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.
October is Family History Month and this past weekend I had two days of events to help me in my genealogical journey.
Friday night my library hosted a Late Night at the Library where you could research at the Special Collections area from 6:30-10:30pm. They gave a tour of the department for those who hadn’t been there before. I am very fortunate to have a library that has books from most of the 50 states (if not all), microfilm from various newspapers, maps, and free access to a number of subscription genealogical sites. Representatives from different organizations were also on hand to assist, one being National Society United States Daughters of 1812.
Saturday had me spending most of the day at my local Family History Center where they had a day filled with classes to learn more about researching genealogy. Here are the classes that I took:
Interpreting DNA Results
Latest Computer Tech for Genealogists
Family Search App
Internet Sites for Genealogists
Other classes that were offered included Prussian Research, Czech/Slovak Research, Until Death Do Us Part, Are You a Good Ancestor?, and FamilySearch questions.
Family History Centers are locations that allow you to access all records on FamilySearch and like the library, they also provide free access to many subscription sites to help you in your research. They are located all across the United States.
You should take a moment and check to see if your local library or Family History Center has any genealogy programs going on before October is over. Both of my local events were free., there is a chance could be too!
Death certificates are one of my favorite tools to find when working on my family tree. Granted it’s always sad that your ancestor passed away, but death certificates offer so much information that when you find them it’s like hitting the family history jackpot.
Different States, Different Availability
The downside of death certificates when searching in the United States is that each state differs when they began keeping vital statistic records, and their availability for each is different as well. I am fortunate that I live in the state of Ohio and we can go and get a birth certificate from anywhere, at any time. There are limitations, like you have to be in the county where the person died (my grandfathers are both eluding me as one died in Jefferson County and the other in Monroe), or if the person passed away between 1908-1953 you can find them on FamilySearch but if they died between 1954-1963 you have to contact the Ohio History Center in Columbus to obtain those. The cost is $7 plus tax but I can honestly say when I mailed in my check for the two I needed, I sent away on a Thursday and my death certificates were emailed to me the following Monday (my check hadn’t even cleared yet).
Most of my relatives are from Pennsylvania which has a much stricter policy for the release of their vital statistics. Birth certificates are available 106 years after birth. Death certificates are available 50 years after they die. Next year I will finally be able to get my grandmother’s birth certificate as she was born in 1914. I will be ordering my grandfather’s at the same time as he was born in 1912.
Make sure you check with the state you are researching to find out when you are able to obtain these valuable vital statistics records and find out how much it will cost to obtain these records. In Pennsylvania, it is presently $5 each.
Birth Certificates vs. Death Certificates
Though birth certificates are very important (when recently coming across my great-aunt’s birth certificate on Ancestry, I discovered that her father was not my great-grandfather). Death certificates give you birth dates, death dates, spouse, parent’s names, where they are buried, if they are buried, when they were buried, how they died, where they lived, where they were born. Granted, the information is only as reliable as the informant, but it gives you something to go with as far as your person is concerned, especially if you know little about the person.
My Most Memorable Death Certificate
My most surprising death certificate I found using Ancestry Library Edition. I am fortunate for my local library to have this, and so I would often go to my local branch and spend an hour or more at least once a week utilizing the records they had. This is when I came across my second cousin twice removed’s death certificate.
Discovering that one of your relatives was executed by the state of Ohio is always a little alarming. I am sure if I ever find another (I truly hope I don’t) that I will be just as amazed. (And I know I’ve shown this before, but some surprises you just never get over).
However, look at all the information that you can discover on the above death certificate.
Name: Ralph Reed
Birth Date: 1 Jun 1921
Place of Birth: Johnstown, Cambria, Pennsylvania
Father: Thomas Reed
Mother: Margaret Phillips
Date of Death: 4 May 1949
Place of Death: Columbus, Franklin, Ohio
Cause of Death: Electrocution by Legal Execution
Informant: Mrs. Margaret Reed (his mother)
Burial: Headrick Cemetery
Date of Burial: 7 May 1949
All this information is from one piece of paper. Now in Ralph’s case, we are fortunate that the informant was his mother so it was a person who had a great deal of knowledge of his life. Many times we aren’t as lucky. So often I find “I don’t know” or “Unknown” for a parent’s name because the children of a person aren’t always aware of their grandparent’s names, especially if they passed away before they were born.
It is highly recommended that you gather all the vital statistics that you can for each member of your family. These include birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates.
New England States
Most states began keeping death records between 1900-1930. If you are lucky enough to have relatives in the New England states where religion was the backbone of the community, you will be fortunate to have ledgers with birth and death dates. When I was finally able to leave Potter County, Pennsylvania and go to Franklin/Hampshire County, Massachusetts, I was amazed at how many vital statistic records I was able to obtain for my family where they were absent in PA.
As settlers moved west towards the new frontier, keeping records wasn’t at the top priority. As far as religion went, most of these areas had itinerant ministers. These circuit riders went from community to community, performing weddings, baptisms, and possibly funerals, but the documents weren’t always filed. This is why records throughout the mid-west are more challenging to find.
In Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where a majority of my father’s family came from, records are available in a handwritten book from 1890 to 1905. But anything before that is a mystery, often relying on gravestones for the answers for vital records, along with census records for birth dates.
Sources for Family History
Though there are many important documents to find in genealogy, I find that death certificates are one of the more important ones. Death certificates don’t always have the answers you are seeking for your people, but they are still valuable documents to have in your possession to obtain needed information about your ancestors. I know I presently have a death certificate for my second great-great-uncle and it is the only hint I have of what my third great-grandmother’s name is (I’m still hoping to hunt down her fourth living child in a hope of his death certificate giving me the same name). Both Ancestry and FamilySearch provide online images of death certificates so utilize these valuable sources, you never know what kind of interesting facts you will discover about your ancestors.
You know when you hit a fork in the road and realize you are all in with your genealogy journey when you go to your first genealogy conference. That is where I am at present, sitting in my hotel room, typing away after my second fun-filled day going to classes.
What Have I Learned?
I have learned things from using new software (Adobe Spark), utilizing FamilySearch in tracing my British roots, how to embrace bright shiny objects, how to prepare oneself for research trips, DNA, and lastly, overseas colonial research (which is pre-1776).
Who Have I Seen?
It’s a bit intimidating at times as I walk around the hallways of the Great Wolf Lodge and see such names as Blaine Bettinger, Lisa Louise Cooke, Thomas MacEntee, The Genealogy Guys, Lisa Alzo (I have listened to so many of her webinars on Legacy Family Tree Webinars I wish one of her lectures didn’t always fall within one I really need… goosebumps!).
Have You Ever Thought of Going?
If so, then go! I’ll confess it makes for a long day but you don’t have to go all in as I did, which was 3-full days. (They had workshops on Wednesday but nothing screamed – come to this workshop! I did attend a meet and greet with many of the bigger names in attendance and it was extremely informative).
You can register for 1, 2 or 3 days here at the Ohio Genealogical Society’s Conference. Next years is scheduled already and will be taking place up in Sandusky.
Do you know how many books I’ve bought? My husband was really surprised that they had so many books on genealogy.
But so many great books about research. If only they had Pennsylvania books about Bedford or Potter county – SOLD!
But it’s not just books, it’s photo scanning, and historical societies (representing Ohio counties and ones from neighboring states). Fun stuff like mouse pads, and archival pens and a cool clicky eraser (yes, a throwback from when I was in high school or possibly a freshman in college), t-shirts, jewelry, DNA, the list goes on.
I’m sure I’ll go into more detail in the next week or so, and missing my family aside, I’m so happy that I came to the OGS Conference. It made me see how many people are out there that are just like me… lovers of genealogy and so incredibly interested in finding their people.
It has been an incredibly fun 3 days, with 1 more to go. I have learned so much and can’t wait to up my game in my research process (which it’s so apparent what I’m doing wrong – I lack focus!).