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Join Michael in Salt Lake City-May 2007

Ancestral Biographies

by Michael John Neill

Of all my children's ancestors, only two have biographies in old county histories. There are no letters or diaries left behind that provide insight into how our family lived one hundred years ago. Those who have such materials are extremely fortunate. This week we look at some other places to get biographical information and consider one of the great ironies of genealogical research.

A comprehensive search of genealogical sources can turn up biographical information. Of course county histories, obituaries, and home sources are potential sources of personal details beyond the vital statistics of births, marriages, and deaths. Pension files and court records are two great places to potentially learn more about your ancestor.

Pension Files
The amount of information in a military pension can vary greatly from one applicant to another and generally increases as records become more recent. Widows' applications are more detailed, as information about the marriage would have to be documented along with information about the soldier's service.

If your ancestor had to fight for his or her pension, the application may contain a great deal of personal information, more than a typical pension file. The Civil War pension application of Nancy Rampley was rejected several times to the point where a special hearing was held. There are more than a dozen pages of testimony from Nancy, including information about her nativity, the numerous migrations of her parents, the house where she married in 1867, and significant data about her farm operation ca. 1902. While her testimony was not an autobiography per se, it was very close and a wonderful find.

Files for direct ancestors are only the start. Pension files of ancestral siblings may be helpful as well. Nancy Rampley also gives a deposition in her sister-in-law's pension and another sister-in-law of Nancy provides testimony indicating she was at the birth of one of Nancy's children.

The National Archives holds copies of federal pension records, and records of Confederate pensions are generally held by the appropriate state archives.

Court and Probate Cases
Records of the county court may also provide biographical details of your ancestor, more than are found in other county-level records, and in some situations more than you ever wanted to know. Cases involving estate settlements, property disputes, and divorces are particularly helpful, but one never knows what information will be contained in a case until it is accessed and read.

An estate squabble in Baltimore County, Maryland, in the 1790s indicated that my ancestor was afraid his brother-in-law was going to beat him up at an auction involving the estate of the brother-in- law's father (and father-in-law of the ancestor). The court records made it clear what family members were on what side and shed some light on the family dynamics. And if a few details were changed, the year could have as easily been 1990 instead of 1790!

A property title dispute in the 1870s in Illinois indicated that the widow ran the family's farming operations, even after her 1877 remarriage. Testimonies from several family members and neighbors discuss the operation of the farm and provide insight into the family's life in the late 1870s. The court case provided no "new" genealogical facts but was still a gold mine of information.

Divorce records can be equally informative. A husband's testimony from the 1930s in Chicago indicated that because the children were now old enough to take care of themselves, the mother had begun to go out partying in the evening--without her husband. The husband credited this to the fact that he was ten years her senior. After seven years of separation, he had had enough. Testimony in court records is usually slanted towards the person testifying, but some information can usually be gleaned from such records. When my ancestor was divorced from the same man in the 1880s, the judge was confused about the multiple marriages between the same two people. The husband had indicated that this time "she promised she would be a good wife and stay."

The estate settlement of one ancestor indicated that her grandson borrowed $1,800 from her in 1900 and was supposed to draw up a mortgage to secure the loan. The executor of the estate could find no such mortgage and was unable to collect.

When searching for court records, keep in mind that locating the "good" cases usually requires searching for more names that just those of your ancestors. Court cases involving aunts, uncles, cousins, and extended family members may provide specific clues about your direct relatives. Your great-grandmother may even have testified in her brother's divorce case. My search of court records always includes the names of more than just my direct-line family.

Remedying the Problem for Future Generations
We all would love to have an autobiography of our ancestor, even just a few short pages written about his or her own life. While we can't write our ancestor's autobiography, we can write our own. The irony is that many genealogists have more written down about their ancestors than they have written about themselves. The next time an obstacle in your research gets you down, consider writing about yourself and your own experiences. Ask yourself questions such as:

Your writing need not be eloquent and can be informal. It can even be done in fits and starts. The key is to write something. Some people use a chronology as a framework, but remember to get beyond a simple listing of dates and events. Reactions to events, reasons for changes in your life, and opinions about certain topics are all items worth including. In your initial draft, write without worrying about perfect grammar and punctuation. Try and be clear. The editing can come later when you're out of things to write about. For some of us the editing has another purpose: generating yet more writing ideas.

Avoid that great irony of family history research: consider writing down your history today when you've taken a break from researching your ancestors. Remember, for the most part your ancestors are dead and aren't going anywhere. That hopefully is not the case with you!

About the Author
Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) ( He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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