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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 2/9/2005


Genealogists need to be skeptical because virtually every document used by a genealogist was created for some non-genealogy reason. As we look through any record, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of the document and keep an out for any strange inclusions that may be clues to our ancestors' lives.

Documents Have Purposes
Sometimes the purpose of a record is fairly obvious. Death certificates are kept to track health statistics and to serve as proof of death for insurance and estate settlement purposes. Birth certificates are kept to track population and to serve as proof of age or citizenship.

Because records are created for specific reasons, we usually look for certain documents after specific events happen in our ancestor's life. Genealogists typically look for infant baptisms and birth records after a birth, marriage records after a marriage, and death and probate records after a death. Other types of records (court and land records, for example) could appear anytime during the time an ancestor is an adult of legal age. But in all these cases, something happened to trigger the creation of a document.

There are other records whose intent and purpose are usually fairly clear. Sometimes the reason for a record's creation may be apparent, but the timing may seem strange. And sometimes the document may contain a word or phrase that is not typically seen. There are situations where records are filed late because our ancestors dragged their feet. There are times when a turn of phrase is not necessarily significant. But there are situations where the timing or the phrasing may have a specific intent.

There are even records whose purpose may not be clear. When a genealogist cannot determine the reason a record was created or (worse yet) fails to search for one, invalid assumptions may be made. Understanding a document's purpose can be especially difficult when records are incomplete or lacking in adequate detail. If we fail to find a reason for a document, we may also fail to notice significant clues. The problem is that when we begin our genealogy research there is a great deal that we do not know both about our ancestors and the records they left behind. We may not be aware that a specific record is unusual or know that a certain phrasing in a document is beyond the norm and warrants further study. For this reason, learning is an integral part of the research process. So is reading articles and studies where other genealogists have reconstructed families who were contemporaries of our ancestors, either time-wise, geographically, or culturally.

Guardian for a Swede?
There is a guardianship record for Samuel Otto Johnson in Galesburg, Knox County, Illinois, in 1888. The existence of the record surprised me because both his parents were alive in Sweden. Why was a guardian needed for Samuel in 1888? He wanted to get married and was not of legal age. It was necessary to appoint a guardian for him so that the guardian could then give his consent to the marriage. Further research on this guardian is warranted. Samuel was the only one of his family to settle in Galesburg. Was the guardian a distant relative, a former neighbor, an acquaintance of his parents, or a fellow Swede he knew through work or church? While I may never know the answer, learning more about this guardian may shed more light on Samuel.

Separate Payments?
In 1869, George and Sophia Trautvetter sold all their real estate to their son George A. Trautvetter. George A. paid his parents a cash amount and then agreed to pay George the father $50 a year for the rest of his life and to separately pay his mother Sophia $50 a year for the rest of her life. The separate nature of the payments was slightly unusual. Typically the parents are paid as a group until the last one dies. In this case there was a reason for the distinction.

Family information in the United States indicated the father, George, returned to Germany for a visit in 1871 and died there. His death entry in the church records indicate he had returned to his homeland to live as a retiree due to "domestic problems." Follow up research seems to indicate that George (the father) left in 1869, most likely shortly after the land transaction. The separate payments to the parents was likely because they were separated at (or shortly after) the time of the agreement. Does the land record point all this out? No.

No Lawful Husband
When a widowed forebear married in 1859, the marriage entry indicates she has "no lawful husband living." I thought the phrase was odd. Her first husband, Mr. Bieger, had died four years earlier in 1855. Her last name is listed as Bieger on the 1859 marriage. I had seen many marriage records for widows and had never remembered seeing the "no lawful husband living" notation before. Additional research indicated that this ancestor had a short lived marriage in 1856 and that this husband, George Fennan, had abandoned her a few months after their marriage.

Why a Guardian?
An aunt and uncle of mine adopted a child in the 1890s, before adoptions were formalized by court action. Typically these adoptions consisted of the couple taking in and raising the child as their own with no formal paperwork. When the child was about ten years old and had been living with the couple for nearly ten years, a guardianship case was filed for him. Guardianships are not always filed in these cases. However, in this instance the child inherited $200 from his biological grandfather. The adopted parents needed official guardianship status for the child in order to receive the money in his name. Hence the court action to formalize their relationship.

Why Wait to Sell?
Your ancestor died in Virginia in 1744. His children all jointly sold the farm in the 1760s. Why the delay? There may be several reasons, but the most likely one is the widow. The wife of your deceased Virginia ancestor most likely had the right to reside on the farm during her widowhood. As a result the farm was not officially sold until after her death. Sometimes families wait for other reasons, but if the will or estate-records of the ancestor indicates he was survived by a widow there is a good chance that the farm was not sold until after her death.

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 2005,

Used by the author on his website with permission.   

Other Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill