errors are not really the end of the world, but errors of a “factual” nature can be difficult to remove once they’ve been posted online and someone has copied them.

One last read over never hurts.

Under What Act

Applications for US military pensions often mention the act under which the veteran (or his widow) applied. The details of that act may explain why the veteran waited until then–and that reason could be a clue. Men or women who applied for federal property usually did so under a certain act. If you have records of your ancestor having “applied” for anything, look to see if the act under which the application was made is referenced. Learning about that act may tell you something about your ancestor that is not stated in the application.

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Do Not Rely On Your Memory

In doing some work on Catherine Belless, I came across an 1867 receipt in her husband’s probate case file from Fulton County, Illinois, where she made her mark. I was convinced she had actually signed documents in her Civil War widow’s pension file around the same time. I was certain of it.

I was wrong. What I remembered was that the handwriting was different–Catherine had still made her mark. Before you write from memory–check. Otherwise you may be propagating incorrect information yourself.

Female Witnesses A Clue?

When women witness events or documents, especially before the early twentieth century, I usually wonder why? Not because women were unreliable but because of societal norms. Women were usually witnesses when men were unable to testify to the events in question. In 1865, Elizabeth Belless testified that she had been at the birth of all of Catherine Belless’ six children and Sarah James was a near neighbor to Catherine and had seen her within hours of each birth. These women need to be researched to determine any relationship to Catherine.

WIth Elizabeth Belless the potential connection to Catherine Belless is suggested by the last name. A little more work needs to be done on Sarah, but her statement strongly hints that she’s more than a neighbor.

Statement of Sarah James and Elizabeth Belless in Civil War Widow’s Pension Application for Catherine Belless, widow of Peter Belless, Company I, 18th Illinois Regiment.

What Am I Looking At?

Part of the outer envelope of the compiled military service service record for Peter Belless, Company I, 18th Illinois Infantry, US Civil War. Cards containing information on Belless’ service were put in this envelope. There are thousands of these envelopes written on by a number of clerks–whose handwriting can easily be different.

One of the challenges researchers encounter with images of records is knowing just what they are looking at.

“Mega” genealogy sites include many images of records that can be sometimes easy to locate or stumble upon–but researchers may fail to review source information that accompanies the image. Sometimes that source information is not clear and sometimes the researcher may not be familiar with just really what the records are.

Google searches often locate images with nary a clue as to what was used to make the image.

Questions to ask yourself about any image (or record) you locate:

  • what was the purpose of this record?
  • who created this record?
  • was it a part of another record?
  • what is this record?

There are other questions about a document that need to be asked as well–but getting to the essence of “just what is this?” is an excellent way to start.


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Get Contemporary?

The Union Civil War widow’s pension application indicated the soldier died in Memphis, Tennessee. Another document in the pension application indicated the soldier died in Springfield, Illinois. The soldier’s compiled military service record also indicated he died in Springfield. The document in the service record was created close to the time of his death–within a few weeks.

That’s more contemporary to the event than the documents in the pension file.

Generally speaking, for there are always exceptions, one wants to get a document that is as contemporary as possible.