The Year was Not 174 and 2/3

The will of Peter Rucker from the Orange County, Virginia, record book appears to contain his mark–an apparent “R” instead of an “X.” The “R” serves to remind us that all marks are not the letter “x” and that what is in a record copy is usually the clerk’s transcription and not the actual record or signature.

Rucker’s will is dated January 1742/3. This was during that time when the start of the new year was somewhat in flux and generally still considered to be in March. January of 1742 would have been the old style and January of 1743 would have been the new style–which we use today. Under the old style, December of 1742 would have been followed by January of 1742, February of 1742 and then March of 1742 until the 25th of March which was actually the start of the new year.

The double dating was to reduce confusion at the time, but it has served to confuse genealogists ever since.

Where they Made Depositions and Affidavits

A court case I located from Virginia in the 1820s contained numerous depositions and statements made by witnesses. This was common in some cases since it did not require witnesses to attend court on those few times a year when court was in session. The statements were taken at various locations–which was always stated in the initial portion of the document.

Those locations are clues and are helpful clues in a time period and place where one does not always know where within a county an individual lived. Individuals who made out statements at the same time in the same place were probably relatively close neighbors to each other.


One should always keep the likely method of transportation in mind as well.

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How a Local Says It?

One of the best ways to become aware of alternate spellings of places is to know how a local would say the place name. There is a San Jose in Illinois and California and they are not pronounced in the same way. Any location named after a member of the Taliaferro family is more likely to rhyme with “fur” that with “arrow.”

And we won’t even get started with how Keokuk, Iowa, is pronounced by locals and non-locals alike.

But if you don’t know how they probably said it, you don’t know all the potential ways it could have been spelled.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

I had eaten canned tuna for decades before I saw actual tuna in a fish market while visiting my daughter in Virginia. I grew up on a beef farm so I was well aware of where meat comes from–it was my experience with seafood that was lacking.

That can be true in our research as well. We do not always know what we don’t know, but need to be aware that there can be gaps in our experience or knowledge that could hinder our research in one way or another. Even when we are partially familiar with a process, concept, lifestyle, historical era, etc. there can be differences of which we are not aware. The possibility of drawing incorrect conclusions can be even greater when we think we know more than we actually do.

Do not be afraid to learn and be willing to admit that there may be things of which you are unaware.

Like that fact that tuna in the wild is a lot bigger than those little cans that made their way to the grocery store a few miles from my home in the rural Midwest.

What Price the Farm?

If you find a deed involving your ancestor have you determined if the price is relatively consistent with contemporary market prices? Keep in mind that “contemporary prices” need to be during the same time period for property that is roughly equivalent in terms of its worth.

If the price is lower than typical, then there could be a family relationship, there could be some “behind the scenes” (undocumented) financial activity taking place, or both. But there’s usually a reason why someone would buy or sell something at less than the market value.

You may not be able to determine what that reason is, but knowing the relative value matters.

One way to determine the price of other properties is to look at other deeds recorded during the same time period.

Do You Always Get to the Bottom?

Are you maximizing all the clues in a record or item you have discovered? The dog in the picture rarely lets one drop remain in her “pup cup” of ice cream she gets. Analyzing a document as quickly as Winnie eats her treat is not advised–it’s best to let information set and give yourself some time to contemplate it completely.

She moves the cup around, changes her own position, shoves her head in to get a different angle on things, etc. in her attempt to clean out the cup. That’s good advice for our research. Look at the document in different contexts–historical time frame, other records in the same series, purpose of the individual record, who gets included in the records, etc. Rotating the image isn’t necessary but your perspective may sometimes need to be figuratively rotated.

All Geographic Levels

Do you search the Family History Library catalog for digital images of records?
Many are online and not indexed.

When searching the Family History Library card catalog for materials in their collection, make certain to search all geographic and political levels.

Do not just search for county level records. There may be town/village records for the areas in which you have an interest. There may be state level records for those areas as well. In some situations there may be national or federal records as well.

Always browse those other geographic levels besides the one you thought you were interested in.

Age on a Date

If your ancestor states that he is aged 60 on 2 April 1900, that doesn’t mean he was born in 1840.

Someone who says he was 60 on 2 April could have:

  • just turned 60 on 2 April, making his date of birth 2 April 1840
  • getting ready to turn 61 on 3 April, making his date of birth 3 April 1839.

Or anywhere in between.
That is assuming an age of 60 on 2 April 1900 was correct.
The accuracy of his age is another story altogether.

Abbreviating Confusion

When taking notes, writing reports, and communicating with other researchers, avoid abbreviations wherever possible–especially “homemade” ones that you have dreamed up for your own convenience. That shortened version may make perfect sense to you, but it may not make sense to someone else. And even you, when reviewing your own notes years later, may have no idea what “HCDB” stands for.

 Sometimes abbreviations can be figured out from context, but not always. You don’t want to be guessing and don’t to make research more confusing than it already sometimes can be.