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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 12/31/2003

Orphaned Papers

The ending of one year and the beginning of another cause some genealogists to review the material in their family history files. Instead of reviewing documents, this week we look at locating orphan copies of records—those copies whose origin is unknown.

Most of us have some documents or copies of records with no source citation, a photocopy or a printout whose original location is a mystery. Documents without a source can be suspect, regardless of how authoritative they sound. Good genealogy demands that we know our documents' sources. The problem is that many family historians are not aware of this when they originally start their searches and sometimes the documentation lesson is learned after records have been located. And when we can't tell someone where we located a record crucial to our case, it weakens the case we worked so hard to make.

This week we look at some ways to track down the source of that orphan copy. We'll focus on copies obtained from a published source, a census, or a courthouse record.

Many researchers have obituary clippings with no idea of the original source. Estimating the person's date of death is a good starting place. Sometimes it is possible to determine approximate the death date of the person from death certificates, census records, county histories, probate records, family stories, or similar sources. If the location of the newspaper is not known, you may determine the person's residence through census records, obituaries of other family members, or other records.

Like many genealogists I have several of these clippings, particularly clippings obtained from deceased family members. The subject of the obituary had died in Carthage, Illinois, in the 1930s. The reverse side contained advertisements for used cars, complete with street addresses and phone numbers. From the names of the streets, I was reasonably certain the clipping must have come from a Quincy, Illinois, paper. No other nearby town had house numbers that large. From the individual's death certificate, I already knew the approximate date of the paper from which the obituary was taken. Sure enough, a search of Quincy papers located the same obituary on microfilm that I had in my files.

Years ago, a relative sent me a copy of a 3rd-great-uncle's obituary. No date, no title, no page number, just the biography. The relative could not remember where she had originally obtained the biography. She also told me I should be thankful she had even bothered to send me the biography in the first place. While I was grateful, I was remotely curious (slight understatement) as to when and where the biography was published, for two reasons. First, I wanted to be able to completely cite the document, and second, I was hoping to locate more information once I knew where the biography had been published.

Unsourced county biographies from old county histories provide numerous clues as to their place of publication. First, organize the information in the biography chronologically. This will help you put things together and determine the last residence mentioned for the biographee. There's a good chance the biography was published near where the person “ended up” or the last area of residence mentioned.

The approximate date of the biography may be inferred from what individuals are listed as living or deceased, married or not married, born or not-yet-born. If the biography provides little in the way of residential clues, consider looking for individuals listed in the biography in census records close to the approximate time of the biography. If you can find where the biographee was living close to when the biography was probably written, you know where you ought to start looking.

Once the likely county has been determined, search for county histories in online library card catalogs. The Family History Library, the Library of Congress, and the Allen County Public Library are excellent places to start. I particularly like the subject browse on the Allen County Public Library's card catalog; many online library card catalogs offer this feature. Libraries in the area where the biography was likely published should be referenced, as should larger libraries.

In addition to county histories, statewide directories of specific occupations or trades may have also published biographical directories containing the biography whose source you do not know. These publications are frequently not card-cataloged at the county level.

Court Document
I once received a copy of an exhibit from a court case. There was just one problem. The copy I received was part of one document. There was no documentation or indication of where the case was heard or who the specific defendants and plaintiffs were. However there were clues, and I was fortunate enough to know the county where the case was likely heard.

The document was a listing of all the heirs of an estate that was being foreclosed. The date of death of the property-owner was known, so I had a date after which the case was heard. I looked up the name of each heir in the defendants' index to court records, hoping that one of them would be indexed as a defendant in the case. Fortunately, one of them was. Finding the case was relatively easy given the information I had.

It will not always be so simple. Most court records should have some date listed, either a date of filing or a date of execution (of the document, not necessarily a person!). In many cases, a location should be included. If not, try and locate the individuals named in the document in census records around the approximate time of the record. Most individuals listed in the document will hopefully live in the same general area and give you an idea of where the case may have been heard.

When searching for the actual court case file, remember that court cases are typically indexed in the plaintiffs' and defendants' indexes once each, regardless of how many plaintiffs and defendants there are in the case.

Preventing These Problems
No solution is failsafe, but I prefer to write the document source on the edge of the same side of the paper on which the copy is made. That forces anyone who copies my copy, including me, to copy the citation along with the document itself. A citation like this should not be made to look like it was a part of the original document and should provide adequate detail to relocate the original if necessary. Consequently, the following should be included (if available):

Creator of record (ex. Adams County, Ohio Probate Court)
Title of book (ex. Probate Journal E)
Date of publication

Additional details, such as film or call numbers, are also helpful. Tracking these details will reduce the number of orphaned copies floating around in genealogical filing cabinets.

Wrapping It Up
Do you know where all the copies in your files came from? With a little persistence, it may be possible to locate the original source of that orphaned copy in your file. Also, you may locate additional documents in the process. And isn't locating more information the goal?

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 the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures 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 2003, All rights reserved.

Used by the author on his website with permission.

Other genealogy articles my Michael John Neill

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