Analyzing and Correlating Records

I have recently realized I am utterly incapable of writing a short post. That said, I’d like to think I still have avid readers who value them and take the time to read them when they can. I thank you for that. I just had a wonderful Thanksgiving with my family & hope you all did too.

We have to continue pushing ourselves to learn more and better research methodologies. When we all start out, we’re basically doing name lookups in various record sets. What we found is what I refer to as the “low-hanging” fruit. It’s what the Genealogy Gods use to suck you into this hobby;) The tough stuff comes when the records relevant to your family/area/timeframe have been exhausted, AND, you only know how to look up names. If you don’t learn other ways of “connecting the dots” you’ll have trouble uncovering other relationships. Things will appear to be brick walls, that really aren’t. They may just require a research methodology that has not been learned. And I promise, you can learn them.

One of the critical skills to learn is how to analyze and correlate the information you have. Start spending more time practicing this. Lay out all the data you’ve gathered to answer a particular question such as: Who were Jane Smith’s parents? Who were her spouses? Having a specific question frames your research and allows you to work towards a conclusion. Learn the genealogical standards for evidence evaluation and learn how to pull out clues from each piece of evidence. There are excellent genealogy books and lectures for every conceivable type of record. Ask yourself the pertinent questions: Who said this? When did they say it? How did they know it? Who recorded it and why?  When evidence gives conflicting data (such as birthdates or death dates) learn how to address the conflict. Purchase one of the core genealogy reference books like “The Source” edited by Loretta Szucs or “The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy” by Val Greenwood (you can buy them used, but try to get a recent edition).

I often encounter people who have only researched in census records and maybe a few vital records. Think of census records as bookends on a shelf like this:
BookshelfIf you have discovered your ancestor in say, the 1900 and the 1910 census, that’s a great start. But the shelf itself is still empty –you still have a 10-year gap for which you don’t have any data. We must get in the habit of filling up that shelf—which represents our ancestor’s lives– with other information from other sources than just the census records. A lot can happen in 10 years.

Case in point: I have blogged before about my 4th great-grandmother Matilda and the years long odyssey to uncover her complicated roots. Her identity was hidden behind a veil of mis-transcribed records, moves between at least 4 counties and 2 states, and 4 marriages! Of the 4 men she married,  3 died within a few years of their marriage to her. The chart below illustrates her sojourn through the census  years, counties and states, with M1 through M4 representing her 4 marriages:

MatildaTimelineMatilda only appears as a married woman twice in the census (1900 and 1910 to her 2nd husband, Perry Davis). Each of her other husbands died before the other census years rolled around, so she was constantly showing up with a different name in those years as a widow. In fact, I thought there were 2 different women named Matilda.  Those other marriages were almost “hidden.” I gave more details about cracking this case in a previous post.

Had I only looked at census records, this case would never have been broken. There is just too much happening in 10 years time. I had to piece together the information I gathered from state censuses, city directories, vitals, oral history, cemetery records, deed records and more. That process allowed me see the errors in the evidence. It also led me to revisit my own assumptions. Matilda’s first marriage record –an original record—mistakenly recorded her name as “Matida Mealy”, not Matilda Nealy which was her name. The clerk probably heard it as “Mealy”. Simple enough right? But because both her first and last names were incorrect on the document, I could never find that marriage. Eventually, tracing all 4 of her marriages (not just the one to my direct ancestor) led me to the names of her parents, Charles and Lavinia Nealy in Hamilton County, FL. I added another branch to my tree.

I have never felt so proud about cracking a case as I did this one. It affirmed that I’m on the right track in terms of developing my skills.  I still have plenty more ahead of me, so right along with you, I continue to keep on learning.

The 1880 Donut Hole

Two Doughnuts on a Plate


This is a phrase I’ve been using to refer to that Bermuda Triangle between 1880 and 1900…the Donut Hole. Now I like donuts just as much as the next person. But I’m not the first and sure won’t be the last to lose relatives on either side of it. We all know about how the aftermath of the fire that destroyed a large percentage of the 1890 census. First, you’ll want to be sure to check that your research area is not one that has a surviving 1890 census fragment. After that, you’ll want to use all your genealogical sleuthing skills to ensure that the person “on the inside” of the 1880 donut is the same person you find “on the outside.” Minus the frosting.

One of the things I’ve encountered is the fact that a couple can have a child right after 1880 that is grown and gone by 1900. If this is a family whose makeup you’ve built by using only the census, you can easily miss a person. For example, according to her death certificate Julia Adams of Montgomery County, TN was born in 1881:

Julia Adams

Julia Adams

However, if you look at her father Lucas Walker’s household in 1900, she is not there:

1900 Lucas Walker

1900 Lucas Walker

And that’s because she married James Adams in 1897:

Marriage Record

Marriage Record

If you didn’t find out about Julia from some other record or source (like this death certificate), you would have missed her completely.

Zeffie Whitaker was born in 1883. Her father Sam Whitaker’s household in 1900, likewise, does not include her:

1900 Whitaker

1900 Whitaker

She had married the neighbor’s son Robert Allison in 1899:

Marriage Record

Marriage Record

She was living next door to her dad in 1900.

These examples were meant to illustrate the point: they were easy to show because the parent was listed on the death certificate. But how many death certificates do we see that have no parents listed? Also, you would have never found the death certificate if you had known this child existed AND their married name. In those cases, you’ll miss an ancestor. I know I have.

So beware and be extra vigilant of those people born in the early 1880s “inside the donut.” Tell me in the comments if any of you have “lost” an ancestor in the gap? If you found them, how did you verify that it was the correct person?

Do You Have an Artificial Brick Wall?

MC900390920My friend Aaron calls them artificial. They can also be called self-imposed brick walls. We say this to mean we have labelled something a brick wall that really isn’t a brick wall. We call them that even though we haven’t done our due diligence in terms of careful research. Consider these examples:

We declare the brick wall of not being able to find an ancestor in a census year but we haven’t tried multiple spellings and pronunciations,
haven’t used wildcard searches,
haven’t searched surrounding counties,
haven’t searched other census websites other than Ancestry,
haven’t considered a migration out of state and biggest of all—
haven’t done a line-by-line search in the district or county we expect to find them in.

We declare a brick wall, but we have only been to one or two repositories in person, or worse still, have done all our research online.

We declare a brick wall,
but have used books and websites to collect information without ordering and examining firsthand the original record.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only searched 2 or 3 TYPES of records such as census records, vital records and the “easy” databases on Ancestry (like World War I draft cards). We haven’t even tried to search land records, court records, church records, maps, city directories, probate records, newspapers and other record sets.

We declare a brick wall,
but we’ve only been searching for our direct ancestor and maybe his wife and children. We have not expanded to the group (or “cluster”) of people that were associated with our ancestors and would significantly increase our chances for success.

We declare a brick wall,
after jumping back several generations, and not doing extensive research within each generation on all the siblings and children of each sibling.

We declare a brick wall, but we’re wearing cultural blinders. We aren’t considering that people may have had children outside of or before marriage, or that they may appear in the records as a different race.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually analyzed and correlated the evidence that we DO have. In fact, we don’t know how to evaluate the evidence. We believe everything we see in print is factual, accurate and true. If two records give conflicting information, we have no idea which one is correct.

We declare a brick wall,
and have never tried to find living descendants of any of the family members.

We declare a brick wall,
but never stopped to consider our ancestor may have had multiple marriages. We also never actually verified the mother of each child separately from the father.

We declare a brick wall,
but have never expanded our search to less common but potentially valuable records stored onsite at universities, historical and genealogical societies. And-

(my personal favorite)

We declare a brick wall,
but have never actually read a book on genealogy methodology or any of the thousands of teaching articles published in genealogy journals. We have progressed mainly by asking others what to do next instead of taking the time to learn ourselves “what to do next.”

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Genealogy is a learned skill and a profession with defined standards. You get good at it by practice and by education. I define “good” as using best practices for careful research and ultimately being able to discern clues that don’t jump off the page. That’s what will set you apart from when you were a beginner. I look at evidence I gathered in earlier years and see things now I couldn’t possibly see then. You have to progress away from “looking up” people in databases and learn how to “look into” people’s lives, which is a different animal altogether.

I have been guilty of many of these artificial brick walls myself and have had to overcome my special tendency to declare someone dead when I can’t find them;) But I’ve gotten better over the years by constantly educating myself and learning about methodology and resources. I hope you will too. Tell me in the comments, which artificial brick walls you have been guilty of?

Estate Inventories: Peek Into Their Lives

For those doing African-American research, antebellum estate inventories are a common resource used to find enslaved ancestors. But we should also get into the habit of looking at the other items on that inventory list, that help us visualize not just the slaveowner’s life, but also our ancestors. Even after the Civil War, scrutinizing our ancestor’s inventories can often provide those interesting little details to make a family history come alive.

The first thing I realized a few years ago when I started doing this regularly was that I had no idea what many of the items were! Especially all the animals and agricultural items. What’s the difference between a bay horse and a sorrel horse? (its the colors) What’s a shoat? (it’s a baby pig) What exactly is fodder? (feed for farm animals). Luckily, for most everything, you can just use good old fashioned Google and quickly get a good definition and even pictures. Or you can use a book like “From A to Zax: A Complete Dictionary for Genealogist and Historians.”

I smile when I think about the future and how our descendants will wrangle over what an Ipad or a cell phone was. I also found it a challenge  to go back mentally a century or two in terms of remembering when there was no electricity, no running water, no refrigerators, etc. I am such a child of technology;)

Let’s look at Alfred Reeds estate inventory in 1858, from Russell County, AL:

Reed 1

Reed 1

I notice:

–How the appraisers are “walking through the property” room by room.
–The appraisers have started outside on the farm. There are plenty of animals, 29 heard of cattle may imply that he was selling meat.
–Horses and mules were sometimes given names.
–Alfred has not just a buggy and harness, but also a rockaway and harness, a much fancier carriage that would imply his higher status, as opposed to  the average farmers who may only have buggies or oxcarts.
–The slaves are listed by name, but no ages or statements are given about their relationships.

Let’s look at the next set of items:

Reed 2

Reed 2

–Now the appraisers are moving through the bedroom or living quarters.
–A piano and accordion would also be signs of his status and musical talent.
–The ability to own a gold watch would again signal a higher status.
–The number of guns (2 pistols, 3 double-barrel shotguns) remind us that we’re in an era where almost everyone owned guns.

The last set of items shown are key:

Reed 3

Reed 3

A glance at the titles tells us Alfred Reed was clearly a lawyer. Book titles are not always listed, so it’s nice that here they were.
Now, Let’s look at the inventory of Caroline Sibley of Richmond County, GA, in 1859:

Sibley 1

Sibley 1

–Her status immediately jumps out—she owned paintings and valuable portraits.
–She owned a bible and hymn book, which tells us she was probably a member of a local church.
–Her estate is notable for what is missing—no agricultural items or animals. She lived in Augusta, GA, but obviously did not farm. I would be interested in how she obtained a living. Let’s look at the last page of her inventory:


–I spoke too soon: she owned $33,000 in bonds and notes! According to one online value calculator, that would be $940,000,000 today. Ms. Sibley clearly does not need to farm!
–We also see she owned a pew in the Presbyterian Church—a great clue of where to go to search more records.
–There’s a piano again, as well as jewelry, and silver.
–She has four female slaves, listed without ages or relation, but we can discern that they were likely working in her home as domestics or rented out.

 William Bryant, also of Richmond County in the same year, owned some bee hives and was making honey along with his other agricultural ventures:


Bryant 1

Lastly, let’s look at Mrs. Dudley White’s estate in Halifax, NC in 1934. Some nice court clerk has typed this volume up for us:


White 1

She clearly was involved in peanut farming—look at all the peanut equipment.
She also owned 2 cars—both a Star and a Chrysler, as well as a Ford truck.In the following section of her inventory, the rooms are spelled out for us, and we can kinda envision the house:

White 2

White 2

This section is revealing:

White 3

White 3

— Now this is the kitchenware of someone who probably entertains alot.
–She owned a grand piano and a violin.
–She also had the latest technology—a Victrola record player as well as 30 records. She clearly was into music.
–She also owned a sewing machine and table, so someone in the house liked to sew.
–She even had a “mounted hawk”—which I assume is one of the stuffed versions popular at that time.

Here are a few general tips as you are perusing estate inventories:

1. Compare your ancestor’s inventory with his neighbors to assess his or her relative economic standing.
2. Books are typically indicators of literacy, which was less common the further back in time we go. Many homes only owned a bible, or perhaps one of the classics.
3. We can often make generalizations about slave ages from their monetary values. The most highly valued males will be in their late teens and twenties, with many working years ahead of them. The most highly valued women will be in their prime childbearing years, also late teens-twenties, maybe early thirties. Children and elderly people will  have lower values.
4. Some inventories enumerate whips and other slave torture (yes, I believe it was torture) tools. These may indicate the relative violence involved in slaveownership.
5. Wealthier people will obviously have more “luxury” items—carriages, silver and gold jewelry, more books and furniture and as we’ve seen lots of china and large serving platters may indicate lots of socializing which was associated with the planter class.

 Tell me—what interesting items have you come across in estate inventories? What do those items tell you about the person’s life?

The Definition of Black

Census Manual

Census Manual

Censuses provide the framework for much of the family history research that we do. Every once in a while, it is useful to consult the actual instructions that were given to enumerators for that particular census year. The University of Minnesota has posted them online to the eternal gratification of all genealogists. Of course, we all know that not every enumerator followed the instructions to the letter, but I’ve also found that what we think was meant by a census question is not always that simple. As a good example, let’s look at how the instructions for defining “black” (colored, negro, etc.) evolved over time:

In 1860 and 1870, a blank space under Color implied “White”:

Color.– Under heading 6, entitled “Color,” in all cases where the person is white leave the space blank; in all cases where the person is black without admixture insert the letter “B”; if a mulatto, or of mixed blood, write “M”;if an Indian, write “Ind.” It is very desirable to have these directions carefully observed.

By 1880 that was no longer the case:

Color–It must not be assumed that, where nothing is written in this column, “white” is to be understood. The column is always to be filled. Be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto. The word is here generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class in schedules 1 and 5.

(What scientific results depended on this?)

 By 1900, there was no “Mulatto” category anymore:

Color- Write “W” for white; “B” for black (negro or of negro descent); “Ch” for Chinese; “JP” for Japanese, and “In” for Indian, as the case may be.

 By 1910, “Mulatto” was back, with a new definition for “black”:

Color or race.-Write “W” for white; “B” for black; “Mu” for mulatto; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “In” for Indian. For all persons not falling within one of these classes, write “Ot” (for other), and write on the left-hand margin of the schedule the race of the person so indicated. For census purposes, the term “black” (B) includes all persons who are evidently full-blooded negroes, while the term “mulatto” (Mu) includes all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.

By 1920, there was a slew of other color/race choices:

Color or race.-Write “W” for white, “B” for black; “Mu” for mulatto; “In” for Indian; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “Fil” for Filipino; “Hin” for Hindu; “Kor” for Korean. for all persons not falling within one of these classes, write “Ot” (for other), and write on the left-hand margin of the schedule the race of the person so indicated. For census purposes the term “black” (B) includes all Negroes of full blood, while the term “mulatto” (Mu) includes all Negroes having some proportion of white blood.

 For both 1930 and 1940, the new word “Negro” got detailed (although with conflicting guidelines), and notice the ‘Other Mixed Races’:

Color or race.-Write “W” for white, “B” for black; “Mus” for mulatto; “In” for Indian; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “Fil” for Filipino; “Hin” for Hindu; “Kor” for Korean. For a person of any other race, write the race in full. Negroes.-A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction. A person of mixed Indian and Negro blood should be returned a Negro, unless the Indian blood predominates and the status as an Indian is generally accepted in the community.

Other mixed races.-Any mixture of white and nonwhite should be reported according to the nonwhite parent. Mixtures of colored races should be reported according to the race of the father, except Negro-Indian (see par. 151).

 This nation’s preoccupation with color, especially when that color was black, is evident. It is also apparent that centuries of miscegenation had forever changed what the definition of that would include.

 Take a look at some of the enumerator instructions and tell me what surprises you. I got a real kick out of how detailed the instructions were for Occupation, as well as this note about getting information on certain classes of people in 1880:

The law requires a return in the case of each blind, deaf and dumb, insane or idiotic, or crippled person. It not infrequently happens that fathers and mothers, especially the latter, are disposed to conceal, or even deny, the existence of such infirmities on the part of children. In such cases, if the fact is personally known to the enumerator, or shall be ascertained by inquiry from neighbors, it should be entered on the schedules equally as if obtained from the head of the family.

Elizabeth Shown-Mills, on her Evidence Explained website, has an excellent QuickLesson about the importance of knowing census instructions.