Given Name(s) Last Name

from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 8/1/2002

Rural Roots

I'll be perfectly frank. Before I was married, I had never used a city directory in my research and had only used a Soundex once. I never really bothered with enumeration districts either.

The reason for me was simple. I did not need to. My ancestors (with the exception of one couple I now know were in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a few years) lived in rural and usually fairly sparsely populated areas. There are not annual directories and much census work can be done without concerns over enumeration districts. It was only after I began researching my wife's ancestry that I needed to deal with urban research and the problems that it entails.

My own forebears starting arriving in Illinois in 1847 and continued arriving until 1883. From that time until the present, fifty of my ancestors have lived in Hancock or Adams Counties in Illinois. All but two owned land at some time in their life. All were engaged in farming except one, either as farmers owning their own land or as tenant farmers. They represented a cross section of the economic backgrounds. Some have been easier to research than others.

Do the Deeds
Given the nature of my family, one of the records I used the most were land records. Determining how they obtained the property they owned and how they disposed of it were always genealogically relevant. This approach did not work with my one late nineteenth century ancestor who fluctuated between being a day laborer and a tenant farmer.

Go Beyond Deeds
Land records do not always tell the entire story of property ownership and land transfer but they are the place to begin research of an ancestor's farm. Gaps in land records may be explained in either a will or an estate settlement (where the land is inherited and not transferred by an actual deed) or in records of a of court action outside the probate court.

If a land division could not be done by the heirs, a partition suit might have been filed in the local court to distribute the land among the family or force a sale at public auction. There are other legal actions that also could have taken place upon the death of one of the owners. All of these court actions should provide additional clues about the family. For additional suggestions read, "Where Did the Farm Go?"

Why Didn't I Bother with Enumeration Districts in the Census?
It was not because I could not figure them out, it was because I really did not need them. Normally in rural areas, enumeration district borders follow township lines and townships in areas not heavily settled are not usually broken down into smaller districts for census enumeration purposes. Since all my ancestors were living in rural areas 1880 and after, a study of enumeration districts was not really necessary for me to locate my families.

It was necessary however to know the townships where my ancestors lived or owned property as a search of the entire county would be too time consuming. This was another reason why the land records were helpful. My one "city-dweller" lived in a small town and those who retired and moved to "town" settled in areas small enough to perform a manual census search without resorting to Soundex or enumeration districts.

Did I Use Maps?
Maps are an integral part of genealogy and my research was no exception.

I used a county map that showed the townships of the county (online here ) and how they fit together. This was necessary as I had family members living in ten of the county's townships at one time or another.

I knew what plat books were long before I ever did genealogy-most farmers I know have at least one, our house had several. I "requisitioned" a twenty-year-old plat book that my parents no longer needed and I marked it up as I did my research.

A plat book indicates the property owner at the time the plat book is compiled, where the property is located, the general shape of the property, and the acreage. The properties are mapped out, usually one page per township. Those unfamiliar with a plat book can find one from Adams County, Illinois in 1922. My great-great-grandmother's brother B. Dirks is listed as owning property in section 35, right outside of Coatsburg.

Determining where your ancestor's farm was located may help you in finding out where he was buried.

Is Your Tree in the Paper?
Small town newspapers are an excellent source of information and not just for obituaries. These small papers were generally weeklies and usually contained a good amount of national news. However, in the area where my family lived, "gossip columns" were extremely popular in roughly the era from 1870 through the 1940s and in some cases even much later.

Many rural newspapers contained similar submissions by area residents. These columns were submitted by local correspondents who wrote about the happenings in their area, including who had dinner with the preacher on Sunday afternoon, who was visiting from out of town, who went to the county seat to do business, etc. Using these columns, I've answered several mundane and not-so-mundane questions.

One great-grandmother was more of a socialite than I ever imagined, especially considering her socio-economic background. In another case, newspaper references indicated a great-great-grand aunt had left her foster parents and resumed living with her father. These are the kinds of clues that are not mentioned in official records.

What's My Own Taxing Problem?
My own major problem has been discussed in this column before: William Ira Sargent who first appears in Hancock County, Illinois, in the 1880 census. A day laborer and later a tenant farmer, Ira has no real estate, probate, or estate records. This kind of person is the most difficult for the genealogist to track. Ira should appear in personal property tax records though and these records would allow me to approximate when he moved to the area and when he left.

They may also list others with the same surname living in the jurisdiction at the same time. The difficulty that many researchers face with these records is that they are not indexed and must be searched manually for every year. However there may be cases where a search of personal property tax records is necessary.

In future columns, we'll discuss additional problems faced when searching rural ancestors, especially when the family's financial status makes them less likely to appear in land and other records.


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 e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2002,

Used by the author on his website with permission.

Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill

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