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Genealogy Tips

1. Top Ten Rules of Genealogy

2. Little Used Record Groups

Top Ten Rules of Genealogy

I have been researching family history for a long time, both the right way and the wrong way. Genealogy the wrong way is frustrating to both yourself and anyone else who might see your research. These rules will help keep you on the right track - they follow the philosophy, "Work smart, not hard."

These are in no particular order.

  1. The most important rule of genealogy is: DOCUMENT YOUR SOURCES. This cannot be stressed enough. Anyone who looks at your research (including yourself weeks, months, or years later) should be able to reproduce your work step-by-step. By keeping track of not only those sources that give you the answers you need as well as those that don't, you won't waste time going back over the same dead-end sources time and time again.
  2. GO BACK TO ALL OF YOUR SOURCES TIME AND TIME AGAIN. You might have missed something the first time. Each new piece of information you get provides clues that might make some insignificant, supposedly unrelated detail all of a sudden highly significant. It might be the one piece of the puzzle that helps you break through that brick wall.
  3. NEVER "THROW AWAY" INFORMATION. Just because one document gives a different birth date or a different spouse, do not dismiss this data before you thoroughly weigh the evidence. See #4.
  4. KNOW THE SOURCE OF YOUR INFORMATION. By this I mean something very different from #1. Who provided the information? For example, for the date of birth, a birth certificate completed by the parents on or shortly after the date of birth would be more reliable than a death certificate completed by the attending physician, or a pension application completed by an individual whose financial situation might be affected by his age. A church record filled out by a priest or minister would be much more reliable than a census enumeration whose source is unknown.
  5. GET LOCAL. Know the geography of the area in which your ancestors lived, not just physical terrain but also political jurisdictions. Know the laws that governed your ancestors' time. Know the local history - the local leaders, the local churches, the common occupations of the area at that time. All of these help to recreate the world in which your ancestors lived, and all of your "evidence" was created.
  6. USE ORIGINAL RECORDS WHEREVER AVAILABLE,. There is less room for transcription mistakes or other signs of sloppy work (someone else's, of course) when you are able to go back to the original records to verify your information.
  7. DON'T BE AFRAID TO USE DERIVATIVE AND/OR SECONDARY SOURCES. Is the information from a local history book or a "family tree" with no sources cited or the IGI going to be 100% correct? Absolutely not. But that doesn't mean that it is necessarily 100% incorrect either. Follow up on other people's research - if they cited their sources go back to the original - if they did not, then try to find records to either prove or disprove their theory. These references serve as great starting points for your research - they allow you to start with one fact and verify it, or toss it out. But either way, whether positive or negative, it is progress.
  8. NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING. For example, not everyone listed in a pre-1880 census household is the child of the head. Younger women might be daughters-in-law rather than daughters. Older women might be spinster sisters rather than wives. Even a younger woman might be a wife rather than a daughter. Assumptions can lead to some very convoluted, and very wrong, family trees.
  9. NOT EVERY PROBLEM CAN BE SOLVED. While there may be enough information to suggest the possibility of a certain fact or relationship, there may not be any direct evidence to prove it. Sometimes you may not even have that much, and have to move on to a different branch. Remember that the further backwards you move, the less likely that your ancestor created certain records, or that these records are still extant. A lot of courthouses burned, through natural disaster and war. Laws creating certain records were sometimes passed very recently. And of course that "KEY" piece of evidence was inevitably thrown away during spring cleaning.
  10. REMEMBER WHY YOU DO IT. Genealogy should not be a goal in and of itself. It should not be "just" to get into a certain lineage society or even for bragging rights. Genealogy is at its core about family, and knowing those who came before. It has been said that "a tree without roots cannot grow," and in my opinion the search for roots can be a means toward growth.

Little Used Record Groups

Civil War Pension Records

The Civil War was not only the deadliest war in American history, it also saw the highest percentage of participation among male citizens and immigrants. It is considered to be the last of the "old wars" and the first of the modern wars. It also happened to be the first American war in which pensions were provided to the majority of its veterans. If your family has been in the United States since the mid-nineteenth century, there is a great chance that either one of your direct ancestors, or one of their siblings, fought in the Civil War. If the veteran survived beyond 1890-1900, then the chances are just as great that they received or applied for a pension.

Pension application files for Union veterans are held in the National Archives and Records Administration, in Washington, D. C. Unfortunately, none of these have been microfilmed. An index to the pension files was created, however, and is widely available: on microfilm from the LDS Family History Library, and online at www.Ancestry.com and www.Footnote.com, among other sites.

These files constitute the greatest single source for genealogical information as any I have seen. The original application asks questions including date and place of birth, date and place of marriage, maiden name of spouse, dates and places of military enlistment and discharge, names and dates of birth of children, etc. The files can also contain such records as copies of Bible records, marriage certificates, death certificates, obituaries, sworn affidavits from various individuals regarding various topics. If the veteran was survived by a widow, and she applied for a widow's pension, much of this same information on the widow may also be found.

One of the files that I have personally examined (not in my own family), involved an application for a woman who married two separate veterans. Among the information provided in the were sworn affidavits from witnesses to the death of her first husband, her marriage and life with her second husband, the military service of both husbands, the death of her second husband, her own birth/age, and much more.

Also included are such interesting and colorful items as pay stubs and medical examiner reports.

There are two ways to get a copy of the pension files. One is to visit the National Archives building itself. The National Archives building in Washington, D. C., which holds the original pension files, is now open 9:00am-5:00pm on Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday; and 9:00am-9:00pm on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, every week!

One can also order a photocopy of the file directly from the Archives. The cost of files is now quite expensive ($75 minimum), and often takes over a month to receive.

A third option is to hire a professional genealogist in the Washington D. C. area to visit the Archives and photocopy the file for you. This is usually the least expensive method if you do not live in the Washington D. C. area. There are many places that can refer professionals, including the National Archives website itself, or the websites of the Association of Professional Genealogists or the Board for the Certification of Genealogists.

The federal government never issued pensions for Confederate veterans. However, many southern states did. The location of, and information included in these Confederate pension files varies from state to state. You should check the websites of each state's state library or state archives for specific information about the availability. I have received a copy of a pension application from Tennessee, and the information included on the application is much the same as that on the Union pension application, i.e. date and place of birth, dates and places of service, date and place of marriage, maiden name of wife, etc.

If your ancestor, or one of his siblings, fought in the Civil War, this record should be at the top of your "must-have" list.

UPDATE: Since the original writing of this article, Footnote.com has begun uploading scanned images of Civil War pension files to its subscription site.

Equity Cases

In the state of Maryland, as well as Virginia and other similarly-organized former British colonies, the Court of Chancery existed to hear equity cases, mainly involving the distribution of disputed real estate among heirs of an intestate decedent. In other words, to divide the land of an individual who died without leaving a will. Other cases and petitions were also heard in the court, but the majority of these were the equity cases.

I admit that I am a land record fanatic. Heredity can often be determined only by following the possession of specific parcels of land, passed down from generation to generation. The Chancery Court cases are even more detailed than simple deeds, however. Affidavits and petitions included in these files can often state specific genealogical information.

For example, a recent Chancery case that I examined involved the real estate of a man who died without any living heirs. The petition gave a history of the entire family, including several siblings and their children, with dates of death for those who were deceased, and married names for the sisters. Then-current locations for each of these family members were included as well.

In addition to the straightforward genealogical information, land records (including some that may have gone unrecorded in the deed books) and plats of the disputed tract will also usually be included in the file.

States that do not have a Chancery Court by name, nearly always have some form of equity court, or a body that serves the same purpose. Investigate the structure of your ancestral state's judicial branch in order to determine where these records may lie.

If you cannot locate a will or other probate records that identify an individual's heirs, but you know that they owned land, you cannot go wrong to search for an equity case. If you find one, you can rest assured that the file will include some useful information.

Social Security Applications ("Form SS-5")

This group of records is only applicable for modern times, however, it serves as a solid source of information naming the parents of an individual.

Many states did not institute vital event registration, for births and deaths, until the turn of the 20th century. For those born prior to ca. 1900, therefore, a death certificate may be the only vital record in existence. By definition, a death certificate is an imperfect source of birth information. The subject is obviously deceased, as are all other witnesses to his birth, in the majority of cases. The informant for the death certificate is usually a spouse or surviving sibling or child. While all of these may have knowledge of the birth information, their witness should be considered secondary information.

Most modern death certificates, as well as the widely-available Social Security Death Index (available on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, GenealogyBank.com, WorldVitalRecords.com, and many other online databases, as well as most Family History Centers), provide the Social Security identification numbers for the deceased. Using the Freedom of Information Act, and enclosing the search fee of $27, one can write to the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, Maryland, to receive a copy of the original application for a Social Security number by the deceased. There is now also an online form that one can use to order the applications.

This form, completed by the deceased himself while still living, includes, among other pieces of information, his parents' names and his date of birth. The source of this information, being the subject himself, can be considered much more reliable than that on his death certificate.

Church Registers

I am sure that many of you are already familiar with the benefits of using the "Big Three" church events - baptism, marriage, and burial. These are often the only way to have an exact date of a vital event before the state began its civil registration. But there is actually much more to church registers than the Big Three - and this is what I will focus on here.

First, please look into the belief systems of your ancestral church - for example, Baptists, particularly the branch known as "Primitive Baptists" or "Old-School Baptists," do not believe in infant baptism at all, indeed consider it a heresy. An individual was instead baptized when he became a member of the church as an adult. Various denominations can have very different beliefs, and these may often hold wonderful clues to aid your research.

Outside of the Big Three mentioned above, church registers can vary from church to church. Generally, though you may find any or all of the following: member lists, first communions, Sunday School lists, etc.

Member Lists are often "living documents" - that is to say, the original list was created on a certain day, but the list was updated periodically. You may find that new members have been added after the date (usually with the date they joined noted), old members who emigrated or died have been crossed off (often with the date noted), or new children have been added to a family group when they are born (with the date of birth noted). One may also find a notation by the wife of a married couple that she was the daughter of another member (with his name).

The date a person or family joined the church may help you determine when they moved into an area, especially if they were introduced by a letter of transfer from a church in another area. This occured quite often among Quaker (Friends) churches, and I have seen it in the records of other churches, including Methodist and Episcopal, as well.

First Communions - depending on the denomination - often occur at a certain specific age. This might help determine the age of children where no other evidence may be available. Again, you should look into the traditions of your church to determine the specifics. In the Roman Catholic Church, you may also find confirmation records for children of a certain age.

Sunday School lists can provide various bits of information. One Methodist Episcopal class list that I recently located for an ancestral family included a list of members, then a later note at the bottom of the page that read: "Except one or two of the above - the remainder are gone either to the Southern Church or the world. Two years labor (1868-70) did no use as far as improving - Things hopeless...." This note leads one to the conclusion that further information on some of these people would instead be found in the records of the local Methodist Episcopal South church. It is quite interesting to read the perspective of this particular teacher, that things were hopeless - presumably referring to spiritual matters.

Dig into the records of your church more deeply than the Big Three - baptism, marriage, burial. While the value of these is irreplaceable, they only tell part of the story. Churches kept many other records in their registers, and these can also provide a great amount of information.

U. S. Passport Applications

The federal government has been the sole issuer of passports, used to travel abroad then as today, since 1856. Unfortunately, passports were not REQUIRED for overseas travel until 1941, except during several war periods: 1861-1862 and 1918-1921. However, the federal government has issued passports since 1789.

If you are lucky enough to locate an ancestor who received a passport, these applications are great sources of primary information, for example date and place of birth, current residence, and a physical description. More recent passport applications contain birth information, affidavits from personal references, and even PHOTOS in the 20th century.

Many passport applications have been microfilmed by the National Archives. The originals are held at the Archives II building in College Park, Maryland. These include the original photographs.

Between 1874 and 1926, you can also find "Emergency Passport" applications. These have not been microfilmed beyond 1905, and the originals are held at Archives II. These "Emergency Passports" were issued by the Department of State at various embassies abroad.

More information is available on the National Archives' website: http://www.archives.gov/research/passport/index.html

UPDATE: Since the original writing of this entry, Ancestry.com has posted many passport applications online as part of their U. S. Deluxe membership.