When It’s Difficult To Read

I’m transcribing a will from Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in the mid-18th century. The handwriting is difficult to read. One way is to try and force yourself to figure out every word in order and struggle with them without reading the entire document.

That’s a mistake–particularly when something is a challenge.

Instead try and get as much of it as you can by doing a “relatively quick sweep.” Don’t read too quickly, but get the words you can and move on. Put brackets in those places you can’t immediately read and go forward. Sometimes reading more will help you read earlier parts of the document either because the handwriting is better or the same phrase is repeated to where it “clicks.”

Then go back. Try reading it out loud.

To build your skills, start with more recent documents and transcribe those. Read transcriptions of other documents. Become familiar with legal terminology and the way things are phrased. Transcription skills are not developed overnight.

Courtesy Versus Curtesy

A courtesy is, generally speaking, a showing of politeness from one person to another. Curtesy is different. Curtesy is the potential life interest or life estate that a husband may have in the real estate of his wife after her decease. If you see a husband on a deed relinquishing his right of curtesy, it suggests that the wife was the one in the marital couple who obtained the property.

And determining how she did that (purchase, inheritance from family member, via a previous husband) could provide genealogically relevant information.

Introduction to the American Courthouse

This session (attend live on 25 Sept at 8 pm central time or pre-order download) will provide an overview of the records to expect at the typical United States county courthouse–focusing on local vital, court, probate, and property records. It will include:

  • a general overview of the general types of records to expect,
  • use of indexes and finding aids;
  • how to organize your searches and set a search strategy,
  • preparing for an onsite visit.

Geared towards advanced beginner and beginning intermediate researchers. Michael has been researching his own genealogy in American courthouses since the 1980s and is an experienced courthouse researcher.

This session will be held on 25 September 2019 at 8:00 pm central daylight time. You can register for live attendance (handout included) or pre-order a download (which includes handout and media presentation):

Bro. Troutfetter Is Young and Pretty

Admittedly it can be difficult to find newspaper references to people when only their last name is mentioned. Chances are when that happens there are other identifying clues to help you find the person. Most commonly those are occupation or a geographic location. While the newspaper reference may appear vague, there were probably enough clues for contemporary readers to determine the identity of the individual. The problem is that one hundred and thirty years later those clues may not be known to the researcher.

Instead of Asking for the Tree–Just the Connection

I’ve stopped sending immediate requests for “tree access” from those whose trees are private. There are reasons a person might want to make their tree private. I’m not certain this approach will garner any more success than I have currently had, but it’s worth a shot. What ideas have you tried?


You and I are a DNA match and Ancestry.com suggests that we are connected through James and Elizabeth (Chaney) Rampley who were married in Ohio in 1830 and came to Illinois where they died in the 1880s. My connection is through their son Riley who died in 1893 and served in the Civil War. I’m trying to sort out my matches and wondered if the connection was correct and which child of James and Elizabeth you are from.



A Few General Courthouse Tips

Winnie’s not going to the courthouse, but she does know how to get ready.

A few general comments about going to the courthouse:

  • You are not a local. It sometimes makes a difference.
  • Be polite.
  • Look reasonably professional.
  • Ask before taking digital images.
  • Consider copying indexes if time is short.

There’s more you can do to prepare for a visit, but these are a few short reminders for this short tip.

There Could Always Be One More Relationship

If you have family who lived in the same small, somewhat isolated area for a few hundred years and there are records extant, always consider the possibility that you are related in more than one way to someone than you think you are–especially if your research on the family is not complete.

This can impact your autosomal DNA results going back to your 5th great-grandparents at least. One more relationship than you think you have can confuse your matches more than they already are–especially if you’ve already got two or more relationships between a DNA match.

Review That Index and Practice

When using any handwritten index to local land, court, or probate records for the first time, take some time to familiarize yourself with how it is set up and organized. Indexes can vary from one office to another and the indexing scheme that was used in one location can vary from what’s used in another.

Assuming they are all the same can cause you to overlook records. This index from Clinton County, New York, indexed records by the name of the grantor and grantee, but the last names were not just broken up by the initial letter of the first name, they were broken up in to subsections based upon the first and second letters of the last name. A hurried researcher, not familiar with the index might overlook references needed.

Another good exercise is to pick one record at random in the record books and then see if it can be found in the index.

This section of the index only includes the last names beginning with the letter A and then having a second letter that appears alphabetically between i and j in the alphabet (notice the A – i – l in the upper left hand corner of the image).

Learn About those Estate Inventory Items

A little Google searching for those items in your ancestor’s estate may enlighten you about their life and some of the items in it. The 1880-era estate inventory of Andrew Trask in Mercer County, Illinois, mentioned a “Weir Sulky Plow.” After some searching, I knew what it was, where it was manufactured and even had a patent image of it.

Newspaper searches for those items may reveal pictures and other information–if Google isn’t helpful.