We, as genealogists and family historians, are willing to go to some lengths to find information on our family lines. When we have exhausted the available resources online or on microfilm through LDS family history centers, occasionally we need to take an on-site research trip. It is an inescapable fact that some of the things we need are only available in person. These one-of-a-kind documents may be crucial to our research. You might be asking yourself, “How do I take a successful trip to conduct family history research?”
One of the keys to success in any research is planning. If you need to visit a courthouse, county clerk’s office, research library, historical society, or archive, here are eight important steps to complete before you go.
Review the 0nline catalogs. Find out what their holdings are and make a list of what you want to see, in order of its priority. Often you can search by a location or surname. Watch out, many of these have listings for different types of records in separate online catalogs. Keep looking.
Make a To-do List. In your list, remind yourself WHAT book, microfilm, or record series you are looking for, WHY you are looking for it (searching for Aunt Mildred’s husband’s name), and WHERE in the building it may be. Many places have multiple levels or specialized rooms for separate collections.
Check the key info. Check online for hours, fees, parking, lockers, where to eat, and especially closing dates for holidays. Don’t get stuck at a locked building or spending all day trying to park your car. I got stuck once because I thought Memorial Day was a perfect time for me to go, but it was apparently a perfect time for the staff to close up too.
Read the Records structure. Every archive arranges their information differently. Take time to check the location’s website for an online tutorial, or user guidelines. Ask friends if they’ve had experience there or check the Wiki at FamilySearch, and input the name of the place you are going. Researchers from all over have shared their experience about places to research, and so much more.
Gather supplies.What can you take into the building? Can you take your laptop, scanner, or camera? What are the photocopying policies? How much? Many places will not allow you to use their copier, or do not have open shelves. Allow for the extra time for staff to help you or records to be pulled. Are you taking lunch, or packing a small snack? Make sure you take extra batteries or the charger for your camera. Not every place has internet access, so don’t rely on getting your information from the cloud. Have a paper copy or information on your laptop or tablet.
Plan for more than one day. If this is your first time at a certain place and you have a lot you need to search, do not expect to get it done in one day. In all likelihood, you may take a significant amount of time just getting settled and getting used to the facility. Be realistic about what you can find, and if possible plan for more than one day of research.
Make a Plan B. Things never work out the way you plan, so plan some more. If somewhere is unexpectedly closed (power outage or other emergency), where else can you go in the area? Cemeteries are rarely closed. The main county library often has a historical or genealogical collection for the area.
Be open to happy accidents. On my first baby-genealogist research trip I made a lot of mistakes, but I also planned well and it benefitted me every time. On a five-day trip to Genesee County, New York, I found that I was finished at the historical society early one afternoon. I hated to waste any time, so I pulled out my Plan B. In Genesee, the county courthouse and county clerk are in separate buildings. I went to the county clerk’s office because my Plan B was to re-visit the town clerk, but for some reason I couldn’t find the phone number to see if they were still open. As I walked into the office I stood in line patiently, and an older man walked up to ask if I needed any help. I told him my problem and he said he thought he had the number in his office. It turned out that he was the County Clerk himself. We got to talking and he showed me the deed records. He was kind, but a little skeptical that I knew what I wanted. I whipped out my binder with my plan, copies of censuses, and other information and showed him that I knew exactly when my ancestors came into the county. He was amazed at the organization and looked over at a near-by secretary saying, “Okay, she’s hired.” Needless to say, as I worked he looked over my shoulder from time to time, and would say things like, “I know I have a map for that area over here, would you like to see it?” There was my ancestor, named on the map. I love happy accidents!
The more planning that goes into your trip ahead of time, the more you will get out of your research. Why waste time during your trip when you can plot your course before you go?
Tell us your success stories with on-site research, we’d love to hear from you!
Have you ever searched for family in any of the Federal Censuses and been tear-your-hair-out-frustrated? People’s places of birth, ages, relationships, and naturalization dates fluctuate from one census to another. You can’t find someone you know is in that city, no matter how you try. The handwriting is atrocious and the spelling is worse!
In 2010 a friend told me that the US Census Bureau was hiring in our town, and I thought that this might be an opportunity to understand a little more about what went into enumerating the census. Some of the things I learned even as modern-day census enumerator gave me a deeper appreciation of the struggles a census taker in earlier times may have. Some lessons were eye-opening. Others were simply scary.
It’s the law. In the modern census, you are enumerated by mail. If you do not fill in your form and return it in time, that is when your friendly neighborhood enumerator comes to call. Most people just forgot and often had the paperwork somewhere nearby. Quite a number of homes had to be qualified as unlived in. Many people were extremely argumentative, and did not believe the census to be really legal. Rarely do people realize that the law directing enumeration of the populous is a provision in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 2.
Try, and try again. As an enumerator, we were required to try a home a minimum of three times, even if we had been rebuffed the first time. If there were no results, we were to ask the neighbors.
Listen to the kids. The law today directs that a resident of the home as young as age 14 could answer questions about the household if no other adult was available. I would try and go back to the home when an adult was home, but I did have to ask a child more than once about the household.
Gender rules. It was interesting to see which enumerators in our group had the most success. We met together for training and to turn in our results weekly. The tall, strong-looking men were answered the least by residents. The women came in with the most results. Why? Having a stranger at your door today is no more scary than at any other time. People are wary of opening the door to strange men. Strange women (especially very short women with bright smiling faces like mine) are not intimidating. People wanted to talk to us, give us something to drink, and have us sit and rest.
Keep it local. The Census Bureau purposefully has enumerators work within their own neighborhoods. First, we already know our way around. Second, the idea is that we are comfortable where we lived. I rarely enumerated more than four miles from my home. Even so, I ran into many situations where people spoke languages I did not understand, and they could not understand me. How likely was that to happen to an immigrant ancestor of yours?
I wasn’t scary, but… People who were naturalized citizens were the most anxious to talk to me. They wanted me to know they were legal citizens and proud of it. Others would not believe that we weren’t secret agents of the INS, FBI, or CIA.
There are some dangers. There were a lot more dogs in my neighborhood than I realized. Big ones. It was intimidating to enter a yard that was clearly protected by Kujo’s cousin.
Don’t assume anything. It was the rule that we had to ask the householder to pronounce their race, not assume it by observation. My favorite answer to the question from a determined looking man was “human race.”
It’s huge. I had not realized how many people lived in my neighborhood, and was awed by the scale of the census project.
I saw some things I’d rather soon forget. Yes, people do answer the door in their underwear. Enough said.
So, before you curse the name of the 1880 enumerator who came to your ancestor’s door, try to imagine it from the other side. For more information on the history of census enumeration and its impact on genealogical research today, try “Chapter 13: Census Returns” in Val D. Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Another favorite is Kathleen Hinkley’s well-written Your Guide to the American Census.
Remember the old saying, “With information comes inspiration.”
Marriage records are some of the earliest records available in the United States that offer a wealth of genealogical gems. They may include the ages of the bride and groom, their residences, and sometimes a parent or other relative’s name.
Modern marriage records can help us understand earlier records. If you are married, think about the variety of records leading up to the wedding. Did you go to the courthouse to apply for a license? Was a notice of the engagement, or of the wedding placed in a local newspaper? Were you married at a church, and did the church note it in their records? If married at the church, the pastor/priest/officiator was required to report his or her completion of that ceremony to the local court. If married civilly, was there a record of the wedding at the courthouse separate from that first license you applied for? Did the court and/or church give you a private certificate, suitable for framing? Did you send out invitations or annoucements? Were photos taken at your wedding? Did friends or relatives write or blog about the celebration? Looking at all these situations, we can see at least eight different types of records created about the event. Think of your ancestors’ weddings in much the same way: if a record of the marriage isn’t in one place, it may be in another.
Here’s a very brief review of the types of marriage records that may be available in a variety of places:
State and Local Records
Marriage records are not federal records. They have always been maintained and governed by the county or state in which they occured. Investigate the laws regarding marriage in your ancestor’s state and time period.
Consents: Written parental permission for a child to be married, especially if underaged. Sometimes these are found to confirm that the child is of age.
Marriage bonds: A financial contract to hopefully avoid litigation of the marriage is nullified. Usually signed by the groom and a male representative of the bride’s family.
Marriage banns: Church declaration or posting of an intended marriage, to give the congregation an opportunity to oppose the marriage if there is a just cause to prevent it, i.e. the groom has another wife in the next county.
Applications: The application to marry often asks the bride and groom about ages, birthplaces, parent’s names, and previous marriages. Check to see how early these were used in the county you’re searching.
License: Court approval of the marriage application. These are often found at the bottom of the application in most pre-printed court books. Note that the date of marriage application or license is not always the same as the date of the wedding!
Minister’s Returns: Sometimes these are separate reports from ministers or Justices of the Peace that a marriage ceremony was preformed. The clerk should be noting these at the bottom of the marriage application/license. If there is no return it may indicate that 1) the marriage did not occur, or 2) the minister didn’t make it back to the clerk to report. If there is no return, you may need to look for other indications of co-habitation after the date of the license.
Divorce Records: When couples break up, they make a lot of records. Early divorces were granted only on the state level, but were overseen later by county courts. Check Chancery and Equity records, or ask the clerk of the court.
Minister or Church Clerk books: Church records vary from church to church and often from one minister to another. The marriages may be recorded together, chronologically, or mixed in with other rites, such as baptism or burials.
Church minutes: If there are no records of marriages, check the minutes for listings of members. Spouses may be referred to when they join or move.
Wedding Annoucements: For my own grandparents, I found multiple news articles. There were at least two listings of bridal showers, the pre-wedding announcement, the post-wedding announcement, and an entire article on who attended and what they wore with a photo of the happy couple looking dubiously at a wedding present they’d just unwrapped. Thank goodness for small town newspapers! Don’t forget to check for those silver anniversary announcements too.
Private Family Records
The wonderful thing about family records of weddings is that they are so diverse and can be held by so many different family members. Get to know second and third cousins who may have inherited unique memoribilia. These may include:
Journals and Letters
Take some time to “walk down the aisle” with your ancestors and search for their marriage records. Find out more by reading up on early marriage practices and customs. If your ancestors were of African-American descent, be aware that sometimes those records were kept separately. If your ancestor participated in the Revolution, War of 1812, or Civil War, look for evidences of marriage produced by widows and heirs in pension applications. For more information, read the wonderful article by Johni Cerny and Sandra H. Luebking, “Research in Marriage and Divorce Records” in the Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. You can also check for online guides about marriage records that are specific to time periods or countries at FamilySearch.org. Happy Valentine’s Day!
If you use the New Year to reinvigorate your genealogical research, how long does it take before you are throwing your hands up in frustration all over again? Six months? One month? A week and a half? You are not alone. This year, let’s see if we can look at the old genealogical brick wall with new eyes using a few tricks:
Research Log Re-boot: If you don’t have a research log, you may end up repeating research or (worse!) missing clues that you need. Take everything you know about the ancestor and create a research log with it. Yes, this will take some time, but it is a critical part of re-assessing your research. If you already have a research log, or are about to create one, try this idea: Instead of putting your research in the order in which it was undertaken, put each item of found or attempted research into a category, such as probate, vital records, land records, census, military, family stories and bibles, etc. Do you notice any record groups you have ignored? You may have focused more on censuses and military records, and completely missed land records!
New or Updated Websites: You have some favorite go-to websites, we all do. How about checking someplace that you haven’t before, haven’t checked in a while, or did not think may apply. Genealogical websites are constantly updating their holdings. Try a new newspaper website like Genealogybank.com (fee-based), NewspaperArchive (fee-based, available free at any LDS Family History Center), The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America page, or any local historic newspaper available through your public library’s website. I was astounded at the amount of new digitized records available at FamilySearch, and solved a client’s research problem right from my home computer with the probate and land records available there.
Learn Some History. Perhaps part of your research problem is perspective. What happened in your ancestor’s area during their life that may have affected the records they would have made? Was a battle fought then? Did county lines change? Were they part of the religious reformation of the early 1800s? A client recently spoke bitterly about a 3rd great-grandfather who abandoned his family. As we looked at the timeline, I asked if the grand-father had served in the Civil War, and on which side. The client had not thought about it before. As it turns out, the ancestral family lived in a part of Virginia severely hit by the tragedies of War, and the grandfather was a young Confederate veteran. We talked about the possibility of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress for both spouses. We may never know exactly what caused their split, but knowing these little bits of history puts the family into a different light.
Internet-heavy Research: The Microwave vs. the Stove. As researchers, we are so very spoiled (no, I am not complaining). So much is online at our fingertips. However, relying too heavily on sources found online can blind us to records that are only available in State Archives, local historical societies, and local courthouses, etc. Here’s my analogy for this problem: In my kitchen I have both a stove with an oven and a microwave. As you can imagine, I use both in almost all of my cooking. I love my microwave because it is fast and easy, however I just can’t cook everything in it. Sauces, eggs, pies, cookies, and sauteed vegetables just don’t quite work if I use the microwave to cook them. I have to use the stove for some things. Other things I really prefer using the microwave for. In all my cooking, I use both of these tools. In research, your microwave is like internet research: fast and relatively easy. Your oven is more like on-site research or records your order through the mail; it will take longer, but the benefits are undeniable. Use both your tools, and learn the benefits and limitations of each.
Investigate the Neighbors. If you are stuck, try a completely different approach: Neighbors and extended relatives. Put down your research for that elusive ancestor and start up a new project for a neighbor of the ancestor or a relative (or presumed relative) in the area. You may end up seeing their paths cross with the ancestor you’ve been working on and give you a new clue for your mystery man. A great tool for this is Elizabeth Shown Mills’ new quick-sheet, The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research.
Hopefully I have given you some ideas. The main point is not to give up. Remember that even if you haven’t found that elusive ancestor, you have gained experience and education, and your time is not wasted. Tell us some ideas that you have used to re-invigorate your research, we’d love to hear!
As much as we like to give during the holiday season – admit it – we like to receive too. And as it is possible that the ones you love don’t quite understand how much you love working on your family history, you may just have to give yourself a genealogical gift this year.
What is your wish-list? I will share mine, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for what you may need or gift ideas for our significant others. Please know that the following are not endorsements for these products, just a few of my personal preferences.
Subscriptions. So many business are feeding our need for records. I have a lot (don’t tell my husband!) of subscriptions to companies online including Ancestry, GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive, and various genealogical societies whose websites offer more digitized records. This year I’m planning to give myself a subscription to a new society, one I have been meaning to join. Maybe it will be the Federation of Genealogical Societies or the Genealogical Speaker’s Guild.
Conferences. I could attend every genealogical conference in the country this year and still not be satisfied. I love the feel of conferences, the commraderie, the vendors! If I had to pick this year (and I really can’t), I think that I would enjoy the National Genealogical Society’s conference in May 2013. On a personal note, it is located near some family and I could make the most of my visit by seeing them as well. But let’s face it – its in VEGAS! I am not a gambler at all, but I love the shows and the buffets.
Books. I think I would have to dedicate an entire website to the books I love on genealogy. I did an inventory once of all the books I have at Library Thing, but I had to stop once I reached 100 genealogy books, out of sheer exhaustion. Among my long list of published resources, one has been on my list for too long, and I think I just have to get it. Its Joan L. Sevra’s Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 – 1900, available at many stores.
Stories. It is crucial to keep stories alive. Names and dates are well and good, but where’s the personality? Where’s the voice? My gift to myself will be a way to pass the story along to my siblings, my children, and all my relatives. I can start small right now by deciding which family I want to highlight, collecting their information, and then choosing a media that best suits my story. Of course, a Reel Tributes documentary is my first choice! Talk about giving my ancestors their voices back. For something quicker and less expensive, ReelGenie promises to be an amazing tool. If only it were ready for this holiday season!
Time. My family thinks I am crazy (for many reasons). This is mostly because I think a valuable family vacation should be spent in a state and local archives in New York where my ancestors came from. What’s wrong with having family time in the cemetery, or the court house? So I think one thing I would really like is my own ”vacation” to work on my family history. I have taken some serious time this year writing about my ancestors. Now I want to walk where they walked. This year: New York. Next year: Scotland!
Answers. I would like to ask a favor of the universe. Please send me the names of my fifth great-grandfather’s parents. I am stuck! Have you felt this way? I often say that I am the only person to prove my ancestors were actually dropped by aliens, because there is no other evidence to refute it. In all seriousness, I have taken to keeping an 8×10 framed photo of great grandpa James Wescott Whitman (1794 – 1878) in my office to inspire me. So, if the universe is listening, that’s what I want most of all. More family.
What genealogical treats would you like in you holiday celebrations this year? I’d love to hear your ideas. Inspire us with what genealogical gifts you are giving to yourself. The trick is that when you continue to search out and celebrate your family, it becomes a gift to everyone in your family. Happy Holidays!