They Won’t Give It If You Don’t Ask

Years ago, I wrote a county in Virginia and asked for the marriage register entry for my ancestors. The county office sent me a copy of their 1798 entry in the marriage register. I didn’t ask for anything else and they didn’t send anything else.

Imagine my surprise when a relative sent me copies of the corresponding marriage bonds. I asked her where she got them and the reply was the same courthouse where the marriage register copy had been obtained. The difference was that she knew to also ask for the marriage bonds and at that time, I didn’t.

Are you asking for everything?

Not Just That One Little Entry

When copying or scanning an entry from a record, particularly one that is handwritten “free-form” in some type of journal, copy at least the entire page on which the entry appears. Copy a page before and after if possible. It makes it easier to interpret handwriting and the entry later, particularly if the person who wrote the record abbreviated, had difficult to read handwriting, etc.

No Page Numbers?

Remember that some records, particularly church records, may have no page numbers. Creating a citation for these records can be difficult. Often the best way is to include the name of the village, the type of record (christenings, marriages, funerals, etc.) and the year. Do something–so you or someone else can find the record again if you need to.

Leave An Audit Trail

I know not everyone uses a research log, but at least try and leave yourself an audit trail or enough breadcrumbs to retrack your research steps. It can be exciting to be finding new information, but to go back later and remember “why” something was obtained or “how” this “new” person fit can be difficult. Type notes, send yourself emails,, but do something to record why you were doing what you were doing as you were doing it. Sometimes the reasons are obvious, but other times they are not.

Did You Skip the Introduction?

Skipping the introduction to a book, microfilm, or any record can create research problems and make brick walls even worse. Declarations of intent were destroyed in a 19th century fire in Hamilton County, Ohio. They were copied from the damaged originals and those copied records were kept and eventually microfilmed. A cover sheet indicated potential difficulties with the records.

If I had just skipped to the entry I needed, I never would have learned that it was believed that a significant number (never specifically stated) had errors.

And that was something I need to know.

Don’t just jump to the index or the page you need. Authors don’t just create introductions and prefaces to fill space.

You Better Browse

Search boxes that allow us to quickly find census and other records have changed the way genealogists locate many records and save time.

However, there is still an advantage to browsing through that census record when one family has been located using an index. Read other names on the same page and adjacent pages. There may be other family members you did not think to look for, or whose names are so mangled they were not located using indexes. Also pay attention to the places of birth for these near neighbors-they may have followed the same path of migration as your ancestor as well.

What Did It Require?

So you’ve found your ancestor in a personal property tax list? What was required to be in the tax list? Did the person have to be a certain age, have a certain amount of personal property, etc.? If you don’t know the criteria for appearing on the list, you may be interpreting something incorrectly.

How Are They Filed?

Not every location organizes records in the same way. A marriage index indicated my wife’s great-grandparents were married in Burlington, Iowa. I had the date, the location, and their names. I figured with the date it would not be difficult to find their actual marriage record.

When viewing the records on microfilm, I assumed they were filmed in order of license number, or perhaps by date. I looked and they seemed to be in random order.

Then I realized that the records had been sorted by the name of the groom!

They Really Did Not Know How Old They Were

In reading through Civil War pension applications, the one thing that amazes me is the number of people who really didn’t know when they were born. Some people did know their date of birth and gave their age consistently. Others apparently only knew their approximate age.

Is that why Grandpa’s age varies from one census record to another?

Read Something Unrelated to Your Research

Every so often, read an article, blog post, etc. about a family or location completely unrelated to your personal research.

You likely won’t find information on your own family. But sometimes reading about something with which you are unfamiliar gets you thinking “outside the box” on your own family and causes inspiration to strike. And sometimes it just gets you out of that rut.