Where There Is a Will…

Wills can get things wrong. This 1903 will from Hancock County, Illinois, refers to a granddaughter as a daughter and another relative as Lanne Ensmer when her name was Lena Ensminger.

Other information in the probate file may contain the correct relationships and other details. Testators may say names in ways that make it hard for the actual writer of the will to get it correct.

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Always read those “aside” comments that occasionally get made in records. Clerks and records officials don’t add them because they are bored. There is usually a reason and working to determine that reason could lead to additional discoveries.

Neighbors as Memory Prompts?

Before interviewing that relative, see if you can determine the names of any near neighbors. Names of those neighbors may generate memories of events you never would have asked about otherwise. Census records that are public (if the person is old enough) are one place to get these names. City directories are another (particularly if they are searchable by address). Telephone directories may also help, particularly for those ancestors who were rural.

Ask about your interviewee’s neighbors. You may get more than you bargained for.

Court Records Index Few Names

Local court cases usually only index the name of one defendant and one plaintiff, regardless of how many people are involved in the case as defendants and plaintiffs. Witnesses and others who may be mentioned in testimony and other court cases will not appear in indexes either.

For this reason it is important to search for names of relatives of your direct line ancestor in defendants’ and plaintiffs’ index to court cases. Otherwise you may easily overlook something involving your ancestor, especially if he and his siblings were sued and the name of his sibling is the one under which the case is indexed.

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Are You Familiar With the Records You Are Using?

When using a record set with which you are not familiar, think about how someone gets into the record, how the  information in the record is obtained, how the record is organized, and how the original  record got from its original state to you.

All of these issues get to how we use and analyze the information contained in the record.

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What to do while waiting for your DNA test and results. 

Remote Access to the Archives?

If you are unable to physically visit an archives that holds the only copy of something you need, consider other ways to potentially access that information: call them, email them, write them a letter. Many archives will communicate with patrons who are unable to visit onsite. Recently I’ve obtained digital copies of materials by email communication with archival staff in Colorado and Nebraska.

A few reminders:

  • Be polite.
  • Try and be specific in your request.
  • Do not send rambling emails with extraneous information–the archivist is there to help you find a document not a solution to your personal problems.
  • View online inventories and finding aids, if available.
  • Use online indexes and databases, if available.
  • Be patient–you are not the only patron.
  • Images or copies of records may not be free.
  • Ask if there is something on the record you do not understand. The archivist may be able to give you a quick answer or refer you to someone else.
  • The archivist is also under directive to preserve the records.


Official Does not mean Accurate

Just because a record is “official” does not mean that every detail it contains is correct. A death certificate probably has the date of death and burial correct, but the date and place of birth could easily be incorrect. And there is always the chance that a death record has the wrong date of death or place of burial. An official record does not guarantee the information is accurate. Remember that in most records, the information is only as accurate as the informant and that in most records information submitted came from someone’s mind and was not verified with another source or official record.

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Assumptions and What You Don’t Know

Recent research reminded me of the importance of recognizing assumptions and validating what you “think you know.”

I knew cousin William Ehmen was a Lutheran minister in Nebraska in the 1880s. I just assumed that he attended seminary as “a young men” before he was married.  Wrong. He did not go to seminary until he was in his late twenties, had been married for seven years, and was already a father.

He worked for the railroad for a time in Illinois and I learned he had lived in Mendota for a while–I assumed it was because he was working there for the railroad. No. He was attending seminary at what is now Wartburg College in Iowa. In the 1870s it was located in Mendota, Illinois.

I didn’t know that either.

I knew a few things about William and assumed the chronology. That was a mistake.