Is the Original Unclear and Easy to Misinterpret?

I’ve changed the names and location, but here is part of a birth announcement I read recently: “…paternal grandparents are Jim and Lori Smith of Dingdongtown. Paternal great-grandparents are Susan Smith, Plowville, and the late Bubba Smith and Ken and Susan Markle of Allentown.”

The question is: are Ken and Susan alive or dead?

Of course people living today know what the paper intended. What would someone in fifty years think?

They Didn’t Always Require Paperwork

Wonder why great-great-grandma’s age changes so much from one record to another? One reason could be that she wanted to shave a few years off her age. Life was also different. Great-grandma might not have been concerned that if her age didn’t “match” in various records that there might be a problem with her pension, passport, insurance, credit bureau file, and other records. Life was in some ways very different in 1880 than it is today.

Do the Math

Does a document or record indicate how long someone has known your ancestor? Subtract back and see just when the two individuals met? Does it mean they knew each other “somewhere else?” Maybe that was back east, back in Europe, etc.

Testimony in court records, affidavits in pension files, passport applications, and other materials may include such statements. Always think about the time frame they suggest and see if there may be subtle clues you haven’t fully used.

Court Those Newspapers

If your ancestor was involved in some type of “sensational” court case, check out the newspapers around the time the case was heard in court. A local newspaper may mention the case and provide details not listed in the actual court records. Of course newspapers don’t always get all the facts right, but there still may be nuggets of information in the papers that do not appear in the actual court record.

Female Obituaries that Never Mention Their Name

Remember that obituaries for women may never mention their name. It may be necessary to search for husband’s names in newspapers long after they are dead. I spent hours searching for the obituary of a Belle Shaw, who died in 1945. Her obituary in the Zanesville, Ohio, newspaper listed her as “Mrs. Louis Shaw.” Her first name is not even mentioned. Shaw himself had been dead several years by the time his wife died.

US Passport Applications for Sisters-in-Law

Passport applications for married women in the United States in the early 1900s included information on the citizenship status for their husbands or fathers (depending upon the marital status of the applicant). If the wife of your ancestor’s brother applied for a passport during this time period, she might have given information on where and when her husband was born. Wives of two uncles applied for passports in the 1920s and gave detailed information on their husbands.

US passports from 1792-1925 are at and at from 1795 to 1905 at
Remember that only the passport applications for about the last twenty years provide information on the husband and that Footnote’s really don’t go recent enough to show husband/father information in most cases.

Are Soundex Searches Right for Your Last Names?

Soundex searches are options on many online search interfaces to databases and finding aids. Keep in mind that Soundex generally works best with names of Engilsh or Germanic origin. Soundex searches for Neill, bring up results of Newell, Neal, Nial, Neel, Nowel, Neil, etc. Some are more reasonable variants than others, but Soundex works fairly well on this last name.

There are problems with non-English names when Soundex searches are used. A Soundex search for Robidoux will not locate Robido, a very reasonable variant. French names are a good example where Soundex searches are sometimes week. There are other languages that present similar challenges to Soundex based searches.

Is the Soundex search option limiting your search?

What Were They Smokin’ When They Gave That Information?

Let’s face it, sometimes information on a document is flat out incorrect. It may be that the ancestor outright lied, someone misunderstood something, etc. but the fact remains. One document can be completely wrong on one item. It happens.

When you think you have a situation like this, organize all your documents and outline your reasons for why you think the one document is wrong. That will help you make your case and allow others to see if they agree with you or not?

And once in a blue moon, I think someone just gave a “funky” answer to a question on a record just to be clever. And that’s what confuses some of us today.

Ask A Local

Sometimes the best advice is actually gotten from someone who lives where the records are and has actually used the originals on paper. Digital copies and microfilm is great, but sometimes a person needs at least the advice of someone who is very familiar with the originals. An organizational structure that makes sense onsite might not make sense in the two-dimensional digital or microfilm version. And there might be records that for some reason were not filmed or digitized. If you’re using records from BlahBlah County and have never been there, never viewed the records onsite, you might want to consider contacting a local person with some questions you may have. A local with years of experience with the records may be more helpful for your specific problem than a professional living hundreds of miles away.

Was He Missed By the Census Taker?

It is possible that your ancestor was missed by the census taker, but make certain you have truly looked first, including a manual page by page search if necessary. It is possible too, that your ancestor lived somewhere else for a short time, perhaps even some place of which you are not aware. People do occasionally get overlooked by the census taker, especially if they are people who move around a lot in the first place or otherwise live a lifestyle that puts them at risk for being overlooked.