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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill - 12/21/2005

My Christmas Present (I Hope!)

We all have our brick walls. If we didn't we wouldn't spend time reading how to articles on genealogy websites and e-zines (grin). In this last "Beyond the Index" column for 2005, I'll discuss my biggest brick wall in hopes that I'll get a genealogy Christmas present this year. I have been reasonably well-behaved, but I'm not holding my breath on getting an answer to this genealogical question for Christmas. However, perhaps my plan of attack will generate some ideas for you as you try to knock down some of your own brick walls.

About Ellen
Florence Ellen Butler (also known as Ellen) was supposedly born in Missouri in the 1850s. She was definitely on planet Earth sometime in 1873 when her oldest child was conceived. Sources consistently indicate this oldest child (a daughter) was born in April of 1874. The place of birth is questionable; no contemporary source has been located and the daughter was born in either Illinois, Missouri, or Iowa (depending upon which record one chooses to believe).

I am doubtful an actual birth record for this child exists. The first (and only) documented record of Ellen's existence is an 1880 census enumeration in Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois. She and her husband (William Ira Sargent) parted ways in the 1880s and she was never heard from again. Whether she left the family or died is not known. This is a family where there are more questions than answers.

How Accurate is My Information on Ellen?
The first thing I need to do is determine how accurate the information is and there lies a problem. Most of my information may be inaccurate, or all my information may be inaccurate. Census enumerations are not known for their exact precision and a census record is the only source I have providing an age and place of birth for Ellen.

Her maiden name may be not entirely correct either as it came from her children long after Ellen had apparently left the scene. On her daughters three separate marriage applications, Ellen's maiden name is listed as Butler, with variations of Florence Ellen provided as her given name. The consistency of the information the daughters provided does not mean they were correct--it just means that someone told them the same thing. Given how long they were around their mother, their knowledge of her is likely secondhand. This caveat about the accuracy of Ellen's maiden name does not mean that the maiden name I have for her is incorrect. It is just that the consistency of the last name does not automatically prove the name is right.

What Little I Know
According to the 1880 census, Florence Ellen was born in Missouri around 1856. Her parents were born in Michigan. This is an unusual, but not impossible, migration pattern. What is known is that for the duration of her marriage, Ellen lived in the tri-county area where Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri meet and the family likely moved several times between 1873 and the early to mid-1880s.

What Should I Do?
If Ellen's mid-1880 departure was the result of her leaving, then there is a chance she married again. Marriage records in Hancock County, Illinois, and in the surrounding counties should be referenced. Given the location of Warsaw, Illinois, within Hancock County, my search would begin with the records of Clark County, Missouri; Lee County, Iowa; and Adams County, Illinois. (Maps of the region are helpful when one is unfamiliar with the localities involved.) These counties would be relatively easy to reach from Warsaw. While other counties border on Hancock, Warsaw's position along the Mississippi River in the western part of the county makes marrying in one of the previously mentioned counties more likely. Other neighboring counties to Hancock should be checked though if the records in the previously mentioned counties do not reference Ellen's marriage. It is also possible she used the Mississippi River to leave the area as well and might have moved north or south along the river instead of moving east or west.

Records of divorce have been searched in the same counties where marriage records have been accessed but the search is far from complete. So far I've had no luck. It just might be that my circle has not been drawn wide enough. Or it could be that Ellen never divorced Ira or even remarried.

If Ellen's mid-1880 departure was the result of her death, then there could be a record of that event as well. Illinois was recording deaths at the county level in the 1880s, but it was still early in the recording process and a death could easily have been overlooked and gone unrecorded, especially one far from the county seat. Given that the family moved frequently, records in bordering counties should be checked as well.

Death recording procedures in Missouri and Iowa should be learned to see if records were even being kept during this time period. There is a chance of a death notice or an obituary. Newspapers for the area would have to be manually searched between the 1880 census enumeration and Ira's second marriage in 1886. The most likely newspaper to carry her death notice (the one in Warsaw, Illinois) does not have any index to obituaries for this time period. It may be time for me to manually search this weekly paper for any mention of the family.

Regardless of what happened, Ellen's husband Ira married again in nearby Adams County, Illinois, in 1886. The marriage record provides no clue as to whether Ira was widowed or divorced at the time of his marriage. If Ellen were dead then a divorce would not have been necessary. It is also possible that Ellen was alive at the time of Ira's 1886 marriage, and that she and Ira just never bothered to get divorced.

My attempts to locate Ellen after her 1880 census enumeration have failed. It may be time to try and work on her life before the 1880 census enumeration. Here I have not had much luck concretely tying my 1880 Ellen to an earlier person of the same name. This has led me to wonder?

Is Her Maiden Name Really Butler?
Ellen's two daughters were consistent in indicating that their mother's maiden name was Butler. However, this information was provided by the daughters when they married between 1898 and 1935. As discussed earlier, the name could be incorrect or misspelled. The name could have actually been a reasonable variant of Butler, such as Butler or Beetler. There are other potential problems with Ellen's maiden name beyond phonetic alterations.

The Family from which She Came
Nothing is known about Ellen Butler Sargent's life before her marriage to Ira Sargent. This could easily create additional difficulties in attempting to locate her in pre-1880 census records. If her natural father died and her mother remarried, Ellen could possibly be enumerated in census records this step-father's surname (which is unknown). Locating her in the 1860 and 1870 census under this alternate surname is virtually impossible at this point. There are other possibilities as to why Ellen cannot be found in 1860 or 1870, but one needs to avoid the temptation to make up extensive soap operas to explain the absence. However, the step-father scenario is one that at least must be considered since it is not that unusual a circumstance. (Such cases were discussed in an earlier column.)

Get Off the Computer
E-mail, search engines, databases at my fingertips, and the entire online genealogy world can sometimes be a distraction. The temptation to surf for the answer or retry a search box can be too great and sometimes what we need is to brainstorm away from the computer, away from the temptation. A printout of what information has already been obtained along with a rough chronology and a family group chart make great tools to use in my work away from the computer. Copies all information already located are helpful too.

And maybe I should ask myself some questions:

  • Did Ira or Ellen have family in the area where they settled?
  • What are some ways I could search for their family in the area where they settled?
  • Are there databases that would allow me to search or browse without knowing precise names?
  • Am I familiar with the typical records created in all the states during the time period of this search?
  • Have I created detailed chronologies?
  • Have I considered all alternate spellings of Butler?
  • Have I searched all applicable records for variant spellings of Butler?
  • Have I reviewed materials I obtained early in my research to verify its accuracy?
  • Have I considered multiple marriages of Ellen's parents?

I also find that thinking about the research problem away from all my paper is an excellent idea as well. This allows me to brainstorm and just write down ideas that come to mind. Some may be immediately crossed off later as unrealistic, but the concept of thinking about our problem away from all the paper and all the forms (and the computer) may allow us to break out of a mold that may be adding to the problem.

Also writing about your problem (as I have this week about Ellen) may help you to solve your own problem or to see alternate search options that have not been considered.

Hopefully Santa gives me an answer to this dilemma for Christmas 2005. If so, you'll be certain to read about it early in 2006. If not, you'll see periodic updates as I continue my search for Ellen and her family.

Here's wishing all my regular readers a Happy Holidays and hoping that 2006 greets you with solutions to your own genealogical puzzles. Just remember that rarely does the answer fall directly into your lap!

Michael John Neill will be speaking at the following upcoming events:

  • Lee County Genealogy Workshop, Ft. Myers, Florida, 28 January 2006
  • Genealogy Computing Workshops, Galesburg, Illinois, 6-11 March 2006
  • Research Trip to Salt Lake City Utah, 17-24 May 2006

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.

Copyright 2005,

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