Your Ancestor Was…

At one point in time, all of our ancestors were living, breathing humans. Sometimes in our search for records and answers this crucial fact is forgotten. This week we discuss several facts and characteristics of individuals that can cause them to be listed in records (or even sometimes to be omitted). Are there features of your ancestor that you are overlooking? Remember that your ancestor lived in an actual time and in an actual place and interacted with other people. Perhaps these features or these interactions, where applicable to your ancestor, have generated additional records.

Your Ancestor Was Born
Have you looked for birth records (both civil and church)? Have you looked for baptismal records?

Your Ancestor Was Married (Probably)
Have you looked for complete marriage records (both civil and church)? Have you looked for marriage bonds and marriage banns? Was there a notice in the newspaper?

Your Ancestor Died
Have you looked for death records (both civil and church)? Have you looked for cemetery or sexton’s records and obtained the information on the tombstone? Have you looked for probate and will files and guardianship records on any minor children?

Your Ancestor Owned Land
Have you found records indicating how the land was obtained and how the land was transferred from your ancestor’s ownership? Have you looked for property tax records? Have you looked for county plat books or atlases, which may provide additional information on the property?

Your Ancestor Paid Taxes
The census taker may miss your ancestor, but the taxman usually does not. Personal property or real estate tax records may help you establish when your ancestor resided in a certain area, when he died, or when he obtained property.

Your Ancestor Was Not Home When the Census Taker Came to the Door
Did a child answer the door AND the census questions that soon followed? Did an uncertain neighbor answer the questions instead of a family member? The census will not tell you who provided the information or how reliable of a source they were.

Your Ancestor Had Neighbors
Do records on these neighbors–particularly land, probate files, or court records–mention your ancestor? Perhaps he is mentioned as sharing a property line, purchasing items at an estate sale, or testifying at a trial.

Your Ancestor Was an Immigrant
Are there records of his arrival? Are there records of departure in the country from which she came? Are there records of a declaration of intent or naturalization?

Your Ancestor Was a Citizen
Are there records of the ancestor voting or serving on a jury? If so, these records may help you approximate the year of birth for your ancestor.

Your Ancestor Was a Revolutionary Patriot
If so, there may be records of oaths of allegiance, military service, or military pension. The National Archives ( or appropriate state archives may have additional information.

Your Ancestor Was a Civil War Soldier
If so, there may be Federal or state records of his service and Federal records of his pension if he was a Union soldier. If his service was Confederate, there may be state pension records.

Your Ancestor Was Well-Known Locally
Have you read the gossip columns of the local paper where your ancestor lived? There may be significant information on your ancestor contained in these columns, which are typically more valuable for smaller papers.

Your Ancestor Was Less Than Dirt Poor
Perhaps the poor farm or almshouse registers will mention him and his family. In some cases, particularly before the American Revolution, church records may make mention of widows and other families unable to support themselves. Was your ancestor forced to farm her children out to strangers in order to keep them fed?

Your Ancestor Was Dishonest
If he got caught, there might be court records or newspaper accounts of his activity. If he did not get caught, what records he did leave behind may be inconsistent or intentionally incorrect.

Your Ancestor Attended Church Regularly
If so, the family may appear in records of the church beyond the typical baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and burial records of many congregations.

Your Ancestor Was Literate
Did she leave any letters or diaries behind as a record of her life and existence? Does her will or her estate inventory mention any books by name?

Your Ancestor Did Not Speak the Language
Consequently was she unable to completely understand questions when asked by various record officials?

Your Ancestor Was Distrustful of the Government
As a consequence did he answer census and other questions incorrectly? Did he try and avoid being listed in any government records at all?

Your Ancestor Had In-Laws
Does your ancestor appear in any of their records, particularly as a witness or a bondsman?

Your Ancestor Was…
…more than just a name in a file. He or she was a breathing, living person. Think about all the events that might have happened in his or her life and determine if any records might have been created in the process. Think about how he or she would have responded to various events in his life and determine if dates of significant events correspond to sudden moves or changes in lifestyle. Remember that if our ancestors were not human, they probably would not be our ancestors!

Note: This post was originally printed in the former Ancestry Daily News  on 19 May 2004. 


7 thoughts on “Your Ancestor Was…

  1. Those “gossip columns” in the weekly paper can tell you a lot! Our Uncle Jack came to visit the family in our small town. The story of his visit, the people who came for supper, the news they heard, on and on were in a medium length recounting of the event. I even decided, from reading the article, that it was Cousin Verna who wrote it up for the paper. Dates, times, and relationships were all correct…just as she would have known. But it went on and on…just as she would have. (It’s hard to say whether I “got” that from my Dad’s cousin Verna…or my mother Lydea. 😎 But it is handy when you find an article in the paper because all of us would have told all we knew.

  2. This is such a different angle that I decided it needed a second paragraph so as not to confuse the readers.
    Our little county (Kendall) has plenty of people that have to be rushed to the hospital. But until about ten years ago, we had no hospital. I’ve had to explain to many non-local researchers that “the” hospital might be one of two in Aurora’s Kane County, or the one in Sandwich’s DeKalb County, or even the one in Morris’ Grundy County. That’s no longer quite true…there is medical help in the Yorkville area but the hospitals are related to either Aurora’s Copley, or the Morris hospital, which both have secondary buildings there. So….if you are dealing with a small town that you do not know well, ask a native to tell you what you need to know so you can search in the right place.

    • That’s an excellent point. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some questions are best answered by local residents or those who have first hand knowledge of the area.

      • If you go to “your town” and don’t know how to find one of those people who knows…
        start at your public library. Back in the corner with the old, old books is where we hang out.
        And the librarian knows us well!

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