The Order in Which They Were Hauled to the Courthouse


Records are recorded by local officials in the order in which they are brought to the courthouse. Generally speaking this is relatively close to when the even took place–people generally have vital events recorded quickly.

The record where it is most likely to be a problem is with land deeds. For a variety of reasons, some deeds are not recorded promptly. People forget, things get temporarily lost, etc. Often the failure to record a deed is not realized until the purchaser dies and the family wants to sell the property and realizes the deed of purchase was never recorded.

Consequently it is imperative to search deeds for sometime after the transaction took place. It is not unheard of for a deed from the 1840s to be recorded in the 1880s or even after.

The Surviving Relict

When a person is referred to as a “relict” on a tombstone or document it usually means that they were a widow–eg. Susannah, relict of James Tinsley.

Decedent Versus Descendant

A decedent is someone who is dead. The descendants of someone are their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. A decedent can have descendants. A decedent’s estate may descend to their descendants.

But “my ancestor’s decedents” is not correct. It’s “my ancestor’s descendants.”

How Close Were the Borders?

If you are fortunate enough to know where your ancestors lived, do you know how far they were from all the nearest political borders? I grew up a half mile from the nearest township line, about ten or so miles from the nearest county line, and about fifteen miles from the state line.

The knowledge may not directly impact your research, but the more information you know about your relative’s relative location to political features, the less likely you are to look for records in the wrong place.

Separating a Family Tradition

When encountering a family tradition, take each statement suggested by the tradition and put it in one of two categories:

  • probably generated a record
  • most likely didn’t generate a record

“Grandma sold sandwiches to support herself after her first husband accidentally drowned in the 1850s. Then she married Grandpa Haase and they moved to the farm.”

Probably generated a record:

  • The drowning may be mentioned in a local paper
  • There may be estate or probate records related to the first husband’s death
  • There may be a death record of the drowning–although in some US states this is too early for a death record
  • There should be a marriage record to Grandpa Haase

The place to start looking for these records is where Grandma was believed to have been living in the 1850s.

Probably did not generate a record:

  • sandwich selling

We’ve simplified the analysis to keep this tip short, but this should get the general idea across.

Don’t forget that family traditions may be entirely true, entirely false, or somewhere in between.

Those Census Instructions

Census answers can appear to be wrong for a variety of reasons. Most of those stem from issues with the informant or the enumerator. Sometimes the “wrong” information is not really wrong at all and is the result of the genealogist not being fully aware of the instructions given to the census enumerator.

Of course some enumerators did not follow instructions. Others did. In preparing for my webinar on the upcoming release of the 1950 US Census, I discovered this reference to how places of birth are to be handled in that enumeration. Quoting from the instruction manual’s instructions on item 13 (place of birth):

For a person who was born in a hospital or elsewhere outside of the State in which his family was living at the time he was born, enter the State in which his family was living—not the State in which the hospital was located.

While I’m not seen the 1950 census enumeration for my parents yet, this means it could unexpectedly indicate they were born in Illinois. They were not. They were born in Iowa–in a hospital just like referenced in the instructions. Their parents were Illinois residents, but the nearest hospital was across the Mississippi River in Keokuk, Iowa.

Without knowing the instructions, I might have though the answer was wrong. If it says “Illinois” the enumerator was just following orders.

And of course, when I transcribe that entry (when I find it after the 1950 census is released on 1 April 2022), I will transcribe it as it is on the entry. I will not change it. I will not fix it. I will make a notation about the location and the enumerator instructions.

Find out more about my recently released webinar on the 1950 census on our announcement page.

Census Enumeration District Maps at NARA

1950 Census Enumeration district map for part of Hancock County, Illinois from the National Archives

Census enumeration district maps at the National Archives (1880-1950) are online and can be searched here.

Try searching for “yourstate yourcounty” or “yourstate yourcity” to locate items of interest.

From Whom the Advice?

I’m not a lawyer and I don’t pretend to be one on the internet. However, having read through more than my fair share of probate records–from modern ones to pre-colonial ones–and having been involved in the settlement of estates, I have a rough idea of how things work.

And when I read the comments to an online column about an estate issue, I was shaking my head over and over. Some of the advice was flat out wrong. Some of the advice only worked in certain states. Some of the advice clearly indicated the commenter had not read the original question. And there were a handful of comments that were spot on.

The same goes for answers ones gets to online posts about genealogy questions. Comments and suggestions are only as good as the person typing them, their knowledge of the material at hand, and their ability to articulate.

Generally answers to genealogy questions need to acknowledge:

  • The time period.
  • The geographic location–laws, culture, and actual geography of the region.
  • Some personal details about the family involved–educational level, economic status, etc.

Getting advice online is great. But remember what you really need is just one or two individuals who know their stuff. A hundred answers can be woefully inadequate if they are from individuals spouting off what they “think they know.”

And always include enough information in your original post to allow any respondents to answer your question.

But don’t believe everything you read in every answer. Actually it’s good in some online forums to read answers to other questions before actually asking one. That’s a good way to get a feel for those who “know their stuff” and those who “think they know their stuff” (but don’t).