When I began my family history journey, I remember how I made sure in countless ways before I added someone to my tree that they belonged. I had to have censuses showing that they were in the family with my relative for me to truly believe that they deserved to be on my tree.
I’ve been working on my tree for 4 years now and for the most part I have stayed true to this theory. Occasionally I will forego and add people I see, for example, many online trees had a Wealthy Blair listed as a daughter for my great-great-grandparents. Even my late cousin Darlene had Wealthy listed on a family sheet for the same said 2nd-great-grandparents. I’ve never found any information on her, she was born and died before 1880. When I look at the 1900 and 1910 Federal Census which asks how many total children a woman had, there are always 3 children that had passed for my great-great-grandmother, and I always assumed one was Wealthy (one other was Margaret, born in October 1879 and lastly an unknown child I just have listed on my tree as I have no birth or death dates for them).
But since I began organizing my DNA matches I’ve found myself getting envious of tree size. I see people with 48,987 people on their tree and my eyes just widen and my jaw drops. What a glorious tree!
And then I find myself going new person after new person checking out the hints and adding (always logically, but still adding) them to my tree. One after another and I’m fairly certain most of my people are legitimate people with fairly good dates off said hints (I am rational enough to NOT add people who were born 100 years earlier coming on a boat from England when they were born in Bedford County, Pennsylvania), but still, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in hints on Ancestry and the one big tree on FamilySearch.
So I’ve started over from scratch in a way. One by one I’m going through my people in my personal family tree software that I keep on my computer. This is my main tree, the tree I don’t really share with the world and the one I find to be the most accurate. I’m going through one by one and making sure all the documents that I have in my online folders are included on the tree. Some items I have, like the beforementioned great-great-grandmother who my late cousin Darlene hand wrote her obituary and this is the only way I have it, I knew I had it in an envelope of documents Darlene had sent me, and now I have scanned it and added it to her profile.
I’m also comparing them to the Ancestry tree just in case there is a random document that I have on there that I hadn’t downloaded (that happens sometimes when I’m out and about and am not on my regular computer to save the documents as easily). By doing this I can clean up the Ancestry tree at the same time.
In the long run I must remember it’s not the size of my tree that matters, it truly is quality that counts. I’ve worked so hard and I want to be 100% positive that I’m putting the correct people in my tree.
This was all brought to my attention when I was working on my mother’s side of the family. I’ve haven’t delved into the Fairhurst branch often, but I have learned there are many William and Thomas Fairhurst’s out there, and trying to make sure I select the correct one was getting me quite confused.
So I took a deep breath and slowed down. It’s not a race. I’ll find each and every ancestor when they want me to find them.
One of the many types of records that can be beneficial for your genealogical search is court records. “Court records include information about adoption, debt, divorce, naturalization, lawsuits, guardianships and appointments. Probate records relate to the death of an ancestor and the distribution of their estate. These records often include wills, inventories, accounts, bonds, etc.” (from the PBS “Genealogy Roadshow” web page).
Why Court Records are Important
Court records are important on your family history journey because they inform you of family relationships, locations, land ownership, occupations, and descriptions of individuals. For those of African American heritage, court records are critical as they include slaves and slave relationships. Courthouses also can have the registration of free blacks as well as marriages and slave children (from “Genealogy Roadshow“).
Tips for a Successful Search
When going in search of court records it is best to have a plan. Below are some steps that will hopefully lead you to a successful trip to the county courthouse.
1. Have an Objective
Don’t go into a courthouse expecting to fly by the seat of your pants. You must have a clearly stated goal of what it is you are seeking when you visit so you are not wasting your time, or those who work at the Courthouse.
Information that you can find on your ancestors include:
Your ancestor could have been a juror, witness, victim, defendant or plaintiff in a civil or criminal court case
Divorce filings, separation or paternity claims
Tax records for personal property
All of the above were records that were at one time found at courthouses. Today there may be other places where you can find this information. Vital records, for example, might be found at county health departments, or older records may have been consolidated at the state capital (this is the situation for Ohio, birth certificates have no restrictions and can be accessed at our health department, however death certificates from 1908-1953 can be found on FamilySearch, 1954-1963 can be found at the Ohio History Connection, the state historical society, and you can purchase for $7.75 which includes tax; 1964-present are available at the health department of the county where the person died; birth certificates can be retrieved from anywhere in the state from 1908 to the present).
2. Do Research Before Leaving Your Home
When you are getting ready to do a courthouse visit, make sure you research where the records are before you go so you haven’t gone to the wrong place for the records you need. Most county courthouses have websites (or at least the counties do) and it will often tell you exactly where the records you need are located.
If the website is vague, call or even email the person you think lines up with what you are looking for and ask. I know last year when I went to Bedford County I had emailed someone in advance just to make sure I didn’t need an appointment before just showing up. I didn’t but they also told me (as I commented about how I was travelling from Ohio) that they had online access that I could also use for a fee. I was able to get a bunch of needed records about my ancestors that I could find there (and the ladies that work there were extremely friendly and helpful), but as I find other information for non-direct line ancestors, I keep a list so I can look those people up online.
But not everything may be in the courthouse, by calling in advance of when you’re going to be there, they may have records in a storage facility and by calling they could make sure what you are looking for is on-site for your visit.
Also, make sure you have done your due diligence with boundaries and where the information was located at the time you are looking for. Counties are formed all the time (well, not so much now but 150 years ago counties were still being formed within states). Make sure that information you are looking for is where you think it should be. I know in Pennsylvania Blair County was one of the latter counties to be formed in the south western portion of the state, so land and tax records of your ancestor in 1860 that is Blair County could be in Bedford County 20 years prior because Blair county was formed in 1846.
Lastly, make sure that some of your information is not already online with one of the subscription sites. As I mentioned before, Ohio death certificates can be found on FamilySearch from 1908-1953. Sometimes you have to go person by person because the transcribed name may not match up, but they are there (warning: they go in clumps via county and time of death in a year – so you may have a bunch of May deaths together and they are all arranged alphabetically by county, I would often just jump ahead every 25-50 names to get through counties I knew I did not need). Pennsylvania birth certificates from 1906-1910 and Pennsylvania Death Certificates from 1906-1967 can be found on Ancestry. Birth certificates from 1911-1914 can be purchased from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission for $5 per certificate (I recently purchased my grandparents birth certificates in January of this year, my grandfather was born in 1912 and my grandmother in 1914).
3. Evaluating Your Finds
Remember, you are going to a courthouse to find court records and they will be riddled with legalese you may not understand. It may take a few readings to figure out the true meaning of the document, as well as figuring out the lingo of a hundred years ago. You may also have difficulty with penmanship, big words and bad writing can make for a big headache.
You will also want to make sure you record your findings, along with what you did not find. Sometimes this will be a clue as to where you can look next, or inserting it into a timeline may give you insight on why an event occurred (person moved, went to prison, etc.).
In so many ways genealogy can be a casual hobby but when you plan on heading to the courthouse you should make sure that you dress nicely (casual chic would work great here, if not in a more professional manner) and that you show respect to those working. Some of the people you will be dealing with are elected officials, but more importantly these people are helping you, so make sure you go out of your way to be grateful for what they are doing for you.
This might seem like an odd point but you are going to be messing with books and records that could be hundreds of years old. Even if they are copies, it can still be exciting to be working with these old records. Some may even have your person’s signature on them, and that could just be about as thrilling as it could be – especially if you are like me and find yourself having favorite relatives (I do).
Digging up information of any kind about your people is extremely satisfying. Enjoy the moment but make sure you stick to the plan you have laid out for yourself.
Like most people, I have a lot of ancestors that I can research over the 4-primary branches of my family tree. But are others of you out there like me, obsessed with your brick wall ancestors?
Whenever I read a book on genealogy, any time a new idea is brought to me as far as considering how to find people, the first thing I think of is can I use this new method to find more about Andrew?
Andrew is referencing Andrew Blair, born about 1812 in Pennsylvania and for whom I have no parents. He just shows up in my 1850 census with his wife and 2-children and I can’t find him before or after. His wife, Suzanna, also a brick wall, is born around 1826. And no other Ancestry trees have anything more than I do. Even my late cousin, Darlene, couldn’t find any parental information for Andrew or Suzanna.
Ways to Get Over the Brick Wall
There are many suggestions out there for overcoming a brick wall. Ancestry has 7-points to do to find the answers you seek.
State a clear research problem (specifying your problem succinctly)
Back-up a generation and review (do you know all there is to know about their children?
Use ALL the records (have you searched through all possible documents to find them?)
Create a timeline (this one is pretty self explanatory)
Account for inconsistencies (if records give you differing information, rationalize them)
Research the FAN club (friends, associates, neighbors)
Ask for help (hire a professional genealogist in the area where your ancestors lived)
FamilySearch is a bit more thorough with their suggestions for dealing with brick walls. They have 33 points that they spread out in 7 larger areas:
Start with the most likely records
Go from the known to the unknown
Focus on one question at a time
Look for alternate spellings and nicknames
Do not trust indexes
Do not trust copies selected by someone else
Make friends with librarians and archivists
Start with a well-documented family group record
Research logs – keep good research logs for each family
Document and organize as you go
Search worldwide indexes for your family name
Look for death documents
Local histories, biographies and genealogies
Advanced Research Strategies:
Draw a timeline
Organize, review and evaluate evidence
Use forms to create new brain connections and raise questions
Expand the Number of Sources Used:
Substitute record types
Use Wiki articles as a checklist
Try an exhaustive preliminary survey
Search more libraries and archives
Search Records of Kin, Neighbors and Associates:
Find your relatives children
Research neighbors and relatives
Use Logic, Deduction, Inference, and Inspiration:
Create a master research plan
Correlate and integrate records of neighbors
Study migration patterns
Try to disprove uncertain connections
Listen to your feelings
Continue Education and Follow-Up:
Get an education
Share and collaborate
Genealogy in Time, an online magazine, wrote about 50 different ideas to tackle your impossible to find ancestors, here are a few suggestions:
Search for maiden names
Use middle names as first names
Use naming conventions (such as the Victorian way of oldest son – father’s father, second son – mothers father, third son – father; oldest daughter – mothers mother; second daughter – father’s mother; third daughter – mother)
Search by Village – sometimes searching records by a small village will have a bad transcription pop out because they are only a few pages they may be easier to tackle)
Be aware of changing jurisdictions (boundaries for towns, counties, states were always changing)
Port of Entry
Cemeteries – where they are buried and who they are buried near
Family associations that are for your last name
Lastly, that is not listed anywhere above is using DNA. By taking a DNA test that provides you with cousin matches, you may find someone who you are related too and it could provide an answer to the question you seek.
So many ideas that you can use to try to knock down your brick wall, or at least chisel away at them a bit. I was reading in one of the Facebook Groups I belong to today that one lady had a brick wall that lasted 35 years. I asked her how joyful her happy dance was after finally crashing it down last year and she said she is still dancing. I guess it puts in reality how my 4-years is really nothing.
If you have found yourself trying to find unknown ancestors and you have an idea that was extremely useful for you but not listed, please share in the comments below. I would love to explore more ways to find Andrew and Suzanna.
Last weekend I learned just how helpful Facebook groups can be for your genealogical journey.
As I was “fleshing” out a branch of my tree (it’s my great-great aunt on my dad’s paternal side) I was hoping I could find more information about her father and in turn his father (as they are my direct line).
While searching on Find a Grave, I stumbled upon a grave listed in Hopewell Cemetery (Hopewell, Bedford County, Pennsylvania) where Phoebe Blair Edmonson is buried (she’s the great-great aunt in question), and the girl’s name was Phoebe Thelma Edmonson. I clicked on her name and it said she was the daughter of my great-great aunt and her husband, James Edmonson. It turns out she was born in 1905 and passed away in 1906. Immediately I went to Ancestry and found her death certificate stating she died from broncho-pneumonia.
As I clicked on other names I came across a 3-year old boy, Marshall James Edmonson that once again stated he was the son of James and Phoebe Edmonson.
I was lucky with Phoebe Thelma as 1906 is the first year Pennsylvania required birth and death certificates. But Marshall was born in 1896 and passed away in 1899 – was there any record of his death?
I decided to go to a Facebook group I’d joined last Fall to find out.
The group is called “Old Bedford County PA Genealogy (Includes Huntingdon, Fulton, & Blair Co)”. Here was the question I asked:
I was super lucky – within an hour I received various suggestions where to look. Someone asked for more information which is when I gave Marshall’s name, birth and death dates, and his parent’s names. Turns out Marshall was found in a register that the county kept. It wasn’t mandatory to report the deaths, but Marshall’s was. The book was called “Register of Deaths 1894-1906 Vol 2, D-G by James Boor” and it had the following information listed:
I was so thankful for this man having this book on hand and answering this question. Within 12 hours of my post, I had received an answer.
I have found that many of the genealogy groups on Facebook have some of the kindest people in it. They stop what they are doing and go out of their way to help you find what you are looking for and to me, it’s one of the greatest parts of genealogy.
So if you are a member of Facebook, fill in the search box with “genealogy” and see what you can find. I’m sure there is a group for the area of the world your ancestor lived or just an overall group that will help you with your search.