13 December 2008

Where did they get That?

Where Did They Get That?

Michael John Neill

Confusion is often in the mind of the beholder. The ongoing release of the every name 1900 census index at Ancestry.com has caused me to revisit some relatives in this census. When I viewed one entry, I remembered how confused I was when I first saw it. Like many genealogical records, the enumeration contained an error. And like many errors, the incorrect statement was a clue. In this case it was a clue that I failed to notice.


In 1900, John M. Trautvetter is a 60ish widower, living with his four youngest children on a farm in rural Hancock County, Illinois. The bulk of the census entry is consistent with other records, including John's age, place of birth, year of immigration, and citizenship status. What confused me was the place of birth listed for the children's mother--Ohio. No other record ever listed that state.


John's wife, Frances, was the mother of all his children (there was not a second wife, although different places of births for the mother can sometimes indicate this), and she died in 1888 well
before the 1900 enumeration. Every document indicated she was born in Illinois in 1851 with no hint to another possible state of birth. While I had no direct evidence of her birth date and place, Frances' parents were known to have resided in Illinois as early as November 1850, and Frances' guardianship records (created when she was five years old) clearly state she had been born in January 1851. There was no evidence that her parents lived anywhere except Illinois after November 1850. But still, in the 1900 census, entries for four of her children indicate she had an Ohio place of birth.


Frances' three oldest children were out of the house by the 1900 enumeration, and their entries were also located. These children indicated their mother was born in Illinois. While this was not
consistent with the Ohio birthplace listed by the other children, at least it was consistent with what I already knew about Frances.


So Where Did Ohio Come From?

I do not know who provided the information for the Trautvetter household in 1900. But now I do know that the informant was not entirely confused when they indicated that the mother of the children in the household was born in Ohio.


It was years after I first discovered that 1900 census entry that I learned that Frances' parents were German immigrants who married in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1849. Their stay in Ohio was short, but it was where they were married and where the husband was naturalized. I wish I had considered the Ohio reference as a clue from the start instead of simply ignoring it as some off-the-wall mistake. Whoever told the enumerator the children's mother was born in Ohio must have known that her family had some connection to that state.


In this case, the error was a lead as to the family's origins. Some discrepancies in records are clues as to other locations where the family lived. Unfortunately, not all inconsistencies can be understood as easily as this one. However our point is that apparent errors should not immediately be tossed aside.


Many Errors in Records

There are many errors in genealogical records. If all records were completely consistent, genealogy research would not be nearly as difficult (or as interesting) as it is. And some of us become skeptical when all the records completely agree. And while an error is still an error, there are times when the error is a clue. The error can result from many scenarios, but it is worth remembering that we were not present when the information on the record was obtained. We do not know who answered the questions and what distractions might have been in the respondent's mind. All we have is what is written on the document.


Did our ancestor think the clerk meant, "Where is your mother from?" instead of "Where was your mother born?" Where a person is "from" is not necessarily the same place as where they were born. In the case of Frances, the children still living in the household in 1900 were relatively young when she died in 1888. Their memories of their mother may be very dim, and their only knowledge of her and her origins may come from their father--who might not necessarily know where she was born either.


Other Types of Errors

- Hearing and Speech Problems

Your ancestor's ability to speak the language of the country in which he or she lived can easily impact how the name is written in various records. Combine that with regional dialects, hearing problems, and inattentive clerks and the problem can be greatly compounded. This topic was discussed in this column some time ago in an article titled "Do You Ear What I Ear?"


- Bald-faced lie.

Was your ancestor hiding from his or her past? Was he or she lying to get out of something? Was he or she lying to be able to do something? If your ancestor lied on a document, there is usually a reason. The difficulty lies in determining what that reason was. If your ancestor made up several lies, the problem can be even worse.


- They were not there.

Many documents that genealogist use reference events that took place long before the document was created and, perhaps, even before the informant was born. The amount of time that has elapsed, combined with the fact that a story may have passed through several individuals, can
cause facts to be reported incorrectly. And the mistake may be an honest one, particularly if the informant on a document is an in-law.


- A little detail they did not know.

My parents have lived in the same county their entire lives. And yet they were born in a different state because the nearest hospital was across the state line. I can remember that when I gave the clerk in the marriage records office the birthplaces of my parents, my soon-to-be
wife looked at me when I indicted my parents were born in Iowa --and yet they were.


- Sometimes there's no telling what they were thinking.

One relative of mine said her father was born in Canada, the United States, Iowa, or Kentucky. It all depends upon what census enumeration you believe. (Skeptics can view the census entries here.) This is a case where I just wonder exactly went on when the census taker knocked
on the door. (To read our fictionalized view of the census taker read "The Census Taker Cometh.")


Consider the Errors

Some errors are errors. Some errors are clues. It is the job of the genealogist to determine the difference as best they can. Your ancestor might have been giving you the biggest clue when they gave the wrong answer.

Note: This article originally ran in the Ancestry Daily News on 20 Oct 2004.

Requests to repost or reprint can be sent to Michael at mjnrootdig@gmail.com


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12 December 2008

Do You Ear What I Ear

Do You Ear What I Ear

From the Ancestry Daily News 27 July 1999
reprint requests can be sent to me at mjnrootdig@gmail.com

Last week's article used the term "birder" house. One astute reader gently indicated that I most likely meant "brooder" house. I thank them for the correction and must plead ignorance for while I was raised on a farm, we did not have chickens. You can be certain I will not make the same mistake using bovine phrases—I would never hear the end of it!


The mistake makes a point and I'm actually glad it happened. Mishearing and misinterpreting words and phrases can cause problems genealogically in several situations. I have categorized the difficulties here, but bear in mind that there might be some overlap and that the distinction between some categories is not really important.



Did Not Hear Correctly

Just as I misunderstood Grandma, it might be that the respondent on an official document or record did not hear correctly and gave "incorrect" information as a result. This same difficulty can arise when family members are asked for information. In one of my families, confusion arose between the two names "Augusta" and "Geske." These names are distinct, however, an individual with a hearing problem might easily confuse the two.



Misunderstood the Question

The respondent might have heard all the words and thought he understood the meaning of the question. If your ancestor gave an "incorrect" birthplace for his mother or father, is it possible that he interpreted the question as "where is your mother from?" instead of "where was your mother born?" Mother might have been born in one place and "been from" somewhere else (depending upon where she grew up and where her family originated). It might have been this place that she considered herself "from" even though it was not actually where she was born. We cannot know for certain what our ancestors were thinking when they were answering questions for the census taker or the marriage license clerk. All we have is the document they left behind.



When interviewing family members use as many names as possible. Relationships can create confusion. When interviewing my grandmother, it took several minutes to make it clear to her that I was asking about her grandfather Trautvetter, not her father. She had referred to her own dad as a grandfather for so long (to her own children) that she originally answered the questions as if I was asking about her father. Using her grandfather's name of John reduced the
confusion (her father, fortunately was named George). While it may not be possible use names exclusively, minimizing the number of relationships used when asking questions can reduce confusion.



Did Not Know the Language

Was your immigrant ancestor answering questions that were asked in a language he did not understand? Even if your ancestor could speak English, it seems reasonable that she might have easily mistranslated a key word or phrase.



Was Not Listening

Have you ever answered a question without ever really listening to it? Asking your parent, spouse, child, or co-worker might provide a different answer. Is it possible your ancestor was not paying one hundred percent attention when the 1920 census taker knocked on his door? Did your ancestor assume no one would ever really care about the answers eighty years later?



No One Cared

When the clerk was filling out my marriage license, he asked me how to spell my mother's maiden name. And so I spelled it out. If I had married in the county where I was born and raised, most of the office staff would have known how to spell the surname (and many would have known it without even asking). Close attention is not always paid to detail today and it certainly was not one hundred and fifty years ago either.



Spoke a Dialect, Used Slang, or Had an Accent

Dialects and variations in pronunciation can impact how words are spelled in records. "Gibson" can easily be pronounced so that it is spelled like "Gepson." There are numerous names where this is a problem, a problem compounded by dialects, "drawls," and "twangs." While it may be possible to know how our ancestors pronounced a name or a word, this information is generally not available.



It Has Been a While Since I Was Able to "Ear" It

In some cases, it is literally a lifetime from the day when a family tradition is heard until that day it is told. You grandfather might have heard a story when he was a child and not repeated it until he had grandchildren of his own. The chance that as a child he misunderstood something is reasonable. This difficulty is compounded by the effects time can have on one's memory.



The Ancestor Was Not Literate

If your ancestor was unable to read, she could not "proof" any answers or words listed on any form she might have signed. Even if your ancestor could read, if the forms were not in her native tongue, she might have easily misunderstood a question (or her answer). The clerk might not have been concerned about explaining it to her either.



Genealogists need to bear in mind auditory difficulties when dealing with records. These difficulties are compounded by problems with how our ancestors might have interpreted various terms and phrases. Documenting these difficulties may be impossible in many cases. When it can be done, it should, especially with pronunciations.



I always track the ways names are pronounced when I know it. One of my ancestral surnames is Behrens. My great-grandmother pronounced it as "barns" (the kind cows sometimes reside in). This pronunciation is duly noted in my files. While it's not written as technically as it would be in a dictionary, it serves the purpose.

But I Don't Know How It Is Pronounced


Asking older family members is a good first step, but not always possible. As your research progresses further and further back in time, the chance that living family members have heard the name decreases. Researchers who do not know how a name is most likely pronounced may
wish to post such a question to one of the mailing lists for the surname or the message boards at http://boards.ancestry.com/ or the mailing lists at rootsweb http://lists.rootsweb.com/.

Individuals with the name may post replies, but it is important to remember that the pronunciation today may be significantly different from one hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago.



Genealogists use their eyes for the bulk of their genealogical work, and rightly so. But we must also use our ears and mouths—for that's how many of those words made their way from our ancestor's minds to those records.



Good Luck!



Copyright 1999, Michael John Neill.

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From Their Mouth to Your Computer Screen

From Their Mouth to Your Computer Screen

Michael John Neill

While it would be nice for our ancestors' information to instantly appear on the computer screen, most of us know that it simply does not work that way. This week we take a look at the steps that data took to get from our ancestors' mouth to our computer monitor. Being aware of these steps is crucial to effectively searching for ancestors in transcriptions, indexes, and other finding aids.



From the Ancestor's Mouth

Few of us were present when our ancestor gave the answers to the census taker or the records clerk. There is no way for us to know exactly what question came out of the clerk's mouth and how this question was interpreted by our ancestor, particularly if he or she could barely understand the language the records clerk used. Even if the ancestor understood the question perfectly, there are additional considerations. Did the person answering questions have a German accent? Did she have an Irish brogue? Did he insert a guttural sound into the name that might have been interpreted as an extra letter? Did your ancestor have difficulty speaking? Did your ancestor fail to give complete answers? Did your ancestor even really understand the questions, even if they spoke the same language?



To the Clerk's Ear

Did the clerk ask for clarification or just spell a name the way it sounded? Did he even care if he spelled the name correctly? Did he spell your Danish ancestor's last name the way a Swede would spell it because many other mmigrants to the area were Swedish and not Danish? Did the clerk say the question in a way that was confusing to your ancestor? Did the clerk have difficulty understanding your ancestor and wrote down his best guess instead of clarifying the answer with your ancestor? Was the census taker a German native who insisted on spelling even the English language last names the "German way?" Did the records clerk put down "Germany" as the place of birth because that was easier than writing down Wildbrechtrode, Thuringen, Germany?



To the Official Document

Did the clerk have handwriting that was very flourished and difficult to read? Was his handwriting sloppy? Did his letter "u" look like a letter "n?" Did he use an ink or a pencil that has faded over time? Was the document written on low-quality paper? Is there an inkblot right over the most crucial word in the entire document?



To Be Filed Away

Many of the documents used by genealogists were not originally stored under the most ideal conditions for long-term preservation. Some are still not stored under such conditions. Extreme heat or cold, mildew, water, insects, or other environmental factors could easily have impacted the condition of the records used to create an index or a finding aid.
Bottoms of pages may have worn away after years of use. Pages may have fallen out and gotten lost as the binding of the book deteriorated beyond repair. Does the transcription of finding aid you are using make it clear whether such issues were encountered when the records were read? Were original documents folded, creating an illegible line of
text that invariably is the most important line in the entire document.



To the Transcriptionist's Eye

Is the indexer using the original document or a microfilm copy? Is that microfilmed copy the only copy and a poor copy at that? Is the transcriptionist familiar with the last names of the area or the language the individuals listed in the records likely spoke? I recently helped someone find their family in the 1880 census only and realized that the last name of Pundt had been transcribed as Bennet. When the microfilm was viewed, it was easy to see how the interpretation was made. I might have thought it was Bennet myself. The handwriting was faint, the "B" was difficult to read and the other letters before the final "t" were not clear. I would not have read it as Pundt, but it was (based upon the first names that all matched the family group of the researcher).



To the Database Entry

Those who key in data occasionally make a mistake. For this reason, vary which search box you leave empty when performing online searches. Use wildcard operators and Soundex options when available. And if the records are not impossible to search one at a time, consider a manual search of the information page by page. You never know what you might discover.



To the Researcher's Search Technique

Are you considering all the possible variant spellings? Is there a chance that you do not understand completely how the search interface works? Are you assuming something about your ancestor that is not true and is this assumption hindering your search? If an online database is being used, are as few search boxes as possible being filled in? The more boxes that are completed when performing a search, the more narrow the search and the greater the chance the desired entry is not located.



Failure to find the desired entry in an online finding aid is not always the fault of the researcher. Sometimes our ancestor is just not in the records. Sometimes he gave misleading information. Sometimes the clerk did not care how the name was spelled. Sometimes the keeper of the records was not concerned with preserving the records. Sometimes the transcriptionist makes a mistake. It is those sometimes that get us in trouble. Think about all the steps that information took from your ancestor's mouth to your computer screen. Remembering these steps may
help you to keep your failed searches in perspective.

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Note: This originally appeared in the Ancestry Daily News on 8 June 2005.

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09 December 2008

Sally-Sarah: What is the Difference?

Sally/Sarah, What's the Difference?


When two people have the same (or similar) names, or one person has multiple names, it can create big problems for genealogists. Records on individuals with the same name need to be "sorted" out into their separate identities, while individuals who used different names may have to be "merged" together to create one identity despite the varying names. The separating or merging is not always an easy process, and sometimes it is downright impossible. Incomplete or hasty research can aggravate the situation. Jumping to conclusions too early and holding on to them for too long may only add to the confusion.


To help with these frustrating occurrences, today's article centers on difficulties caused by individuals with similar names.


Making Assumptions: A Case Study

Philip Smith and Sarah Kile were living as husband and wife in Mercer County, Illinois in the 1870 and 1880 census. This family was the focus of our research. Sarah's children's marriage and death records had consistently listed her maiden name as Kile. But the consistency of secondary sources, while comforting, did not guarantee their accuracy. However, Sarah was listed as Archibald Kile's daughter in a late-1800s Mercer County, Illinois court case. The maiden name seemed fairly solid.


A search of the online Illinois Marriage Index located no marriage between Philip Smith and Sarah Kile. However, there was a marriage between a Sarah McIntosh and a Philip Smith on 3 May 1860. Another search of Kile marriages for females turned up an 1858 marriage for a Peter McLain and a Sally Kile. After finding these online records, I made the connection that Sarah and Sally were one in the same. After all, Sally was a well-known nickname for Sarah. Peter must have had died shortly after the couple's 1858 marriage, and Sarah must have married again. The nickname situation would explain the ladies' first name difference, and the original record was probably just misread so that McLain was mistakenly recorded as McIntosh. The scenario seemed clear, based on these assumptions! (Genealogy Guardian Angel advice: Look at the actual, original marriage records before making a conclusion like that.)


Next Stop: Census!

I located an entry for Peter McLain and Sarah L. McLain in a published 1860 Mercer County, Illinois census. But the published source did not include the actual date the census was taken, and I was still holding strong to my theory. However, listed in the household were an Elizabeth Kile and a William Kile. The 1860 census does not give relationships to heads of household. Sarah, the wife of Philip Smith, was the daughter of Archibald Kile. My theory was starting to unravel slightly, but perhaps the older Kiles were Sarah McLain's aunt and uncle. (Genealogy Guardian Advice: Be certain you aren't trying to make the records fit the theory instead of making the theory fit the records.)


I needed the original census to doublecheck the information and determine the date the census was taken. While I was waiting for that, a quick look at my copy of The Sources indicated that the 1860 census began on 1 June 1860. Philip Smith married Sarah McIntosh on 3 May 1860. This was starting to shoot holes in my theory.


On To 1870 . . .

There's Peter McLain STILL living with Sally! My theory is now bust, as Philip Smith and his Sarah had several children by this time. It is back to the drawing board.


Back to the marriages (more thoroughly this time . . .)


A search in the online Illinois State Marriage Index for brides under the surname "Kyle" located a marriage between a John McIntosh and a Sarah Kyle in September of 1852 in Mercer County, Illinois. This information led to a new working hypothesis, which was as follows:


Sarah Kile married John McIntosh in 1852. This marriage was terminated (either by John's death or by a judge). Sarah McIntosh married Philip Smith in 1860. Sally Kile, who married Peter McLain, was likely a relative of Sarah Kile, who is known to have married Philip Smith. Sarah Kile (McIntosh?) Smith and Sarah Kile McLain are likely related, possibly cousins. A look at Philip Smith and Sarah McIntosh's marriage license lists her as "Mrs. Sarah McIntosh" with a mark on the Mrs. (it's not clear if the mark is intending to strike out the Mrs. or not). This "Mrs." notation is not indicated in the online marriage index and is a considerable clue.


There's still plenty of work to be done: a COMPLETE analysis of census and other records, and an attempt to find out what happened to John McIntosh.


Lessons Learned


    1) Nicknames should not always be an "excuse" to automatically "combine" two individuals.


    2) Consider alternate spellings.


    3) Do not jump to conclusions.


    4) Research with the goal of finding out as much of the truth as you can—not with the intent of proving your initial hunch correct.


    5) Continue to analyze all information as new information is located.



Comments on This Research "Technique"


    1) Sally was frequently used as a nickname for Sarah.


    2) McIntosh and McLain being considered the "same" without any evidence to back it up was a stretch (and a very long one at that).


    3) At least the research continued and the researcher finally admitted that the initial theory was not correct.



Final Note

When I was just starting my research, I hired an individual to look for an ancestral marriage record. The individual found a man with the correct surname and a woman with the correct surname, but the date he found was not the same as the marriage date I had provided. I received a copy of this couple's license with the comment (paraphrased), "Nicknames were common in early days, and people weren't always certain anyway. Likely your date is off. Here's the copy."


It was only some years later, when I researched the records myself, that I discovered my ancestors' marriage record was there—with the date and the names I had given the researcher. My ancestor and his brother had married sisters, and I was originally sent the record for their siblings.


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07 November 2008

Probate genealogy articles on our site

We have updated a few of my probate articles on our site:

Hopefully I've caught all the errors, but let me know if there are bad links by sending me an email at mjnrootdig@gmail.com We are working on modifying additional articles as well.

Probate records are an excellent genealogical source and researchers need to remember that most of them are not available on the Internet.

The book:

Elijah M. Haines, The Probate Manual, Being a Complete Guide for Executors, Administrators and Guardians, Under the Laws of Illinois, with Practical Forms, Chicago, Keen and Lee, 1856, can be purchased for $12 through our website.

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03 November 2008

18th Century Virginia Election Antics

Juliana Smith over at Ancestry.com has posted my article on a relative's electioneering in 1742 in Virginia. Hopefully nothing quite this colorful happens on election day tomorrow--but if it did, I'm certain it would make CNN.

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29 September 2008

Here a Johann, There a Johann, Everywhere a Johann

Juliana Smith over at Ancestry.com's blog has posted my article "Here a Johann, There a Johann, Everywhere a Johann." It about too many people in a small town with the same first and last name and some thoughts on separating out individuals with similar names.

Feel free to read and post a comment.

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04 August 2008

Getting the Most out of Obituaries on Ancestry's Blog

Juliana Smith recently posted my article "Getting the Most out of Obituaties" newspapers on the Ancestry.com site.

Some of the suggestions are general for searching any newspaper, online or not. Some suggestions are based upon the fact that the searches of Ancestry's papers are done with OCR technology.

I've spent some time searching the several Davenport, Iowa, newspapers on their site. The obituary for a Conrad Krebs is used as an illustration in the article.

The article can be viewed on Ancestry's blog here.

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30 June 2008

Married in Kentucky in 1820--Now What?

Juliana Smith at Ancestry.com just posted my article on some things to try to find information on that ancestral couple who were married in 1820 and just appear to have been dropped off by a UFO right next to a Justice of the Peace marriage license in hand.

The article "Married in Kentucky in 1820--Now What?" can be viewed on the Ancestry.com blog.

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25 February 2008

The Baby was Thick and Fat--Clues in 1880s Letters to Nebraska

Regular blog readers know that I recently was given digital copies of letters written by my ancestor, Lina Ufkes. Juliana Smith over at Ancestry.com just blogged my article on those letters.

The article discusses how the letters were analyzed for further information and what types of clues they contained. Also included is a general discussion of how such letters should and should not be transcribed and ideas for how to utilize them.

The Baby was Thick and Fat: Clues in 1880s Letters to Nebraska can be viewed on the Ancestry.com blog.

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11 February 2008

Genealogy A to Z

Ancestry has published my "Genealogy from A to Z" on their blog. Check it out and feel free to leave comments or additional suggestions of your own.

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04 January 2008

Avoiding Assumptions

Juliana Smith at the Ancestry.com Blog recently posted my article "Avoiding Assumptions."
It contains a list of suggested assumptions that we have to make sometimes and discusses when these assumptions should be dropped and the importance of realizing that you have made assumptions. There are times when we have made our own brick walls.

The complete article "Avoiding Assumptions" can be viewed on the Ancestry.com blog for free.

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14 December 2007

Undocumented Chaos

Undocumented Chaos

from the Ancestry Daily News Michael John Neill – 10/16/2002

As genealogists looking to the past, we are forced to focus on paper records left behind by our forebears. We also use historical records and information about larger historical movements and cultural trends to reasonably infer things about our ancestor's lives. For many of us, there are times when neither of these sources or approaches is particularly helpful. Sometimes things just do not make any logical sense. There are times when our confusion stems from a misconception or ignorance we have about records, history, or cultural practices. But there are times when we've tried to learn as much as we can about the situation and perhaps have asked others more knowledgeable about the area to help us out. At times even the experts are stumped.

And so I occasionally wonder: Did some event in my ancestor's life throw the entire family into chaos?

Some of these events may be easily documented. There generally are records of epidemics, natural disasters, or the closing of a major employer (the main exception being when these first two events took place on the extremely raw frontier). The impact may have been very direct and very immediate. County historical societies, newspapers, county histories, or other sources may provide at least some information on an outside event in our ancestor's life. The loss of employment by the father, the death of three family members due to an epidemic, or a massive flood might have easily thrown a family into turmoil. The more difficult situation is where the causal event left no record.

The connection may not always be easy to make.

Maybe . . .


  • A marriage was hastened in an attempt to avoid the draft?
  • An emigration took place to avoid compulsory military service?
  • A sudden move took place because the father lost a job?
  • A move took place because of a significant economic opportunity?
  • A child left home because of a difficult step-parent?
  • A son left for California to pan for gold?

    In these cases the causes are partially discernable. Rash generalizations should not be made. When the outside factor is something large and something relatively well known it is easier to logically connect it to events that took place within the family. It is important though not to grasp at straws and create convoluted soap operas to fit scant ancestral records.

    Where's The P?

    In logic classes, students study implication, cause, and effect. If p happens then q happens as a result. The problem in some family history situations is that we have the q, but have no idea what the p was that preceded it.

    There are many explanations for the p above, but we'll focus now on events within the family that might have caused other family members to react. They might have responded in ways that do not always make sense when analyzed two hundred years later without the perspective of living within the actual family itself as it endures the turmoil.



    Did Some Event Throw Your Ancestor's Life Into Chaos?

    Did one parent die at a young age? The death of the father (typically the breadwinner) might have been a major challenge for the family. The death of the mother (typically the housekeeper and minder of the children) would have been equally difficult, especially if the older children were not of an age to take care of the younger ones. If your ancestral family was living in an
    area outside their kin network, the death of one young parent might have hit them especially hard.



    Hubby Dead . . . Mouths To Feed

    One ancestor died in the 1850s while in his early thirties. His widow Barbara was left with two small children in a town several hundred miles from where they had married and had family. As a German immigrant, Barbara likely spoke little English and had few marketable skills. The small river town where she lived offered few employment opportunities. Her options were
    extremely limited, she did not have some of the options her great-great-great-grandchildren may have today. Within six months of her husband's death she married a man who left her two months later. The records only point towards the recorded facts, they provide little idea of the
    likely situation in Barbara's home. And while we cannot find a tombstone, the breadwinner of her family was buried in the local cemetery and she was left with two young children to care for. She did the only thing she could: she ran her husband's tavern for several years until she married for the third time. And from newspaper records, that tavern was quite a place.

    I had another ancestor die and leave a widow with children in Kentucky in 1814. The children were old enough to help out and the husband left the wife with a few hundred acres of property. Records are scant, but it appears this forty-something widow was not in quite the same situation as my German immigrant in the 1850s. Still, the road after her husband's death was likely not easy.

    In some cases, children may have scattered after the father's death as a necessity. Some may have gone to live with other family members or even strangers. Some may have been apprenticed to learn a marketable skill, potentially leaving records. These apprenticeship records (if available) are typically found at the county level. In some cases, there may be records of guardianships as well. But if the family was particularly poor, records of
    guardianships may be non-existent.


    Wife Dead . . . Mouths To Feed

    A young widower with small children was in a similar situation, especiallyif there were no nearby family members to provide childcare. Widowers who had older female children may have enlisted them to help care for younger siblings. One of my own ancestors married three times, wives one and two likely dying in childbirth and leaving behind several small children. This ancestor waited a year, at most, to remarry.


    My own great-great-grandmother "disappears" ca. 1882 and her two young daughters live with other families for several years, apparently while the father gets things "together." I am not exactly certain what happened in this family. All I know is that the mother "left" (or so I've been told) and was never heard from again.

    Unknown Chaos?

    Some of the cases already discussed leave records that hint at the problems. Some situations can reasonably be explained by other historical records. Not all chaotic situations leave behind records delineating the problem. And the records that do document the results rarely focus on the past. There may be no record indicating a family member was mentally unstable or had an alcohol problem. Yet these situations may have impacted the family significantly, perhaps for generations.



    The family of the sibling of one of my great-great-grandparents had particular difficulties. The mother apparently became mentally unstable in the 1880s while the children were young. She died a few years later. The father never remarried and knew two things: "how to acquire land and drink whiskey." A doctor who visited the family at about the same time said he never knew a family who lived in such squalor. One of the children was classified as "simple" and intentionally injured himself on at least one occasion. It is not difficult to see how the family lost contact with other family members, particularly the mother's family. Nor is it difficult to see
    why some family members show little interest in their family's past.


    This family's home life is partially documented only because upon the father's death there was legal trouble and court records provide a scant paragraph on the family's past. Had there been no money worth going to court about, this family's lifestyle would not have been documented.

    Was there chaos in your ancestor's life? There might have been, but the problem will be in proving it. The real problem is that the chaos frequently creates records that make no sense without a rough knowledge of the underlying issues.

    Copyright 2002, MyFamily.com, Inc.Used by the author on his website with permission.


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    10 December 2007

    A New Ira May be "My" Ira

    The image to the right shows the 1856 census enumeration for an Ira Sargent in Davis County, Iowa---who may be my missing ancestor.

    An article on my search
    for Ira appears in this weekend's edition of the Ancestry World Journal .

    The census enumerations are not crystal clear---but that's not unusual for census enumerations. Coimpounding the problem with this family are the two marriages of the mother, which are not hinted at in other records.

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    06 December 2007

    Right Under My Nose

    My article "Right Under My Nose" was published last week on Ancestry.com's blog. It discusses my search for an 19th century Ohio resident who seemingly "disappears."

    Sometimes those disappearing ancestors did not disappear the way we thought they did. Rather they are right there in front of us waiting to be found. This week we look at such a situation. Our search reminds us of several research techniques that any family historian needs to have in their repertoire when the ancestor seems to vanish without a trace.
    Sarah Wickiser Calvert’s only known record of existence was an 1862 Delaware County, Ohio, deed

    The rest of the article can be viewed here....


    And anyone researching Sarah Calvert can email me mjnrootdig@gmail.com. She is an aunt of my wife--her sister Lucinda Wickiser Kile is my wife's ancestor.

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    01 May 2007

    Settlement Deed Article posted on Ancestry's Blog

    Those who follow my column in Ancestry's blog know that several articles have been posted on pre-1850 census records. This week the followup was posted where the census records are analyzed in light of the settlement deed closing out the estate. That document confirms most of the conclusions from the census and builds upon them.

    Those who want to view the article can do so on Ancestry's blog (at no charge).

    And descendants of Augusta and Belinda Newman are always free to fire off an email to me---we're related.

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    28 April 2007

    More on Analyzing Pre-1850 Census Entries

    I had nearly forgotten that several years ago we posted an extensive series of articles on searching per-1850 census records for Thomas Chaney of Bedford County, Pennsylvania. Those articles are housed on our site at:
    http://www.rootdig.com/chaneythomas/

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    Searching pre and post 1850 census records

    One hurdle faced by family historians is working in pre-1850 census records. Although only the heads of household are listed, these records do have value. Head of household census records can provide valuable clues about family structure that may not be available in other records. Census records should be included as an integral part of any research plan for 1790-1850 era research.

    Assessment of pre-1850 federal census enumerations needs to be done carefully, as occasionally different interpretations can reasonably be made. It is important to note assumptions....
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    Our discussion of the analysis of the census records of Augusta Newman 1820-1860 continues in the article posted on our site. I'd be interested in hearing from any descendants of Augusta--he's my 4th great-grandfather.
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    Those interested can Search US Federal Census Records at Ancestry.com

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    06 April 2007

    Surviving Four Husbands...

    Wills can answer questions or raise them. Sarah Turberville's Orange County Will is one such document.

    From Orange County, Virginia, Will book 2, pages 310-311:

    In the Name of God Amen I Sarah Turbervile of Orange County in the Colony of Virginia . . . do make & Ordain this my last Will . . .
    I give to my Son John Willis one Shilling sterling . . .
    I give to my son William Willis Ten Shillings . . .
    I give to my son Henry Wood Two pounds . . .
    I give to my son David Hudson one Shilling sterling . . .
    I give to my son Joshua Hudson one Shilling Sterling ....

    and so it goes. The question is, how many times was Sarah married? And how many husbands did she outlive? The search for information on Sarah led me through several husbands and taught me about Virginia inheritance and probate settlement in the mid-18th century.

    Articles about Sarah on our site:

    The Oftmarried Sarah
    Rushing Around to Figure Sarah Out
    The Reality of Sarah's Realty

    Sarah is my ancestor. She's also the ancestor of a well-known radio personality who shall remain anonymous.

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    Working with pre and post 1850 census records

    We recently posted an article about my work on a family in the 1820 through the 1860 census, determining what the records said and what they did not say. In a future posting, we'll look at how this analysis compared with additional records.

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    04 April 2007

    Searching the Census the Old Fashioned Way

    Let's face it. Sometimes the index does not work and a manual search of the census is necessary. Some names are impossible to read or simply get transcribed in such a way that wildcard and soundex searches are not effective. This was the case with my search Panagiotis Verikios in Chicago--the index just did not locate him. The details of the search , Panning For Panagiotis can be found on our site.

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    A $31.44 Inheritance

    In the 1950s, my grandmother inherited $31.44 from a relative, Anna Haase. The estate settlement of Miss Haase points to the importance of tracking down such records for relatives who die with enough property to probate and no descendants of their own. The article I wrote on the estate settlement and estate records in general may be worth a look if the only wills/probates you have searched for have been for your own direct line ancestors.

    A $31.44 Inheritance explains how Grandma's $31.44 inheritance was determined and how intestate probate cases in these situations usually work.

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    From their Mouth to your Screen

    Have you ever really thought about how that word got from your ancestor's mouth to your computer screen? There are many steps from the time your ancestor said his name until the index entry appears on your at-home terminal. Each step has the potential to create an error or "brick wall."

    From Their Mouth to Your Computer Screen was posted a while back on our site, but it's comments on how your ancestor's name gets into a database are still valid and worth thinking about.

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    28 March 2007

    Finding Peter, Paul, and Margarete

    This article focuses on a group of immigrants to Davenport, Iowa in the 1850s. My search initially focused on Paul Freund, the direct ancestor. The article discusses how in this case, locating immigrant origins was possible only by COMPLETELY researching the immigrant in his new location first. This plan gave me adequate information in order to locate the desired family members in passenger lists. The problem with looking for just Paul Freund is that there were several Paul Freunds from Bavaria who came to the United States.

    Those who want to read more about my search for Peter, Paul, and Margarete can do so here. And anyone who is related is more than welcome to send me an email at mjnrootdig@gmail.com.

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    27 March 2007

    1880 Female Head of Household

    It is unusual to find a female listed as the head of the household, especially when her able-bodied husband is living with her and enumerated as well. The initial article I wrote on this subject generated a great deal of response and the follow up dealt with most issues presented by readers.

    My ancestor in 1880 is a head of household and her husband is listed as the last member in the household (on the next page, no less). It is a somewhat unusual situation.

    Part of the entry for the family of Anna Fecht in Prairie Township, Hancock County, Illinois' 1880 census follows.

    Anna Fecht, aged 65, [head], married
    John Habben, aged 20, son, single
    George Habben, aged 18, son, single
    Anna Habben, aged 13, daughter, single
    Mattie Halts, aged 10, granddaughter, single
    George Fecht, aged 12, stepson, single
    Henry Fecht, aged 65, no relationship stated, married


    Part I of the article can be viewed here and part II has been posted on our site as well.

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    26 March 2007

    Courthouse Suggestions

    The county courthouse is one of my favorite places to research--remember that many of these records are not available online or on microfilm. A few years ago, we posted an article about visiting the courthouse--suggestions that are still valid today.

    Courthouse Lessons Learned

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    Where Did the $$ Go?

    Tracking your ancestor's money after his or her death can provide signficant genealogical clues. There are many sources of this information, not just limited to the will. An older article on our site discusses ways to locate this information and provides some clues for interpreting this information.

    Where Did the Money Go?

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    22 March 2007

    At least we didn't get any bones


    To view the death date for Lucinda Kile in the Greenmound Cemetery in Keithsburg, Mercer County, Illinois, we had to do a little digging. Fortunately the stone is in excellent shape and teh inscription is very legible.
    There are a number of tombstone pictures and "how-to" articles on our site for taking pictures, making rubbings, etc. Plan before you go, don't leave a mess, and treat the cemetery and stones with respect.

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    Naming Patterns...

    Have you thought about where your ancestor got the first names of all their children? While some families break the rules just to confuse us, many obtained names of their children from other relatives. Keep in mind the potential that a child was named for a parent, grandparent, or ancestral sibling. Our article Named for Whom? discusses naming patterns and issues one must be aware of when using these tendencies in research. Naming patterns are clues, clues, clues, not fact, fact, fact.

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    21 March 2007

    Where Did I Get That?

    Ever find a copy of something and wonder where you got it from? It can happen to anyone. And even if we know now to track all our sources, most of us researched for at least a while before we came to appreciate the importance of tracking where our information originated (for how can we compare and evaluate if we have no idea of the original source?).Even if we keep track of everything we get, a relative can easily send us something and have no idea where they got it. An older article on our site discusses such situations and some ways for determining where a document really came from.

    We called it Orphaned Papers.

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    17 March 2007

    Articles on French-Canadian Research

    I've posted a few articles on French-Canadian research on my site, particularly focusing on my wife's family who came to upstate New York. One series focuses on census analysis of a French-Canadian family from 1850 until 1900. The others discuss beginning your French-Canadian Research.

    From now until 31 March 2007, Ancestry.com is offering free access to
    its Drouin Collection--used extensively by French-Canadian researchers.

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    Name Games

    First and last names can create all kinds of problems for the genealogist. Two older articles on our site discuss concerns family historians need to keep in mind with both last names and first names. Phonetics can be a problem with either one, but there are differences--particularly if your ancestor came from a country where they practiced patronymics as late as the nineteenth century as my Ostfriesens and my wife's Swedes did.

    The Last Name Game

    The First Name Game

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    13 March 2007

    Federal Land Patents

    An article I wrote several years ago about the Bureau of Land Management website is still accurate--thankfully they leave the search interface alone for the most part.


    A search for William Newmans in Indiana resulted in one match for my William. The legal description for his property is as shown in the image below.
    The legal description is available on the patent image, but the quarter section can be viewed on the BLM site as part of the database entry for William's patent.





    Then using the legal land description of William's 40 acres, I searched the BLM database of patents again. This time I searched for patents granted to people for property in the same section of the township.







    I was excited when I viewed the names. One last name was the same last name as William's wife, Rebecca Tinsley. Viewing the patent for William Tinsley indicated he was living in the same county William was when William purchased the land in Tipton County. Both men were listed as residents of Rush County, Indiana.
    Patents are not only for "early" or pre-statehood settlers. There were federal land sales in many states long after statehood. After all, these sales are in Indiana in 1850.
    The article goes into more detail on using these patents. I would view the BLM website's information on patents and the rectangular survey system descriptions before I did extensive searches.

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    12 March 2007

    Making Certain you have the "right" Guy

    Tracking ancestors across state lines can be difficult, especially so when they have left few records and the searching is done before the everyname censuses begin in 1850. Some time ago we posted an article on my search for Levi Rhodes across Missouri and back into Tennessee. The discussion is still relevant today.

    Here are a few reminders from our searches for Levi in Tennessee:



    • Don't just grab the first name that matches. Check all possible reasonable matches in the area and eliminate them systematically.

    • Make logical connections.

    • Fit as many pieces together as possible. Realize that some pieces may not fit, but make note of the fact that they do not fit.

    • Research the most recent era first.

    • Make certain you have copied everything you needed.

    The rest of the article can be viewed on our website.


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    10 March 2007

    Where did they get THAT?

    Confusion is often in the mind of the beholder. The every name 1900 census index at Ancestry.com has caused me to revisit some relatives in this census. When I viewed one entry, I remembered how confused I was when I first saw it. Like many genealogical records, the enumeration contained an error. And like many errors, the incorrect statement was a clue. In this case it was a clue that I failed to notice.

    The article Where Did they Get That? continues on our site...

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    07 March 2007

    Clarifying Clara


    I wrote "Clarifying Clara" long before the Missouri Death Index and images came online, but the article still makes valid points about how a record can be analyzed.
    It is also important to note that a record can easily contain errors--the birth place of Clara's father, William Rhodus/Rhodes is most likely Tennessee and not Kentucky. The birth place of Matilda Jones, the mother, is likely Missouri and not Kentucky either.
    Clara is my wife's great-grandmother and I'd love to hear from anyone else researching this family.

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    Get Some Culture

    Do you know enough about your ancestor's culture in order to research him or her effectively? It is very easy to make incorrect conclusions when we assume our ancestor would make decisions the same way that we would. Our upbringing, educational level, and personal experiences make a significant impact on how we make decisions. Our ancestors had different experiences from us, lived in a different time, and a different educational experience.
    All this impacts how they made decisions.
    Get Some Culture on our site discusses some ways to learn culture and common social practices so that we don't create more brick walls than we already have.

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    My now wife is the late grantee

    Terminology can get genealogists in all kinds of trouble--if for no other reason that misinterpreting something can easily lead us down the incorrect road and convince us there is a brick wall when the problem lies with us.
    A while back we posted an article on our site with some basic legal terminology useful to genealogists.
    Remember: "my now wife" doesn't mean I have had more than one.

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    After the Marriage...

    After a marriage, sometimes there is a divorce. Contrary to what some would have us believe, divorce and marital problems have been happening for a very long time. A recent article on our site discusses divorce records and how to search for them.

    You may be surprised to find an ancestor divorced and what those records contained. These records should be a part of every search.

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    Proof of Marriage

    One doesn't to get married to reproduce---theoretically we could have no marriage records for our ancestors. Fortunately, most of the time we do. A recent article posted to our website discusses the main types of marriage records and ways to search for them:

    "I know they were married, but I cannot find it. They had to get married; after all they had children. Well . . . not necessarily. Usually a marriage precedes the children. It is finding the record of that marriage that sometimes creates headaches for the genealogist. "

    The rest of the article is in our article archives.

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    04 March 2007

    Undocumented Chaos

    As genealogists looking to the past, we are forced to focus on paper records left behind by our forebears. We also use historical records and information about larger historical movements and cultural trends to reasonably infer things about our ancestor's lives. For many of us, there are times when neither of these sources or approaches is particularly helpful. Sometimes things just do not make any logical sense. There are times when our confusion stems from a misconception or ignorance we have about records, history, or cultural practices. But there are times when we've tried to learn as much as we can about the situation and perhaps have asked others more knowledgeable about the area to help us out. At times even the experts are stumped.

    And so I occasionally wonder: Did some event in my ancestor's life throw the entire family into chaos?

    Read the rest of the article Undocumented Chaos on our site

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    When There is No Probate

    Probate records are one of the best genealogical sources. The problem is that not every ancestor who lived left a probate record. There are several research methods that should be done when a probate cannot be located and many reasons why your ancestor might not have a probate file even when they owned property upon their death.
    Read the rest of the article When there is no Probate on our site...

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    01 March 2007

    Brick Walls from A to Z

    A is for Alphabetize Have you created an alphabetical list of all the names in your database and all the locations your families lived? Typographical errors and spelling variants can easily be seen using this approach. Sometimes lists that are alphabetical (such as the occasional tax or census) can hide significant clues.

    B is for Biography Creating an ancestor's biography might help you determine where there are gaps in your research. Determining possible motivations for his actions (based upon reasonable expectations) may provide you with new areas to research.

    the rest of it is here...

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    27 February 2007

    Analyze the Tradition

    We all have family traditions. Some are colorful, some are entertaining; some are exaggerations, and some are bold-faced lies. All can be used genealogically, whether for actual clues or just to provide "colorful" stories to add to the family history.

    Most traditions are not completely false and contain a buried grain of truth. Finding that grain of truth and determining the difference between truth and fiction is not a simple matter.

    The rest can be read in our "Analyze the Tradition" which was posted to our site some time ago in the pre-blog era.

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    26 February 2007

    The Space Time Continuum

    I have long been aware of the importance of developing a chronology in working on the life of a specific ancestor. A simple ordering of the events in an ancestor's life from their birth to their death helps the researcher to see unaccounted for time periods, gaps in research, and records that have not been accessed. A chronology can also be an excellent synopsis of an ancestor's life, albeit a limited one. It provides a different perspective on an ancestor than does a family group or pedigree chart and can even be the framework for creating an ancestral biography.

    The rest of the article on chronologies was posted as The Space Time Continuum on my website.

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    Figuring Out Iam Jones


    A few years ago, we looked at an interesting census enumeration for an "Iam Jones." Our two part analysis discussed which parts of this census entry we thought were in error and which parts we thought were correct. It is important to note that the census taker occasionally makes mistakes.

    The first article I am Jones or am I Something Else? begins our analysis and the second I am what I am, or am I?

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    24 February 2007

    Where Did the Farm Go?

    Determining how your ancestor's farm left his possession may provide valuable genealogical clues. Land research is not complete until you have all the "ins and outs" the purchases and the sales or transfers of each piece of property. An article we posted on our site a few years ago discusses ways to locate these records--all of which may not be deeds. Of course, if your ancestor "bought the farm" before he had a chance to sell the farm, you will need to look at probate or estate records. That is, assuming had a farm in the first place.

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    23 February 2007

    Using UK Census Records 1841-1871

    For those who have never seen or used census records from the United Kingdom, we have posted samples from the family of Robert Frame in Carlisle, Cumberland, England on our site. Also included is an article discussing how these records were analyzed for clues to help us continue research on this family.
    One of the Frame children emigrated to Chicago, Illinois, where many of his descendants live today.
    I'd be interesting in hearing from anyone who is related to the Frame family, as Robert is my wife's 3rd great-grandfather.

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    When the Index does not help

    Research is much easier when the names are spelled and indexed correctly. Researchers who've progressed beyond surfing internet sites quickly realize that alternate spellings are a reality, especially in a time when ancestors were either not literate or unable to speak the language of their adopted land.


    We've posted a couple articles on our site to hopefully give readers some ideas of what to do when the index is not helpful and you are "certain" the person is in there:

    The second article discusses why I think an 1893 birth record for an individual named Eliney is actually supposed to be Frederick.

    Does it look like Frederick to you?
    The article also discusses how the error likely happened. Sometimes this cannot be determined, but if the genealogist can figure out "why" or reasonably explain the error, it helps to make the case.

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    22 February 2007

    Booze, Politics, and My Ancestor

    Political oneriness is nothing new. My own ancestor, John Rucker, was involved in some interesting events in a 1740s era election in Orange County, Virginia. Booze, dancing on the courthouse tables, and swords were involved.

    Of course, this was during the era when only propertied men were allowed to vote ;-)

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    21 February 2007

    How Do I Know I Have the Right Family?

    Sometimes knowing one has the right family can be difficult and in some situations it can be "easy" to inadvertantly connect two unrelated families. We've posted an article on our site that focuses on 1850-1900 census records with migrating families that discusses some ways one can avoid barking up the wrong tree.

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    20 February 2007

    Did Your Ancestors Get Divorced?

    Some would have us believe that divorce and family discord started in the 1960s and that it has been all downhill ever since. Genealogists who have spent time searching in court records know that is far from the truth.

    Divorce is not a 20th century invention. Court records from the early 20th and nineteenth century contain numerous divorce records. These are records that every genealogist should include as a part of a conprehensive research design.

    My wife's great-grandmother was divorced in Chicago twice in the early twentieth century.
    My 3rd great-grandmother was divorced twice in rural Illinois in the late nineteenth century.
    In both cases the records of these divorces were very telling and provided significant genealogical clues.
    We've posted an article on divorce records on our site--something you should consider--unless you think your ancestors never never had a disagreement ;-)

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