But Those Records are Unreliable!

Years ago after a presentation, a gentleman came up and told me that I should not suggest people rely on census records or other “secondary records” for information.

While census records can be incorrect and information that’s secondary can be suspect, sometimes it is all that we have. My ancestor, Ellen Butler was born in Missouri in the 1850s. Her family moved frequently, did not attend any church that kept records, there is no family bible that I can find, and she died before there was vital registration of deaths as well. While I keep looking for a “better source” of information, there’s probably never going to be anything other than a few of census enumerations to estimate her year of birth.

Of course census records can be off and parental information listed in death certificates can be suspect. But when it’s all there is, it’s all there is and we cite everything we’ve located and see what conclusions can be reached. It doesn’t mean we quit looking or quit learning about new sources. But not every time place and location is the same.

What is available depends greatly upon the time period, the location, and the family. Documenting someone in Illinois in 1930 is different from Missouri in 1850 is different from Virginia in 1750 and and different from Massachusetts in 1700.

And…as astute readers will know information is primary or secondary and sources are original or derivative.

Did They Wait to Settle Up?

If it takes years for a relative’s estate to be finally settled, it can be tempting to think that the reason was because there was a legal wrangling over the estate. While sometimes that is the case, it is also possible that the relative’s surviving spouse had a lifetime interest in the property or was given a life estate by the deceased relative. It’s also possible that if there were minor heirs, the other heirs waited to finally settle the estate until all the heirs were legally old enough to execute documents. That’s often easier than going through the process of appointing a guardian.

There are reasons why an estate could be drawn out over some time besides family drama. Although family drama is a frequent reason.

It Won’t Make Sense at First–Sometimes

While working on a Virginia family at the Family History Library, I located some court records that partially explained a family and their relationships and partially confused me more than I already was. I thought if I just kept looking at the information, I would eventually “figure it out” and the likely scenario would dawn on me.

It didn’t.

Time spent drawing out the possible scenarios was better spent looking for more records, crossing sources off my search list, etc. It’s usually best to wait until the research is complete to start trying to put it all together. Of course, one is going to conjecture and speculate as new materials are located. That’s normal and it’s a good way to move your research forward.

But sometimes it’s best to complete all the research on your list first.

Were They Really Married?

Sometimes the reason you can’t find a marriage record is because the couple was never actually married. I was working on a couple who had three children in Virginia shortly after the American Revolution. Records created after the father’s demise indicated that the couple was never married.

There are many reasons why a couple may not marry–even during a time period when most people do. One reason is that one of them had a legal impediment to marriage–often a spouse hanging somewhere else.

Search Without Last Names

It’s not always possible or practical, but sometimes databases can be searched without using the last name. Other information will need to be provided–first name, year of event, location, and other information in order to obtain a manageable number of search results.

But depending upon what else you know and how large the database, a search without the last name may be a good search tool when the last name is extremely difficult to read on the original record.

It’s up to the researcher to completely and carefully analyze the located record to determine if is a match for the person of interest.

Read the Deed’s Legal Description Completely

It can be tempting to say that the text of a deed is “legal mumbo jumbo.” Sometimes it is. Many land records are comprised of boilerplate text that reveals no significant information. However there are times. This deed from the early 19th century in Bedford County, Virginia, indicated that the title to the property was clarified by an act of the Virginia legislature. That’s definitely something worth learning more about since their are other owners of the tract mentioned in the deed itself.

It Happens to Everyone

I was reviewing copies of land records I had made from Virginia while at the Family History Library. In reviewing the images, I discovered the next morning that I had neglected to indicate the volume numbers from which the images were made.


It happens to everyone. Fortunately I had downloaded the entire image which included the page number. That will make it easier to get the actual volume number where the pages were actually located.

Always review your images after you make them. Everyone forgets occasionally–those who say they never forget likely have imperfect memories <grin>.

Date of Document Not Date of Act

Reading carefully solves many interpretation issues. This affidavit was not filed on 29 January 1887, but if I look at the date in haste I may conclude that this was the date of the document.

The 1887 date was the pension act under which the widow was applying. Eliza Jane’s affidavit was actually made in 1892–five years later. Correct dates matter as information is given as of the date of the affidavit. That was especially true in this case as the affiant indicated that her late husband would have been 97 years old when the affidavit was made.

I easily could have gotten the year of birth five years had I used 1887 as the year of the document.

Do You Know the Process?

If your ancestor naturalized, do you know how he had to live in the new country in order to naturalize? Do you know who could legally “vouch” for him if that was necessary? If you are using probate records, do you understand the general process of probate? What were the time requirements involved? Did they change over time? When your ancestor interacts with the legal system in any way, it’s advised to understand how that legal process worked. Not understanding the process can increase the chance that incorrect interpretations are made.

Your ancestor did not naturalize the minute he walked off the boat. Your ancestor’s probate did not begin two years after his death.

Sketch out the Relationships

I’m sitting at the Family History Library and can’t help but overhear a conversation three people are having regarding a series of family members. The verbal descriptions of the relationship are accurate, but confusion would be reduced if a quick chart was drawn out showing the family connections, marriages, etc.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep a large amount of new information and relationships “in your head.” Sometimes it’s difficult to keep information we’ve know for decades straight in our head.