Given Name(s) Last Name

from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 12/30/1999

Reminders from the Back of the Filing Cabinet

I've been cleaning out my files again and "discovered" another folder of items on my wife's Scott County, Iowa ancestors. In reading through the materials, I was reminded of the following (and also remembered dozens of leads that need to be followed up).

Review What's in Your Files
We've mentioned this before, but re-reading, sorting, and organizing your materials may solve a few of your research problems. Is the answer to your question already contained within your files?

This is a Mixed Up Family
Relationships are not always clear and your initial hunch may not be correct. I once had a researcher in Indiana send me a marriage license for a couple she thought were my ancestors. The marriage date was a couple of years off and while the surnames of the bride and groom matched, the first names were different. "People used nicknames all the time" was the comment she wrote in her report. While people did use nicknames, further research indicated I had been sent the incorrect license. Brothers had been married sisters. I was sent the marriage license of my ancestors' siblings instead of my ancestors.

It May Take a While to Sort Everyone Out
When beginning research on many families, the names and relationships may be confusing. Copy and extract the information exactly as it is written. Later analyze it and see if a consistent picture develops. It won't always happen. Not all families can be easily researched in a few days. One individual I am researching in Illinois in the 1870s had children with his wife and with his wife's sister. Unfortunately the surname was SMITH and this, coupled with a lack of vital records, the fact that the husband and the wife had been married (and widowed) before, and that some of the children were adopted out, complicated the problem. This family will be the focus of an upcoming article, but it was crucial during the early stages to record information accurately. There were many days when nothing seemed to make sense at all.

Use Rare Names to Your Advantage
I used to hate the unusual surnames I was researching. It seemed like I never found an UFKES, TRAUTVETTER, FECHT, RAMPLEY, GOLDENSTEIN or HABBEN anywhere. However, when I did find one, I researched the person thoroughly, as there was a high chance (but no guarantee) of a relationship. I had few common names in my background. However, this was to change when I married. While I added MORTIER and CAWIEZELL to my list of unusual names, I unfortunately added SMITH, JONES, and BROWN. I say this not for sympathy, but so that everyone knows that I'm working on common names too.

Learn, Learn, Learn
Take advantage of sources that you might not have had cause to use before. Research on my own family had concentrated in rural areas, which have their own slant on research methods. When I started work on some of my wife's more urban ancestors, I learned quickly of the value of city directories and other records I had not previously used before. How I wish we had similar tools for researching in areas with much smaller populations. Of course, the smaller population of these areas facilitates research in its own way too.

You May Never Know the Answer to Your Question
We might as well face facts: there will not be an answer to each and every family history question. That does not mean you should not keep looking, but that the possibility of no answer does exist. A great-great-grand uncle's wife had a child out of wedlock in Germany in 1868 and subsequently emigrated. American records provide no information on his birth father and the appropriate German church records (while usually extremely detailed) yielded no further paternal clues. The name of his father is left blank and most likely will remain that way. Those who likely knew the answer have long since died.

Track Residences
This cannot be overemphasized. Those of us who begin our genealogy research with rural ancestors can many times get by with knowing approximately where our ancestors lived. A "few miles east of town" at most will refer to one or two townships and this frequently is sufficient to search census and other records. Researching urban ancestors with such an approach is much more difficult. Whenever you learn of an address or residence for an ancestor, track that information. Many sources are organized by location and knowing the address may mean the difference between being able to search the records and not being able to.

If You Can't Stand the Heat: Stay Out of the Kitchen
If you are new to family history research, bear in mind that you may uncover some unsavory information in your background. Regular readers of my column have read some of the "colorful" stories I have uncovered about my own family. One relative tended bar at his brother-in-law's tavern before his marriage. No one knew this until I found the reference in a city directory and almost everyone found it interesting. Another great-great-grand uncle drowned himself in three feet of mud. Death certificates, obituaries, and divorce records can reveal information that might have been buried for several generations. Some of the information you find will not be pleasant, but it is important to remember that life has always had its challenges. Some of our ancestors were more successful at meeting them than others. Bear in mind that what you might consider "interesting" or "colorful" another family member might view in a more negative fashion.

Name Change or No?
Keep in mind that children listed in the census may not actually be the children of the head of the household. My 2nd great-grandmother is listed as the "daughter" of her stepfather in the 1860 census and my wife's step-3rd-great-grandfather is listed in the 1870 census as being as the "father" of his wife's children by a previous marriage. Always search other records to document what you find in the census and other records.

Bought and Sold
If an ancestor owned property, determine when it was purchased and when it was sold. Records of either transaction may provide clues as to previous or new places of residence or to heirs who sold the property after the owner's death. An inventory of the estate of Paul FREUND in Davenport, Scott County, Iowa, in the 1860s mentions forty acres. Paul had no will and determining how this property passed from the family may provide additional clues. Determining when it was purchased may provide a better estimate of the amount of time Paul lived in Iowa.

Living With the Kids?
I thought I had lost Andreas SCHULMEYER after his listing in the 1863 Davenport, Iowa, city directory. Turns out in the 1870 census he is listed with his daughter and her family. Determine if any of your ancestors lived with one of their children in their later years. Remember to search all the ancestor's children, not just the one who is your ancestor. This method is not foolproof; earlier census records do not provide the relationship to the head of household, which can create confusion. Sometimes a person who is actually a relative may be listed as a "boarder." Never omit these boarders when copying the census entry. Their names may come in handy later.

Check All the Papers
Is it possible that more than one paper carried an obituary for your relative? Larger towns may have had multiple daily or weekly papers and more than one might have carried an obituary. One can easily contain details omitted from the other. Even in rural areas, there might have been newspapers in two different nearby towns that might both have printed an obituary. Editors have their own peculiarities about what an obituary should and should not contain. Even today, you might locate multiple obituaries. A relative recently died and had obituaries in the Moline, Monmouth, and Carthage, Illinois, newspapers. She died near to one town, had lived many years near another, and was born and raised near the third. It never hurts to check out more than one paper. In this case, the papers in the smaller towns provided more details about the individual and her children.

You never know what's under than stone unless you turn it over.


Copyright 1999, Michael John Neill. 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 and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: or visit his website at:

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