Do You Know What You are Searching?

Do not mindlessly type names in database searches without first learn what you are actually searching. Is it a website that contains voluntary submissions of data other researchers have compiled? If so, it may be incomplete. Is it an official archives site? Even those may have omissions because some records were not extant. Most sites will indicate where they obtained their information. Find out and find if all records were extracted. Gaps or omissions seem to always be for the time period one needs.

Not knowing what you are searching may explain why you are not finding the information you seek.

The Importance of the Original

Whenever possible, get a copy of the original of the record. Transcribers make errors and indexes are only finding aids, not an end in and of themselves.

Actual complete copies may contain details that did not make the transcription or you may interpret something differently than the transcriber did. And one should never assume any transcription is complete. I assumed a book of Revolutionary War pension abstracts was complete and nearly missed a huge clue because of it.

Are they enumerated with just initials?

Some census takers were plain lazy, some couldn’t spell, and some didn’t care.

After you have exhausted all the variations on your ancestor’s first and middle names, consider that they might have been enumerated with just their initials. Or perhaps their first initial and their middle name spelled out. I have seen entire townships where no one apparently had a first name and everyone was named with their initials. I have seen locations where census takers used initials for non-English names instead of trying to spell them correctly.

Maybe your ancestor was enumerated as J. Smith in the 1860 census. Now there’s a real problem.

Record Assumptions as Such

We need to make assumptions in our genealogy research. Many times assumptions are necessary in order to get our work off the ground. But after a point, it may be that the assumption is hindering our work or that we have forgotten that an assumption was made.

If you are guessing that the parents were married near where the first child was born, that is a good start. But somewhere in your notes, indicate why you believe where they were married and that you have no proof. If research does not validate your assumption, it may be that your assumption was incorrect. And if you enter your assumption in your genealogical database as fact, it can be very difficult for that information to go back to being an assumption.

Francis Beiger was born in Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois, in 1851, the oldest child of her parents. My initial assumption was that her parents were married in Illinois. Turns out that assumption was incorrect. Peter Bieger and Barbara Siefert were married in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1850, a few months before heading west to Illinois.

My assumption was a good place to begin, but in this case it was a little far afield.

Those “Wrong” Places May be Clues

In a 1900 census enumeration, several of my great-grandmother’s children indicated that their mother was born in Ohio. This seemed completely off the wall to me. All extant records provided Illinois as her place of birth and that place of birth was consistent with when her parents arrived in Illinois. No other record provided a place of birth of Ohio.

I almost wrote off “Ohio” as a census taker’s goof.

It wasn’t quite that.

Further research located information that the parents of the ancestor had immigrated from Germany, but actually met and married in Ohio before settling in Illinois. The daughter was born in Illinois, but her parents had lived in Ohio for approximately six months after their marriage and the ancestor was their firstborn child. Perhaps this is why some accidentally thought she was born in Ohio.

Sometimes our ancestors lie, but sometimes incorrect information answers questions we have not even gotten around to asking.

Who Answered those Census Questions?

Family historians need to remember that for many censuses, we do not really know who answered the census questions. Was it the wife who never knew her husband’s parents and yet had to answer questions about where they were born? Was it a child who had no idea when her father immigrated to the United States or when he became a citizen?

Most of us weren’t there when the censustaker came to our ancestor’s door. As a result, we just don’t know who really gave the answers to specific questions. If the answers vary from census year to census year, it may be because the individual answering the questions varied from census year to census year.

Make a Chronology

Looking at things when they are out of order only adds to the chaos.

One good data organizational technique is to list every event in your ancestor’s life from their birth through their death. Viewing the chronology gives the researcher a nice overview of an individual’s life. This also makes it possible to see unaccounted time gaps and possible oversights in your research.

A chronology is also an excellent framework from which to write an ancestral biography. This is especially true for those who would like to create a biography, but don’t think they are really “writers.”

A chronology puts everything in sequence and sometimes can make inconsistencies a little easier to spot.

Be certain to put the source for every item in your chronology.

How Grandma Said It

It took me forever to find Ulfert Behrens in the 1860 and 1870 census. The problem was partially solved when I learned how he likely pronounced his name. This low-German native probably said his name something like “barns.” Here I was thinking it would have been pronounced “Bear unds” (rhyming with roughly with “errands”). Once I started looking for names that sounded like “barns” I found references I had previously overlooked.

Find out how your ancestor likely said his name–you may get variant spellings that you never thought to look for.