What Do You Leave Behind?

For the genealogist, there’s nothing like visiting a cemetery–especially one a distance from your home where your ancestors are buried. I love to visit and get my own pictures, even if there may be better photographs available elsewhere.

But think about what you leave behind you on that visit. I will go and get flowers to leave on the grave, but the only flowers I get are a small group of fresh-cut ones with no metal or plastic as a part of them. That way all I am leaving at the stone is a small amount of plant material that will wither and decay just like the grass clippings. I do not like to leave something that someone else will have to pick up, will get caught in a lawnmower, or otherwise require any sort of maintenance that I myself cannot deal with.

Details on Ancestral Tenants?

If your ancestor owned property and rented it out, it can be difficult to determine who the renters were. In the United States (and likely other areas as well) rental agreements and leases were not filed with any court on a regular basis.

One place to potentially learn names of tenants is in court records. The 1907 estate partition for the estate of John C. Rampley in Hancock County, Illinois, indicated that the farm tenants were Robert Lowery, Phillip Schafer, and Charles Staff. In this case, the details of their lease was not known to the widow, but they were mentioned in the court case because they had an interest in the proceedings as they were tenants on the property that was subject to the partition suit.

That’s one place to find out if your ancestor had tenants on their property: their probate records and any court records related to the settlement of their estate. In some cases the details of the lease agreement may be included.

It is also possible that your ancestor sued his tenant or was sued by his tenant for issues involving the rent, upkeep of the property, or other tenant-landlord issues. These cases would have been heard by the appropriate local court. There may be details of their lease agreement in the court papers, particularly those details that are germane to the case being heard.

I’ll be taking a group to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City this summer. Our trip is no-frills, focused on research, and not full of “forced group” activities–and our price is reasonable. Check it out.

Or join me in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, at the Allen County Public Library for a somewhat shorter trip with the same focus.

Ancestral Art, Carvings, and Other Creative Works

If you are fortunate enough to have ancestral ephemera, don’t forget to preserve those items that are artistic in nature when you are preserving newspaper clippings, photographs, and other paper items. I have three pieces of framed artwork created by my Grandmother.

Paintings are not the only artwork you may have. Quilts, sketches, knitted or crocheted items, poems, and other handmade keepsakes should be preserved as well. Did Grandpa carve something you have in your possession? Remember that not all handmade items may be considered by purists as art. That’s fine–you’re not running an ancestral art gallery.

Take a picture of the item. Share the images. Digital images are a great way to share the item without actually sharing the original. These images may potentially help to preserve the information about the original (including pictures of it) past the lifetime of the original itself.

A Foreigner

Do not assume that a reference to your relative as a “foreigner” means that they were from a different country. There are times and some records (eg. some town records in New England) where a reference to someone as a foreigner may simply indicate that they are from a different town or state. My uncle’s will was probated in Indiana in the 1980s and was needed to settle some property in Illinois where it was mentioned as a “foreign will.”

Is One Record “Proof?”

It’s hard to boil down genealogical “proof” into one short tip of the day, but one document by itself is usually not considered “proof” of anything. One document may contain evidence in support of a conclusion, but it’s important to remember that any one document can easily be incorrect.

Proof, in the genealogical sense, is usually considered to be the written summary of the conclusion that is reached when a body of evidence (statements taken from individual documents) have been analyzed.

Just Read: That’s An Order

Want to gain insight into the time period in which your ancestor lived? Consider reading the local court order books page by page. This can be especially helpful in the United States before 1850. Court order books provide a journal of what actions the court took, when court was actually in session, etc. Many local court order books are online at FamilySearch.

It will give you a better feel for what types of things you may find in these records, some insight into life during the time period, and help you to interpret the entries you have found for your family of interest.

I gained quite a bit of local knowledge reading one for my Virginia county in the late 18th century.

And my ability to read the handwriting got better.


A codicil to a will is an amendment to an original will. It may create a new bequest or clause, it may cancel a specific section, provide additional clarification to a section of the will, or may modify a specific clause of the will.

Codicils were more popular when wills were entirely handwritten or typed and rewriting an entire document for a seemingly minor change was more of a challenge than it is today. I have an ancestor who had a will and several codicils that were approved by the court in the 1930s. His codicils only addressed his will’s mention of property given to his daughter. There were separate codicils when her husband’s financial situation worsened, when her husband eventually died, and when the daughter died (having predeceased her father). The codicils only referenced the gift to the daughter and the original will was already a document of a significant length and the clauses to the other children were not changed.

If the will and any codicils are approved, they would be recorded together in the court office responsible for the oversight of probate or settlement of estates. The codicil does not replace the will. It only impacts the specific sections of the document–and that should be referenced in the codicil.

You Will Not Remember

Write down any piece of genealogy information before you forget it. Record any snippet of genealogy information in your genealogy database when you come across that information. If you use records to reach a conclusion, record that conclusion in the appropriate part of your database.

You will forget things you think you will remember.

Left Out or a Token Amount is Evidence of?

A will gives some children significant cash or real estate. Other children are given a dollar or some other token amount. Is that evidence the testator was “on the outs” with the children to whom a token amount was given? Not necessarily. It could easily have been that those children had already received their share and the token amount was included just so they could not later claim they had been forgotten. A token amount, particularly without any independent information suggesting the “falling out” between the testator and the heir in question, does not always suggest their had been a disagreement between the parties in question.

Children can be omitted for the same reason (they’ve already gotten theirs). Typically though, if there are children to whom a token amount is given, all the children are listed. Typically–there are going to be exceptions.

Sometimes a testator may indicate they have reasons for giving a certain child no money. Depending upon the time period and local laws in effect, the testator may put a specific child’s share in a trust–as my great-grandmother did for just one of her seven children in 1939.

Sometimes a dollar is sending the message–you already received something and this is to indicate I did not forget that. Sometimes a dollar is sending the message–you really irritated me, you cannot handle money, etc. In some cases, it is possible that court, newspaper, or other records may indicate if there was potentially some falling out between the individuals in question.

Just Digitize!

I’ll wait until I have time.

I’ll wait until I retire.

I’ll get my things organized first.

I’ll decide how everything will be organized first.

Here’s my answer to those four statements:

Don’t wait. Life intervenes. There won’t ever be a “right time.”

Retirement will end up being full other activities.

Really? That’s may take forever.

Again…that’s going to take forever.

Friend and fellow genealogist Kerry Scott issued a plea for her fellow genealogists to just go ahead and scan their personal family ephemera sooner rather than later. Wildfires in her area drove the point home to her that scanning items could not wait.

I’m in agreement.

My advice based somewhat on Kerry’s comments and my own experience with a significant collection of photographs and other items–do it now. Scan/photograph/digitize the material as you have it now. It does not matter if it is not organized perfectly. It does not matter if it you do not have the perfect organization plan in mind for the images you create.

Just do it and be consistent.

If photographs are in boxes, envelopes, or albums, photograph the boxes, the envelopes, and the album cover and pages. This preserves the original structure of the materials. This is helpful if you have obtained materials for different relatives or families over the years. Then you know which items were originally stored or kept together. Of course everyone has a random box of random items, but there is a chance that there’s some structure to what you have–you just don’t know it yet.

Just make images.

Resist the urge to wax nostalgic about people in the pictures. Resist the urge to try and identify people in pictures who are not identified. Resist the urge to start researching people in pictures who are identified but about whom you know nothing.

Scan. Make images. Get that done. Don’t start going through them until you have:

  • completed the digitization process.
  • backed up your images somewhere.
  • saved them to the cloud.
  • made certain others who are interested in the images have them or have easy access to them.

Again: Scan. Make images. Get that done. Life and natural disasters happen. Your children who don’t care about the stuff may happen if your demise comes before you expect.

Then once the images are made, there’s more work to be done (organize them, preserve and organize originals, identify unknown items, etc.. But at least you have images.

Photograph any non-paper family history items and preserve those images as well.

Save $7 on my charts, organization, and color webinar through 10 May.