Documenting Difficult Cases

Documenting Difficult Cases: Some heavy Lifiting may be requried

Not everyone has an easy case, where a family member has already done a lot of the research, some individuals may need to do some of the research themselves.  Do not fear, these days, it is becoming easier to find the documents that you need, and below we provide a list of resources for you to start with.


OK, maybe you don't have a family tree, but the family believes that it goes "way back" or you think it might because you don't know for a fact that all your ancestors came to this country recently.  Where to start? ....

When you have run out of leads from the items list on the other pages you will have to get into the items shown below.  This may be more that you want to do, especially if the information has to come from another state....

From the census you can get get year of birth (by subtracting the person's age -- or age bracket -- from the census date) and sometimes the parents names, the state where the person was born, and the states where the person's parents were born.   Census records are available ....

County and town records may be your best bet for documenting family relationships and dates prior to the 1850 census.  While the originals are filed in county courthouses or record centers, it is often easier and more efficient....

 

Recent Generations: Back to 1900

STARTING NOW AND GOING BACK TO 1900

OK, maybe you don't have a family tree, but the family believes that it goes "way back" or you think it might because you don't know for a fact that all your ancestors came to this country recently.  Where to start?

FAMILY ARCHIVES: Interview the older members of your family to see what they know the names of their forebears and the dates and places of their births, marriages, and deaths.   If your grandmother knows the name of her grandmother, you can write a family tree going back five generations.  This will get you into the mid-1800s.

Older relatives may also have documents or scrapbooks that show the names of ancestors and the dates they were born, got married, and died, deeds, wills, etc.   Family bibles may be acceptable as documentation, and they are valuable because they often list many generations.  Be sure to copy the page that lists the publisher and the date of publication.  These items are often thrown out (when the owner dies) by descendants who do not realize the value of keeping such documents.   Try to get the originals or copies into a safe place while there is yet time.   Also, get a copy for your files.  Possiable sources of documentation include:

  • Wills
  • Birth Certificates
  • Death Certificates
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Family Bibles 


NOTE:  The SAR does not require certified copies of these documents; "xerox" copies are satisfactory.

FAMILY HISTORIES: are available for many surnames (your family name, the Smith of John Smith).  These are available at genealogical or historical libraries, college and public libraries, and lineage society libraries.  Except for the lineage societies, libraries generally cover only families in the local area.   The Library of Congress has a huge collection of family histories and publishes an index which is available in many large libraries. 

NOTE:   When you copy pages from a book, be sure to also copy the title page and see that it contains the title, publisher, city of publication, and date of publication.   Sometimes you have to copy two pages to get all this.

The Census Records: 1930 to 1850

The United States Census Records: 1930 to 1850

 

FEDERAL CENSUSES (and mortality schedules):
From the census you can get get year of birth (by subtracting the person's age -- or age bracket -- from the census date) and sometimes the parents names, the state where the person was born, and the states where the person's parents were born.   Census records are available on microfilm at the ten federal Branch Archives and at the larger genealogical libraries (SAR, DAR).  Some censuses are becoming available on CD-databases.  Some libraries may order a reel of census film for you for a reasonable charge -- but you have to know what you want (the indexes note the roll on which the name appears).

NOTE: When you copy a record, note on the back of the copy the year, state, microfilm roll, and frame or city, ward, and page (and note that some pages bear multiple numbers).   You may make a pencil mark (ON THE COPY ONLY) to help the reader find your ancestor's name.

What's in the Federal Census?  It has varied from one to the next.

1790 ORIGINAL WAS DESTROYED when the British burned Washington DC in 1812, was reconstructed from local records, names only the family head, indexed:

  • 1800 names only the family head, indexed
  • 1810 names only the family head, indexed
  • 1820 names only the family head, indexed
  • 1830 names only the family head, indexed
  • 1840 names only the family head, indexed
  • 1850 all family members, every-person index
  • 1860 all family members, every-person index
  • 1870 all family members, every-person index
  • 1880 all family members, Soundex index covers only households with a child under the age of ten
  • 1890 RUINED IN A FIRE, what is left is only a few whole states and a few counties in other states, all family members
  • 1900 all family members, Soundex index
  • 1910 all family members, Soundex index only for some states
  • 1920 all family members, Soundex index
  • 1930 all family members, Soundex index

Whoa! What's a Soundex Index? It's better than a regular alphabetic index because the names are listed according to how they sound, and since census takers often mis-spelled names according to how they sounded, it is easier to use a Soundex system than to look up all the variants of spelling for Frey (Fry, Frei, Frye, Fray, Fries, etc.).  We won't describe it here, but it is easy to get the Soundex codes for the few names you will be looking up.  After that you don't need to worry about it.

The National Archives are in Washington DC, and there are ten Branch Archives are located in Waltham MA, New York NY, Philadelphia PA, East Point GA, Chicago IL, Kansas City MO, Fort Worth TX, Denver CO, San Bruno CA, and Seattle WA.

If you don't find the person in the index don't give up.  Names were mis-spelled and left out of the index, but if you know the person's approximate address you can determine the census ward that they lived in and do a name-by-name search of the microfilm of that ward's census records.  The records were generally taken in a house-by-house order down each street, and the streets are sometimes noted on the census forms, making your search easier.

What's the mortality schedule?  This is a listing of all the deaths that occurred during the year immediately preceding the decade census year.   Deaths in the other nine years are NOT listed.  While this list misses 90% of the deaths, it does cover the other 10%, and that might have just the information you need.

STATE CENSUSES:  Many states conducted a census in-between the federal censuses.  These provide comparable information and are often overlooked.
 

Many of these census indexes can be found online at ancestry.com or footnote.com.  If you do not have a membership, check with your local library, they may provide access to these services at the branch.

Wills and Deeds: before 1850

Wills and Deeds: before 1850

County and town records may be your best bet for documenting family relationships and dates prior to the 1850 census.  While the originals are filed in county courthouses or record centers, it is often easier and more efficient to look at the indices and abstracts (and often the microfilm copies) that are available at county or state history or genealogical libraries and local college libraries.   Many of these are becoming available through the Internet or on CD-databases.   Libraries are now collecting these CD-databases and making them available to the public.  It's a whole lot easier to do genealogical research now than twenty years ago.

DEEDS document land transfers and document whether the participant was alive or dead ("for the estate of").  Originals are generally filed with the county, but books of abstracts and microfilm of the originals may be more widely available.  They may note a chain of inheritance and death dates in reciting the history of the tract, or indicate a nominal price for a sale within the family (essentially a bequest prior to death or an exchange for lifetime support of an elder family member).  They may also indicate the use of land as security for in intra-family loan.  Even if it does not note a family relationship it serves to document a name and location and that a person was alive at the time.   The deed is not helpful for documenting a family relationship if the relationship is not stated, but it can serve as circumstantial proof of such a relationship.
NOTE: When you copy a page, note on the back of the copy where you got it -- the name of the book (and publisher and date).  You may make a pencil mark (ON THE COPY ONLY) to help the reader find your ancestor's name.

PROBATE FILES contain the copy of the will (along with the date it was written) that was filed after a person's death.  The will generally names the wife (if living) and all living children, and it may name grandchildren (especially if the parent has died), siblings, nephews, and nieces.  A disinherited child may be left out of the will, but that child may show up in another relative's will.  Originals are filed with the county, but books of abstracts and microfilm of the originals may be more widely available.

ORPHANS' COURT RECORDS cover cases where a person died intestate, a minor child was orphaned and had to be assigned to foster parents, or a will was contested.   Letters of administration may be issued to appoint someone to settle the estate, a valuation of the estate may be filed, and finally a court order for dividing the estate among the heirs.

NOTE: When you copy a page, note on the back of the copy where you got it -- the name of the book (and publisher and date).

LISTS OF TOMBSTONE INSCRIPTIONS (many recorded in the 1930s) may provide information about family cemeteries that no longer exist, before cemeteries kept good records, or in case the cemetery information was lost.  WARNING:   Mis-reading of dates and names is common, so if it looks wrong, it may be wrong.

NOTE: When you copy a page, note on the back of the copy where you got it -- the name of the book (and publisher and date).  You may make a pencil mark (ON THE COPY ONLY) to help the reader find your ancestor's name.  In case of suspected error you may note ON THE COPY next to (for example) "1747" your comment, "other sources support 1774".

TAX RECORDS may document that a person was alive or dead ("for the estate of") as well as the town in which they were living.  These may be state, county, or local taxes. The older records are primarily property tax records.

NOTE: When you copy a page, note on the back of the copy where you got it -- the name of the book (and publisher and date).  You may make a pencil mark (ON THE COPY ONLY) to help the reader find your ancestor's name.

Helpers, IGI, Biographical Sketches

HIRE A HELPER: When you have run out of leads from the items list on the other pages you will have to get into the items shown below.  This may be more that you want to do, especially if the information has to come from another state.   It can cost a lot to visit a distant state to do research using records and libraries with which you are not familiar.  Local genealogical researchers can provide an efficient alternative.  Genealogical magazines (available at local genelaogical societies) and local genealogical researchers can help you get contact information for a researcher who is familiar with the records you seek.   Email makes the contact and exchange of information fast and inexpensive.

THE LDS AND IGI: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, often callen the Mormons) has the largest collection of genealogical source material in the world.   They have microfilmed records in churches, government files, and private collections all over the world, and they have kindly made this information available to the entire community without charge.  Family relationships between tens of millions of people have been placed in the International Genealogical Index (IGI).   A CAUTION:  In the enthusiasm to find relationships between many people links were sometimes assumed that are not supported by documentation.   Since several transcriptions of data were involved in producing the IGI names, dates, and places were sometimes mispelt or swapped.  So while IGI is a valuable resource to get you started on research it has a fair number of errors and is not acceptable as documentation.

You may either search for your ancestor in IGI on the LDS Web site or visit a local LDS family history center and use their microfilm or CD-databases to see if they have information on the parents of or additional information about a known ancestor.   The microfilm that contains further information about that ancestor is noted on the index listing.  You may rent that film for use (over several weeks) at the local center for a nominal charge.  Beyond the IGI information there is microfilmed information on virtually all the types of source noted on the present page.  Even if you can't afford to visit fifteen records centers in Michigan, you can order from the LDS microfilms containing the deeds, family histories, pro