I’ve been looking for an excuse to post this picture of myself with my older brother, so this is as good a time as any. It puts me in the Christmas spirit.
We’re headed into the holiday season and maybe you’ll have a week or so before the end of the year to do some last minute genealogy wrap-up. Here are some ideas to jumpstart your research and provide good ground to start with in 2014.
1. Order any original records that you don’t have. Organize all of the data you have gathered on each surname. If you have the date of a marriage from an online database, write and get a copy of the original marriage record. If you have a death date, write away for the original death certificate. Get a copy of the original deed or court record or anything else you’ve gathered. Most can be obtained for small fees. These records can be obtained from either the state archives, state vital records office or county courthouse and you can easily go online to find out where you need to write. We must base our research on analysis of original records, and too many people settle for just having the date they pulled from a database. We will miss critical clues if we do that. Instead of this image:
Have this original record of Beatrice’s death (below):
Some original records are available online, but this is why it’s helpful to go through your research and figure out which ones you don’t have.
2. Research the history of court records in one of your research states. You need to find out what the courts were called and what types of cases each one handled. For example, googling “north carolina court history” uncovered this PDF document. Other places to look are in Ancestry’s Red Book at the library, at state archives websites and several of the FamilySearch Wikis now have court histories included, like this one for South Carolina. Now that you have the names of the courts, you can make a plan to start researching each type of court in the new year. For example, in Tennessee (19th and 20th century) I researched the County Court records, the Chancery Court records, and the Circuit Court records for my counties. Court records contain amazing information not available anywhere else.
3. Identify the “cluster” of people associated with your families. I recently gave a lecture on cluster research and how it can be used to further our research. Humans live within social groups, and cluster research takes advantage of that principle. Pick a family or two and make a list of the people in their “cluster”, or as Elizabeth S. Mills says, their FAN Club (Family, Associates, Neighbors). A cluster should include all extended family members plus in-laws, neighbors, people living nearby with the same surname, witnesses and bondsmen on deeds and marriages and business associates, just to name a few. Researching the cluster will often lead to uncovering more information on your family/person/couple of interest and can often break through brick walls. It has worked for me. Now you’ll have a list of people to start researching in 2014; and remember you’ll never know where the road will lead until you try.
4. Make a list of microfilm you need to order and research from FamilySearch. Go to Familysearch.org, click Search, and then click Catalog. In the “Search by: Places” box type in your research state, then county. A list will pop up of types of records that Familysearch has microfilmed. For example, this is the list for Edgecombe County, North Carolina:
Clicking on any category will lead you to the exact microfilm titles and numbers. For example, I clicked on Court Records here under Edgecombe County, NC:
Clicking on Bastardy Bonds brought me to this list:
This is what you need: exact film titles and the film numbers on the far right. Write them down; you can start by searching probate, land, or court record indexes. Find a Family History Center near where you live, take that list, and ask the representative to guide you through setting up your online account and ordering the film. Unfortunately, the website is not very intuitive and you’ll really need someone to show you how to setup and order, but once you’ve done that, you can now order from home & research records from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, or any other state without leaving your home state! If you have yet to do this, it will launch your research to new heights.
5. Redouble your efforts to find living descendants. If you can trace someone to the 1940 census, and they had children in that census, find those descendants. First focus on the males since they would not have undergone a name change; for females you’d first have to find out if they married (and remarried). Search the Social Security database at Ancestry to see if that person may have died (common names will be harder to find this way). If the person did die, especially in the late 1980s and beyond, you may find an obituary in a newspaper at Genealogybank.com, or better yet, try the local library. Many local libraries have obituary indexes for the more recent years. An obituary should list survivors. Try online sites like zabasearch and white pages to see if you can get mailing addresses. I frequently send out brief postcards explaining the connection and asking for a phone call. Even if you get the death certificate of someone who died in the 1980s and beyond, you can try to contact the Informant listed on that death certificate. Also, later burials are more likely to have headstones (search Find-a-grave) and these are sources of death dates as well. Needless to say, the benefits of connecting with living descendants are endless.
6. Find special collections and manuscripts relevant to your research area. There are hidden gems in these collections just waiting to be discovered, but we often bypass these for more common records. These collections can contain those all-important slaveowner records, particularly for large slaveowners, but records of the local doctor and store merchant are also valuable as they can contain interactions with enslaved people. To get started, make a list of 4 or 5 major and regional universities in your research state, and then add state and county historical societies and the state archives to that list. Many of these repositories have descriptions of their special collections/manuscripts online. For example, for TN, I might examine collections at the University of TN, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and because I do black history research, Fisk University. I would include in that list the Tennessee Historical Society, the Tennessee Genealogical Society & the one for my county, the Hardin County Historical Society. The state archives is the Tennessee State Library & Archives. With this list of institutions, go to each website and search for description of their manuscript/special collections. Look not just for your surname or slaveowner’s surname, but search for anything from people who lived in your county. For example, this is Fisk University’s Special Collections page:
In 2014, with your list of institutions, and specific collections of interest, you can begin to order microfilm from the institution or plan a research trip to the facility. (Note: Colleges and Universities from other states may also hold collections relevant to your research, for example, University of North Carolina holds many records from all southern states.)
7. Make a chart to see what record groups you are missing. I have discussed before the benefit of using charts for your genealogy research. Staying organized and focused becomes harder and harder the more information we accumulate. Try this: in Microsoft Word or Excel (or just draw it by hand) list parents, one on each line, followed down the list by each child. Then across the top, create columns with these titles: Censuses, Land Records, Birth, Marriage, Death, Divorce, Probate Records, Tax Records, Court Records, etc. (there are many types you can use). For each person, assess whether you have searched for their names in that record type. This is a simple exercise, but you may be surprised at the results. Here is a simple chart I did for my Simpson line:
Of course, I have a separate census chart where I break it out by year & make sure I have searched for each person in every relevant census year.
I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving & I hope these ideas gets you excited about your research & reignited for 2014.