Tracking Online Searches

When querying genealogical databases, it’s not always necessary to keep track of what searches you conducted–particularly if the individual is easily found.

But when a family cannot be easily located in the 1860 census, instead of pounding away harder at the keyboard or swearing, keep a list of the searches you have conducted. Track the options you used. Track how you formulated wildcard searches. Track the nicknames and diminutives you searched for as well. Track the range for year of birth if that was one of the search parameters.

It’s impossible to troubleshoot your search process if the only place you keep tabs on what you are doing is in your head.

No Magic

It can be tempting to think that if one keeps looking and tries hard enough, that there’s “got to be” a document somewhere that answers all your questions.


But most of the time there’s not.

To be certain, I’ve found a page of court testimony that outlined the family relationships and military pension affidavits that answered many of my questions. But in most situations, determining the relationships required looking over all the snippets of information I had from a variety of records, analyzing those snippets, and trying to determine what they said in the aggregate. No clue is too small.

There might be that one piece of paper in a courthouse that will answer all your questions, but likely there’s not. Chances are it’s quite a few smaller pieces of paper that need to be analyzed together. That’s why it is important to find as much as you can about your “confusing ancestor” and his circle of relatives and friends.

A Few Years With no Records?

Is it possible that your relative lived in an area for a few years and left behind no records at all?

I have an ancestor who married probably in Kentucky in the latter part of the 1810s. At least I’m assuming there was an actual marriage as they lived together the rest of their lives and had over a dozen children.

But her parents? I’ve started to wonder if the reason that I cannot find them is that they were only really “passing through” the area where their daughter met her husband. If they rented a home (or more likely a farm), there would be no records of land ownership or property taxes. If chattel property was taxed, I need to determine what personal property (both in terms of items and amount) was taxed during that time period.

It’s very possible that the parents were in the area long enough for the couple to meet and decide to get married without the parents leaving a record. They might have moved on right around the time the marriage took place–and given when it probably did, they likely missed the census enumeration in that location as well.

Significant events can take place in a location even when a couple only lives there a short time.

Movers Deeding Their Residential Details?

If your ancestors were movers who frequently owned property, make certain you have obtained copies of all their local land records. Deeds where they are grantors (sellers) may provide some details about where they moved.

Transactions on their property in the area they left from may not have been finalized until after their move. The deed of sale may indicate their new county or area of residence or acknowledgements of the deed in front of a local official may indicate where that official was permitted to act. Either way it could help you determine where they went.

Always Get to the Before and After Ones

When any index takes you to an image in a set of images or a page in a record book, look at images and pages before for additional images or additional pages.’s index to Missouri probate records indicated that there were a few pages for a man named George Trask who died in St. Louis in the 1860s. Scrolling beyond the initial ones indicated there were well over 100 images.

Whenever I locate a land record for a relative in the local office’s land record books, I look at the deeds recorded before and after the one I found in case the person recorded multiple deeds at the same time.

When you find any record for a person, make certain you have the whole item or set of images. Browsing before and after what you found is a good way to do that when the record is digitized or contained in a record book.

I’ll be taking a group to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City this summer. Our trip is no-frills, focused on research, and not full of “forced group” activities–and our price is reasonable. Check it out.

Or join me in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, at the Allen County Public Library for a somewhat shorter trip with the same focus.

Before and After

In any record where you find an ancestor, look at adjacent records and see who appears in those records. Are there any clues in those names or records that could help you learn more about your ancestor?

If it’s a death record, did they die of the same disease? If it’s a marriage record, were other family members (or friends) getting married on the same day? If it’s a naturalization petition, did other immigrants from the same area naturalize at the same time? Who filed land claims on the same day as your ancestor? Who appears next to your ancestor on a list of names that signed a petition? Did someone file three land records on the same date and they are recorded together in the records book?

No one lives in a vacuum.

A Drop of Water

If your ancestor was a landowner and a drop of water fell on the property they owned, do you know what path it would have taken to get to the ocean?

There may be a geography lesson in there for you.

The Clerk’s Perspective

If you are stuck trying to find a document or a record or are having difficulty in interpreting something a clerk has written in a document or in a record, remember the perspective of the clerk. The clerk may not have understood what your ancestor said, may have been poorly educated himself and cared little about the accuracy of the records he left behind.

Or the clerk may have been very concerned about the accuracy and reliability of his records and your ancestor may have been vague in his answers, less than honest, or generally grumpy and unwilling to provide information.

License Date May Not Be Marriage Date

The date that a couple obtained a marriage license is not necessarily the date of the marriage. Getting a license does not mean the couple was actually married. Things can happen after the license and before the ceremony. If the license was returned with the name of officiant and date of the ceremony, then the couple got married.

If you only have the marriage license date, record it as the marriage license date.

And always pay attention to the how the dates on a document are described.