Were the Records Really Destroyed?

No genealogist wants to hear “the courthouse burned and all the records were destroyed.” The reality is that sometimes that statement is only partially true. Other times there are partial workarounds to those times when a courthouse and its records were really destroyed.

The first thing to do is to determine what actually was destroyed. This may mean reaching out to others besides the local records offices. In some locations research guides to the area in question may indicate what materials really were destroyed and what ones are still extant. Local libraries, genealogical/historical societies are a good place to start asking about what records are available.

Individuals familiar with research in the area can be another great resource. These people may not live in the area and may not be members of local societies. Ask around if there is anyone who has done extensive research on families in the area and see if it is possible to reach out to this person.

State or regional archives may have materials related to the area in question. FamilySearch may have copies of some materials as well.

In some cases, after a facility’s records were destroyed, local individuals may have been told to bring in their original deeds or other items that had been recorded to have them recorded. Others may have documented land ownership through affidavits and depositions.

Finally, state or federal records may provide some information on your ancestors as well as newspapers, cemeteries, church records, etc.

Follow Up on the Ex After the Divorce?

Do you completely research all the ex-spouses of your ancestor after they and your ancestor divorced? Records after the divorce may mention your ancestor, their children, or provide research clues that help with your actual ancestor.

And you never know, you may just find a really interesting story–even if your ancestor is not mentioned. I did. It included a fall down an elevator shaft and a box of missing estate documents that were never found. And the probate ended up mentioning the ex-wife.

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Not in the File, but in the Paper

The widow never did find the box of papers.

Thomas Price supposedly left behind a lock box with valuable papers related to his estate when he died in Quincy, Illinois, in 1923. It was never found.

The probate packet made no mention of the missing papers (because they were not found), but there were at least two newspaper references to the missing items. One reference indicated that Thomas had been married before and had children with his first wife.

Always search newspapers for references to an ancestral estate. They will not always be mentioned and the references may not be as sensational as this one, but additional family details may be alluded to in the newspaper.

The widow hired an attorney and three fortune tellers to help her find the box. She had no luck.

Who Was the First and Why?

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The probate of Belinda Newman in Linn County, Iowa, indicated three children were in Hancock County, Illinois.

My ancestor and at least three of his siblings spent some time in Hancock County, Illinois, during their life. Two of his siblings died there.

To the best of my knowledge his parents never lived there and some of his siblings went from Indiana straight to Iowa without making any long-term stops in Illinois. The family originally lived in Indiana where the children grew up and where the father died in 1864.

The question is: who was the first one to move to Hancock County, Illinois? What brought them to that area? Were there more distant relatives living in the area already? Were there others from the same Indiana location who moved to the same Illinois county? Or did one just settle there for reasons that can’t now be precisely determined and others simply followed?

Who I’m Focusing on in 1950

The 1950 US Census will be released to the public on 1 April 2022.

There are ways to find people in the 1950 census before it is indexed (and even after it’s indexed for people whose names are issues). Those ways hinge on knowing where the person probably lived in 1950, determining the enumeration district for that location, and manually searching that district.

Personally I am going to focus on the individuals in my family whose residences were stable during the mid-20th century and search for them. There will be aunts, uncles, and cousins in those areas as well who will be “easy pickings” to find. I have about seven rural townships where I will search for relatives initially. Additionally, I will search two small towns whose population is under 3,000 each.

I have eleven ancestors who were alive in 1950. I will search the townships where they were likely living first and then complete the others that are on my list. As I read those townships, I’ll be on the lookout for other relatives beyond my immediate ancestors. I won’t be looking for specific people, I’ll be looking at each name and seeing if it “rings a bell” in my head. Is that the most efficient approach?

Maybe. Maybe not. But until the census is indexed, finding anyone is a manual search process. There’s not need to read those pages for names more times than I need to. I won’t completely transcribe the entries at the time. My focus will be on searching the census. I will transcribe the complete entry later as I need it. I will create a spreadsheet for each person that includes:

  • Last name,
  • First name,
  • State,
  • County,
  • Township/Town/Village
  • Enumeration District
  • Page
  • Line number for the head of household
  • Comments–anything unusual I noted about the enumeration, etc.

I think I’m going with line number of the head of household in my spreadsheet to make copying/pasting the information from one person’s entry to another one as easy as possible. I’m not creating citations. I’m creating a spreadsheet for my own use.

This approach may not work for everyone. I know how I work and what works for me. I may never get to transcribing all the entries I put in the chart. But I know that given how many relatives I have in these areas, I want to read the entire townships first to see if there’s anything “earthshattering” in the enumerations (which I’m doubting).


Check out my 1950 Census prep webinar.

Can I Get a Witness?

There are different types of witnesses one encounters in genealogical research. There are witnesses who are indicating that they saw someone sign a legal document such as a deed or a will. Those witnesses are really just testifying that they are aware of who the person signing the document is and that they are signing the document. Witnesses have to be of the legal age of majority at the time they are witnessing someone’s act. Witnesses could easily be someone at the office the same day the person signing the document was there signing it. Witnesses to certain documents cannot usually be beneficiaries of the document being signed.

Witnesses in court cases or pension applications are a little bit different. They are usually providing more information about an event or a person than is a witness to a document signing. These witnesses are often providing information about people, places, or events. If they are making a statement about a person, they may indicate how long they have known that person. That length of time can be a big clue in one’s genealogical research. Did the witness know the person about whom they are providing testimony when that person lived somewhere else? Does the length of time suggest that the individuals knew each other as children? Does the length of time suggest that the individual was a child when they knew the person about whom they are providing testimony?

Witnesses to signatures are often “warm body witnesses.” While they should not be ignored, the relationship they had to your relative may have been fleeting and extremely short-lived. Witnesses in court depositions and pension applications are another matter, especially when the length of time they knew each other is considered.

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Parted Ways to Marry Again?

It can be tempting to think that when one member of a husband-wife couple marries again that the other spouse has died or that there was a divorce. That’s not always the case.

Sometimes couples just separated with no legal arrangements at all. One of them may have up and left or they may have decided to just part company without worrying about legal entanglements. An ancestral couple of mine did just that in New York State in the early 19th century and both of them married again and had children with subsequent spouses. No divorce can be located.

Another ancestor of mine, Clark Sargent, is supposed to have died near Rockford, Illinois, in the 1840s, a year or so before his wife married her second husband. It’s too early for a death record. Despite him owning farmland and having small children, there was no estate settlement or guardianship for his children. His daughter in her Civil War widow’s pension application even suggests that her father might have simply “run off” instead of dying–she also refers to him as a gadabout.

When divorces were more difficult to get and it was easier to move and start a new life, that might be what your relative did.

Don’t assume thought that is what happened. Make certain you have looked into all extant court, property, and other records in the area where the person lived. There may be something that mentions the couple’s separation–like the deed between a relative and his wife in Kentucky in the 1860s that separated their property but stated that they were not technically divorced.

Reminder: Get the Original

We’ve said it before, but it definitely is worth a repeat.

Whether you have a complete transcription, an abstract, a one sentence quote, or something somewhere in between, it always pays to get a copy of the record that was used.

Transcriptions, while they are supposed to be complete, can contain errors or the occasional omission. Abstracts are supposed to contain “all important details,” but things get overlooked and what may appear unimportant to someone else may be germane to your research problems. Sentences or phrases lifted from a document may have been taken out of context and may have been incorrectly interpreted by the user of the quote.

And always look a few pages before and after any original document in a record book for others that may have been recorded at the same time as the document of interest.

And…remember that record copies of deeds, wills, and other documents in a local courthouse are record copies of those documents. There’s always a slight chance something was copied incorrectly–especially when those record copies were created by hand or by typewriter.

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A Spouse at the very End

If your relative had a marriage at the end of their life that did not last long (due to their age) and may have resulted in no children, have you researched that marriage and spouse completely?

Depending on the place and time period, that marriage record may tell you more about your ancestor than their earlier marriage record. Your ancestor may have actually known the spouse for decades before the marriage (or at least been aware of them) and the spouse’s migration path may help you learn more about your own ancestor.

Family heirlooms, family Bibles, etc. may have passed to the family of this final, short-term spouse. In the case of female ancestors in the United States and many other countries, knowing the last name of that last spouse is crucial to finding out information about the female’s death, estate settlement, etc.

That spouse your ancestor had at the very end of their life could be crucial to locating more about them. Your ancestor apparently didn’t ignore them. You shouldn’t either.

A Little Bit Closer?

Autosomal DNA results are only helpful with a limited number of generations beyond the testee. As an example AncestryDNA’s ThruLines only includes suggested ancestors back through 5th great-grandparents. The reason for the limit is simple: the further back you go the less autosomal DNA you have from a specific ancestor in that generation.

If you’re thinking of getting a relative DNA tested to help with your research and you are using autosomal DNA–which most of the testing companies do–see if there is a relative who is closer to your problem ancestor than you are.

A relative and I are both descended from a man named Rufus D. Stephens. He is my 4th great-grandfather. He is her 5th great-grandfather. That means there’s a chance I have more of his DNA than she does. Of course, given how the passing of DNA works, there’s a very reasonable probability that she has more of his DNA than I do. But the theoretical odds suggest that I have more because I’m one generation closer. The difference in this case is that my line of descent from Rufus comes in several cases from children who were born later in that descendant’s life.

Look around. My own great-grandmother has great-grandchildren and third great-grandchildren who are about seven years apart in age.