I Can’t Find It

[still applicable today]
From the former Ancestry Daily News 
Michael John Neill — 3/22/2006
This week we look at some ways that our searches of records can be stymied. 
Have you considered how the letters might appear on the page of the original document? This is especially a concern when using indexes and other finding aids. If the word starts with a fancy “T” was it read as an “F?” Can the writer’s “u” and “n” be easily confused? These and a myriad of other handwriting issues may cause the genealogist to have difficulty locating the record. Think “how it might look”instead of “how it should look.”
How your ancestor pronounced his name impacts how it gets spelled, particularly if your relative is illiterate or is not asked how to spell the name himself. Southern drawls, Irish brogues, and Eastern European accents can easily make a name be heard such that a creative spelling approach is used. Taliaferro may be said in a way that sounds like “Tolliver,”Gibson like “Gepson,”and Goldenstein like “Goldstein.”
What Is Your Finding Aid? 
Are you using a handwritten index compiled by the records office? Then typographical errors are not so likely. Are you using an index (either printed or online) that was created by keying the information? Then typographical errors are possible and must be considered when searching. If you are searching an online database, are you able to perform Soundex and wildcard searches? Have you considered all reasonable spelling variants and determined what Soundex and wildcard searches are necessary in order to catch all variant spellings?
Wrong Information Provided 
Did your ancestor fib about his age to the census taker or records clerk? Perhaps that is why he eludes your searches. If you are using an online database (such as a census index) consider not including any age information in your search or using a wider range of dates. Your ancestor could have easily lied about his name as well. Or perhaps a neighbor provided the information in your ancestor’s census enumeration, a neighbor who had little first-hand knowledge of your relative.
Wrong Location 
Do you really know where your ancestor lived for the time period you are searching? Are you positive it was not in the next town up the road or down the river? Have you considered adjacent counties and nearby towns, perhaps where a job was easier to get?
Lack of Knowledge Regarding Records 
If I don’t understand the records being searched, I may spend hours fruitlessly searching. As an example, the Bureau of Land Management has an excellent site for land patents in federal land states. Yet there is little chance that a 1870s era immigrant to Chicago appears in this database, even though Illinois is a federal land state. Why? Because the Bureau of Land Management site indexes federal land patents, those “first deeds”where ownership was transferred from the federal government to private hands. There is little chance of this happening in the Chicago area in the 1870s.
The first time a specific record group is being used it is an excellent idea to learn about how the records were created, stored, and indexed. As another example, indexes to court and land records are rarely every-name indexes and search approaches of these records need to keep this fact in mind. On a website, always be certain to read the FAQ for information about the records and ways in which the database can be searched. For county or local records, consult Red Book or the Family History Library’s research guides to learn more information about these records.
Incorrect Assumptions
We all have to make assumptions to begin our research. The problem comes when we forget our assumptions are assumptions and treat them as facts. Some examples might be:
  • that a man and wife are both the parents of all the children in their household in the 1850 census;
  • that a couple married near where their first child was born;
  • or that a female was in her late teens or early twenties at the time of her first marriage.
When records cannot be located to support these assumptions or when the records found fly in the face of the assumptions, it is time to re-evaluate.
Underlying Personal Problems 
Is our ancestor difficult to find because he was constantly running one step ahead of the law? Did a family members’ alcoholism or depression cause the family to remain in turmoil for decades? Some of our ancestors had personal issues, many of which cannot be documented. And yet these problems may explain why it is difficult to find our ancestors or explain their unusual behavior.
Unable To See the Big Picture 
Are you trying a variety of data organization techniques to help you in your search? Chronologies, timelines, and relationship charts are excellent ways to see the information in a different way that may make something “click.”Placing locations on a map in chronological order and considering nearby geographic features and political boundaries may also result in realizations. Words and text alone are not always sufficient. I once had a geometry student who absolutely refused to draw a diagram or picture throughout the entire class, despite being advised numerous times that even crude renderings could be helpful. Her performance suffered. There are also times in genealogy where even a crude chart is extremely helpful.
Unable To Let Go 
Are you holding on to some dear family tradition? It may be time to let go. My ancestor supposedly “sold sandwiches.”It turned out that she actually ran a tavern. Another relative was said to have died by “drowning,”when he accidentally shot himself. Tradition may have to be put aside in order to get past that brick wall in your research.
In Summary 
Learn, keep an open mind, and keep looking. This is general advice to be certain, but still worth heeding.



A Potential DNA Match on My Neill Family-Part II-Passing the Chunks

Part of my problem in utilizing my AncestryDNA matches to find relatives of my Irish forebears was that I was too concentrated on matching other descendants of my Samuel Neill. It’s tempting to do that–after all, there were about ten other descendants of Samuel in the AncestryDNA database. They would have to match other Neill relatives who connect back to an earlier generation before Samuel.

Not necessarily.

The illustration to this post simplifies what very easily could have happened. The common ancestor (whose last name may very well have not been Neill and who was an apparent ancestor of Alexander and Samuel) had two chunks of autosomal DNA that are relevant to our discussion. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call them chunks A and S.

Chunk A and S got passed down to Samuel.

Chunk A got passed down to Alexander. It’s possible Alexander got chunk S as well, but for this scenario chunk A is what matters.

Chunks A and S made their way down to me from Samuel, via Samuel’s son Charlie and the intervening generations. Chunk S made its way to some of Samuel’s descendants through his children Sam Jr., Mary, and Sarah.

Chunk A made its way from Alexander down to some of his descendants.

I was a DNA match with other descendants of Samuel because we share chunk S. There may be other descendants of Samuel in AncestryDNA who do not have that DNA.

I was a DNA match with other descendants of Alexander because we share chunk A. There may be other descendants of Alexander in AncestryDNA who do not have that DNA.

Looking at shared matches with other descendants of Samuel was not a bad idea. But it should not be the only idea used to find other relatives who connect through earlier generations.



Why Use the Word “Potential?”

Words matter.

The recent post on a DNA discovery used the phrase “Potential DNA Match on My Neill Family” in the title.

DNA matches to someone or it doesn’t. There’s not a “potential” to the match. The “potential” is when the researcher is not yet certain which family the shared match comes through. What’s “potential” is the family of the match, not the match itself.

I probably should have phrased it “Potential Neill Family Match in my DNA Results.”

Never hurts to think about how you phrase things so that your meaning is clear and so that the phrasing clearly reflects your intent. It can happen to any of us.


A Potential DNA Match on My Neill Family-Part I

I might not have been going about it the wrong way, but I needed to change my approach. Even if I did not change my approach, I needed to realize that there were other approaches.

Part of my reason for doing the autosomal DNA test at Ancestry was to find potential matches to my Irish ancestors. I realize my Irish connection is my strict paternal line (at least to my great-grandfather), but my Irish immigrants are not that far back (my great-great-grandparents Samuel and Annie (Murphy) Neill who married in 1864 are my immigrant Irishmen) and I didn’t want to limit myself to others who were also strict male-line Neill descendants. After all I have Irish family who descend from my great-great-grandmother’s family as well and an autosomal test would potentially find matches to her family also.

There are other descendants of Samuel and Annie (Murphy) Neill in AncestryDNA. There are at least ten of us. Most of them have communicated with me enough so that I know how how they are related.  The others I have deduced from our shared connections, their name or username, and what information (sometimes limited) they have in their tree. My hope was to find a shared match with one of these other Samuel and Annie descendants who was actually a more distant relative–distant enough that the connection had to be with one of Samuel and Annie’s Irish forebears but through a different line of descent than Samuel or Annie.

That was the hope. That was the plan.

There was one problem.

Three of Samuel and Annie’s children married into the same family–the Rampley family. Son Charles married Fannie Rampley (my great-grandparents), daughter Sarah married James Rampley, and daughter Mary married Louis Rampley. Fannie and Louis were siblings and James was their first cousin. Because of this, my shared matches with other descendants of Sarah (Neill) Rampley and Mary (Neill) Rampley included other members of the larger extended Rampley family. Distant matches that I shared with Sarah and Mary’s descendants didn’t have to be long-long Irish relatives. In fact most of them were other descendants of earlier generations of the Rampley family and families into which the Rampleys had married.

And those Rampley, et al. families, having often been some what large and having been in the United States for some time, had a lot of descendants. Many of those descendants have tested in AncestryDNA. And while that’s great for working on those families, it means I have to sort them out when I’m looking at other parts of my family tree.

So in my attempt to find descendants in my DNA matches of earlier members of my Irish families, I focused on shared DNA matches with individuals who were descendants of Samuel and Annie (Murphy) Neill, but who were from children other than Charles, Sarah, and Mary. That cut down the number of possibilities, but there were a few. We will call them the non-CSM Neill descendants.

The problem is that my shared DNA matches with non-CSM descendants were only other descendants of Samuel and Annie. We had no shared matches at all to whom I was more distantly related. None. It was as if we were our own little pool of descendants in the AncestryDNA database with no other kin to be found.

So much for that. 

Then I decided to search the trees of my DNA matches for a tree that had a place of birth of NewtownLimavady, Ireland. That’s where Samuel (and his brother Joseph) indicated they were from when they immigrated to Canada in 1864.

And there was hit. One of the trees of my matches had an ancestor with a place of birth of Limavady. And that person (we’ll call her Nellie) had a Neill (McNeill) in her tree.

I had seen Nellie’s tree before when I first viewed my matches almost a year ago. She was a probable 4th-6th cousin. Nellie’s tree then had no Irish locations more specific than Ireland and while she did have Neills/McNeills in her tree, our shared DNA matches included none of my own Neill family. Given the common nature of the Neill/O’Neill/McNeill name in Irish pedigrees, I didn’t even think too much about our sharing it–especially when I looked at the rest of her tree. Her tree also had a number of 19th century German immigrants and some “blanks” ending in Indiana in the 1830s. I have a few of my own 19th century German immigrants whose extended family is not well known–we could have easily have genetically connected there. The relationship could just as easily have been on one of her Indiana families which could have easily connected to one of mine. Nothing about the tree or the match stood out as special and at the time I was trying to “pick the low-hanging fruit” in terms of figuring out my matches. Nellie got put in the “can’t figure it out–not certain” pile and I went on. The only thing I knew was that she was a paternal relative.

What I could have done at the time (but didn’t) was to have looked at the matches Nellie and I shared to see if their trees shared any families or locations.  Any shared connections they had with each other would have suggested how we were connected, but further work would have to have been done. As I was sorting out the easy matches at that point, I did not do that. That analysis is also requisite on the submitters having trees attached to their DNA test results.

We’ll continue our discussion of Nellie in an upcoming post–including the predicted relationship from the DNA, the probable relationship from her tree and how consistent those relationships really are. We will also see why she probably doesn’t match any of my other Neill relatives. A few reminders from where we are thus far:

  • Go back and search again for locations in your matches. Even if the number of matches has not really changed, they may have updated their trees.
  • Take notes when “rough sorting” your matches. You will not remember why you thought someone connected in a certain fashion when you go back and look at that match in a few weeks or months.
  • Be aware of multiple relationships in your tree. Also keep in mind that there may be multiple relationships with individuals that you are not aware about.

Join me for my upcoming online AncestryDNA class.





Citation Creation and Error Reduction

We are usually told to cite our sources because it allows us to go back and find things again if necessary and it assists us in the analysis of information.

Another reason: Reducing errors created by the researcher.

Creating citations after the research has been done can be time consuming, tedious, and repetitive process. For that reason, it’s a good idea to capture information needed for the citation as the research is being done.

That’s especially true when creating digital images from microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake.

The screen shot shown in this post shows the file name I used for an image taken from the section of deaths in the records of the Evangelical church in Aurich, Ostfriesland, Germany. The entries are unpaginated and they are organized by year. My goal with the file names is that they be long enough to contain relevant detail to get me back to that image if I needed to and to allow me to find the file by searching on the contents of the file name–just in case I save the file and can’t remember where I saved it on my computer.

When taking digital images of the desired record, I always make an image that includes the record of interest and the “top of the page” (usually the whole page to be honest). There are several reasons for this:

  • sometimes the top of the page contains headers–particularly in those years when records were written on forms
  • it’s easier to analyze handwriting when one has more than one entry from the register
  • interpreting the item in context can’t be done if there are no other entries to provide context
  • the top of the page frequently contains page numbers
  • the top of the page often contains other identifying information
Sometimes page numbers are on the bottom–that’s when copying the whole page is advised.
Then I usually copy just the item of interest, magnifying the image to make it easier later to read all the image.


Turns out there’s another reason I should include the entire page: reduce the chance I make careless mistakes.

The file name I used to save this image included 1838 for the year of the record.

The year listed on the actual record is 1839.

I was simply off by a year.

If I had only made an image of the entry for Ameling, the year would not have been included–just the month and day.

And then later I would have wondered why I was off on his death by one year.

And someone else could have copied that information and it could have been repeated over and over.

But…because I made an image of the entire page, I caught my error.

And I caught it because I was thinking about citations while I was actually researching.

One more reason to cite your sources.


It Says on Page 706 that it was Recorded on Page 706

An 1833 deed record in Coshocton County, Ohio, from Thomas Chaney to Abraham Chaney contains the following text at the very bottom of the record copy of the deed:

Recorder’s Office Coshocton County Ohio

This Deed was Filed in my office for Record Oct [22?]nd 1834 [And?] was Recorded same day & Year in book No 7 Page 706

Jos” Burns Recorder


It seems a little odd to include that at the bottom of the record copy of the deed when that is exactly what one is looking at on page 706 of book 7.

However, that notation was a part of the actual deed.

The original deed was taken to the Coshocton County Recorder’s Office in 1834 so that it could be recorded. The recorder’s certification that the deed was recorded was put on the original deed–so that anyone seeing the original deed would know when and where it was recorded. Not all record copies of deeds include the recorder’s certification that it was recorded, but some do.

The original deed would have had that certification written on it. In some cases it would have been attached to the original deed. Today that certification is frequently stamped on the deed with key elements filled in by hand.

This is a good reminder that the copy of a deed genealogists usually use is the record copy. That copy is the legal equivalent of the original. But the original deed? That went to the grantor.

Along with the certification that it had been recorded.


Don’t Let Your Ancestor Be Eclipsed By Irrelevant Events

Historical timelines fitting your ancestor’s life into larger historical events are a good analytical tool.


One always has to give some thought to whether or not the historical event really had an impact on your ancestor’s life. Don’t just dump larger historical events into your ancestor’s personal chronology without thinking about whether or not the event likely had some impact on your relative. The impact does not have to have been immediate or direct, but there needs to be a logical connection.

Googling the date of an aunt’s wedding reminded me of this concept. Elisha Meads and Jemima DeMoss were married “at her father’s house” on 9 November 1817 in Harford County, Maryland. A Google search for that date indicated that there had been a solar eclipse on that same date.

Wow! I wondered how that impacted their view of whether the date was an auspicious one or not. I started conjuring up all sorts of drama at the wedding when the sun started to be hidden from view.

There was no need to wonder. The eclipse was not viewable from the United States.

Confirm connections. Don’t assume. And…get a map.

Some eclipse references:


Waiting on the Groom in 1817

The War of 1812 widow’s pension application for Jemima Meads (widow of Elisha) in Harford County, Maryland, includes testimony from Thomas Tredway. Elisha served as a private in Captain James Rampley’s Company of the Maryland Militia in the War of 1812.

Tredway was an 83-year old resident of Baltimore County, Maryland, at the time of the affidavit. This would suggest that Tredway was born in approximately 1795 and that he would have been approximately twenty-two at the time of the marriage of Elisha Meads and Jemima DeMoss.

Tredway’s 1878 affidavit referenced a marriage in 1817.  A fair amount of time has elapsed between the date of the marriage and the date of the affidavit. Tredway indicated that he remembered the date because he “waited on” the said Elisha Meads when Meads married Jemima DeMoss “at her father’s house” on 9 November 1817.

“Waited on?”

I’m thinking that’s something like a best man.


Join me for my upcoming online AncestryDNA class.


In the Same Hand?

Working only with transcriptions can sometimes be a hindrance. Handwriting sometimes itself is a clue. The original wills of Antje Fecht and Mimke Habben appear to be written by the same person. They were written approximately thirteen years apart.

There is no direct statement as to who wrote the wills. This is typical for the time and place. Wills from a later time period may include the name of the attorney, often on a cover sheet of sorts protecting the actual will. There is one clue also suggestive of the same person writing both documents: John B. Risse, a local attorney, was the witness on both documents. This suggests that he (or the same person in his employ) actually wrote the wills. The names of the other witnesses are different.

Now I’m wondering if there are other “same handwriting clues” that I have missed when I’ve only used my transcriptions of records.

Will of Mimke Habben, probated 1877 Hancock County, Illinois

Will of Antje Fecht, denied probate in Hancock County, Illinois, in 1900.

Join me for my upcoming online AncestryDNA class.