Do You Know the Community?

Civil and parish boundaries are helpful to the genealogist because those lines determine where records are located. While those boundaries can and do change, there are often maps and other finding aids to assist in understanding where those boundaries generally were.

It’s community in the sociological sense that’s important to the genealogist as well, but that community’s boundaries are often fluid, not clearly defined, and often cross political and ecclesiastical boundaries.

My Ostfriesen ancestors settled in three geographic areas in Hancock and Adams Counties in Illinois in the 1860s and 1870s. But because they shared a language, a heritage, and a religious affiliation, they were essentially a community. They interacted with other immigrants from the nearby but separate areas, particularly when it came to choosing marriage partners and some financial dealings–especially in the immigrant and first-born generations.

It wasn’t just non-English speakers who had this sense of community when moving to a new area. My Ohio migrants to Illinois in the 1840s were greeted by relatives and former neighbors when they arrived and others followed them. Their community also stretched across a county line and included several different small villages. But they interacted with each other enough that they left references to that interaction in court and probate records.

Community isn’t just the name on the sign when you drive to town. And your ancestor’s community may be slightly geographically larger (or smaller in some cases) than you think.

Disappearing Widows

Umpteenth great-grandma just disappears after her husband died and apparently just “can’t be found.” While it is true that women in general leave fewer records than do men and that the widow could simply be living where she always did, there are other possibilities. She could have remarried after her husband died (don’t assume that just because she was “older” that she didn’t marry again) or she could moved in with children who had already moved away from where she was living.

She didn’t get abducted by aliens, although it may seem like it.

Guardian Ad Litem

A guardian ad litem was appointed for some of the children of James Parker who died in Bedford County, Virginia, in 1833. This indicated that those children were under the age of majority at the time of the appointment. The guardianship appointment, since it was only as a guardian ad litem, was only to represent the children’s interest in a court case regarding the estate of James Parker. This guardian was not a guardian of the children’s estate or a guardian who took physical custody of them.

In many locations, guardians of a child’s estate may have to make periodic reportings to the court and file other documents regarding the child’s financial interests. The guardian ad litem was only appointed for one specific purpose and usually there are no other records of the guardianship other than those of the case for which they were appointed.

What Did He Know About the Half-Siblings?

A relative made out an affidavit in Bedford County, Virginia, in the 1820s. In it he mentioned the older half-siblings of his wife. Those half-siblings were the result of his mother-in-law’s first relationship. While court documents are “supposed” to be correct, they sometimes are not. Based upon other contemporary records, it appears that the son-in-law knew the first names of his wife’s older half-siblings, but referred to all of them by their maiden names throughout the affidavit, even though they were married.

It’s very possible that the family of someone’s second marriage did not have overly detailed knowledge of the family of the first marriage. That’s especially true if second family lived a distance from the first or if there was a falling out between the two families.

How Burned Was that Burned County?

“The courthouse was burned” is one of those phrases that causes a significant amount of genealogical swearing. When you hear this phrase, remember to ask:

  • Did the entire courthouse burn?
  • Were all offices in the same location?
  • Were any records salvaged?
  • Were some documents “restored?”
  • Were residents asked to bring any originals in to be recorded again?
  • Would newspapers hold some of the missing information?
  • Are there federal records that would provide the same information?
  • Have I asked locals knowledgeable about the local records what materials might be available?
  • etc.

Knowing About “My Now Wife”

A will refers to the wife of Thomas Smith as his “now wife.” It does not mean that Thomas had been married before. It does not mean that he was planning on divorcing his current wife and marrying someone else.

It was an inheritance device. It was estate planning. It is done legally…just in case the situation changes before Thomas gets a chance to have his will rewritten.It was done to make the inheritance clear and to confuse genealogists who didn’t bother to learn what it really meant.

Thomas and Mary Smith had several children together. Thomas wants to write his will to make his intentions clear. He wants his wife Mary to have use of the farm for the duration of her life and then to go to the children they had together after her death. But there’s always the chance Mary dies and he marries again–perhaps to a woman named Mary. After all, certain names are fairly common.

If he gives his property to “my wife Mary,” that could create difficulties–should the second wife Mary get it…and would that second wife’s children (who may not be his) get it at her death? If he gives it to “his wife” using that phrase, a second wife, named Mary or not, could get it and the property could go to her children (who may not be his) at his death.

Lawyers put contingent phrases in legal documents all the time–especially wills.

When You Use an About Date

It is often necessary to approximate the date of a birth, marriage, or death. This is more likely to be the case in those areas that do not have vital records of these events. If you have to approximate the year something took place, have a reason. Include that reason in your database–preferably with some type of source or note included. That could be:

  • The marriage date is estimated to be between 1820 and 1821 for Johann and Antje because their first child was born in 1822.
  • The birth year for Thomas is estimated to be 1800 or before because he was married in 1821 and probably was at least twenty-one when he was married.
  • The death year for Susannah is estimated to be between 1853 and 1860 because the last probate record she signed for her husband was in 1853 and she is not listed in the 1860 census (in that case, indicate where you looked for her in the census and how you looked).

Don’t just put an about year with no justification to back it up. And if you have no justification at all, contemplate whether you really want to include the date in your database.

Family Dynamics Can Be Different

How much of your research methodology is based upon social constructs in your family and how your family of origin interacts with other family members? Have you considered that in families you are researching that family members may relationships entirely different from the ones with which you are personally familiar? Some families are very apt to separate geographically once the children are adults. In others, the geographic distance is never great.

Just because it’s how your family always interacted with each other does not mean that it’s the way all the families you may be researching interact with each other.

As Many As You Can

Try and talk to as many family members as you can–even about the same people and the same events. Different family members will have different recollections of the same individuals and events. Relatives who lived through the same event will remember different details and may tell versions that are not entirely consistent. And for stories about long-dead ancestors, not all members of your family may have heard the same stories.

Maybe Not the Reason You Think

In December of 1905, my great-grandparents mortgaged a 1/10 interest in a piece of property, signing a five-year note. They paid it off in June of 1907. They may have paid it off early to save on the interest or they may have paid it off because in the summer of 1907 their mother wanted to sell the property and could not sell it with the mortgage unpaid.

Sometimes there’s a reason why things happen when they do.