52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks #22 – Thomas Benjamin Harmon

As is often the case with ancestors, I have more questions than I have answers with regard to my great-great-grandfather Thomas Benjamin Harmon. Here’s what I know and how I know it:

1. He was my great-grandmother Rhoda Harmon Lineberry’s father. The 1850 census lists Rhoda in that family. Additionally, a Virginia marriage index for Rhoda lists her parents as T. and D. Harmon [Thomas and Delilah].

2. He was born in Virginia, probably in Grayson County. Censuses for 1850, 1870 and 1880 all confirm his Virginia birth. His father’s records beginning in 1822 reference Grayson County.

2. He married Delilah Davis August 23, 1838 in Grayson County, Virginia. Although marriage indexes list these details, Martha Fontaine Patterson uploaded a digital photocopy of the marriage license dated August 15, 1838 in which Thomas and his father posted a marriage bond.

3. His father was Patrick Harmon. Patrick was the name of the co-signer on the above-mentioned marriage license. Although that document does not provide evidence that Patrick was his father, Thomas’ second marriage application reinforces that interpretation by naming Patrick Harmon as his father.

4. Based on the 1850 and 1870 census, it would appear Thomas and Delilah had at least eleven children: Sarah, Mary “Polly”, Elizabeth, Nancy, Rhoda [my great-grandmother], Alexander, Joseph, Daniel, Henry Coulson, Thomas J., and Joseph Clark.

5. Thomas probably served as a private in the 51st Virginia Infantry, Company K, of the Confederate Army. Although I have not found his name listed in the CSA soldier record cards or roster lists, his widow [Margaret Mabe Harmon] applied to the War Department for and received a CSA headstone to place on his grave. HARMON Thomas Benjamin CSA Headstone App Melton Cemetery6. In November 1888 when Thomas was about 70, he was widowed when his wife Delilah died. The Virginia Death and Burials Index as well as Delilah’s tombstone provide support for this information.

7. He married Margaret Mabe on November 24, 1890 when he was about 72 years old; this marriage is reported in the Virginia Marriage Index.

8. Thomas and Margaret had three children: William Early, George Benjamin and Laura Louvenia.

9. Thomas died October 17, 1898, as listed in the headstone application above.

10. He lived most of his life in the same general area of Grayson, Carroll and Wythe Counties in Virginia based on census records from 1840, 1850, 1870, 1880 as well as burial records. The missing 1860 census, of course, could be an indication he was away from the area during some of those years. His father-in-law and at least one brother-in-law moved to Ohio for a few years but I have not found records of Thomas having joined in that adventure.

The records above cover a basic framework for Thomas’ life but two important details remain evasive – his birth date and the name of his mother. The evidence available for interpretation would be the 1850 census, which listed him as 32 [1818]; the 1870 census, which listed him as 51 [1819]; the 1880 census, which listed him as 60 [1820]; and the 1890 marriage license, which listed his birth year as 1822. Based on the census records, his birth year was most likely sometime around 1819. The date reported on the marriage license might be explained by a slightly prideful deception – his new wife was approximately 30 years his junior. During these years of our country’s history, births were not required or recorded unless in church minutes or family Bibles, or perhaps in wills or pension applications, so an actual date will not likely be uncovered.

Even though the license for Thomas’ marriage to Margaret listed his mother as Polly Harmon, the range of date possibilities for his birth leaves in question the full name of his mother. Thomas’ father, Patrick Harmon, married Mary “Polly” Melton on December 26, 1822. If Thomas were born in 1818, 1819 or 1820, Polly Melton Harmon was not likely his mother. On the other hand, if he were born in 1822 as listed on his second marriage record, he might perhaps have been the son of Patrick and Polly [albeit an early birth based on the marriage date].

The consistency of birth dates over the period from 1850 through 1880 lends credence to the earlier date for his birth, which would indicate Patrick had been married before his marriage to Polly Melton. At the time of the 1822 marriage, Patrick was about 32 and Polly 30, which would lend support for there being time for an earlier marriage. Unfortunately, thus far I have not found any records to support a name or date for such a marriage.

So, for now, I have his mother listed as an unknown woman who married Patrick Harmon prior to 1818 and died prior to 1822.

Thomas was buried in the Melton Cemetery as was Delilah [the photo below was uploaded to FindAGrave by Donna Sutphin Armentrout]. HARMON Thomas B. FAG HS


This blog was prepared as a part of Amy Johnson Crow’s  No Story Too Small 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.





52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks #18 – Edmund Jean

My 4th great-grandfather by way of my father’s mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s father (makes your head spin, doesn’t it?) was Edmund Jean. That’s a long way back and it is oftentimes difficult to find documentation to support the life of a person who lived in the early years of our country. Fortunately for me, my great-great-grandmother, Martha Ann Jean, married into the Sanford family of Alabama and they have researched that clan reasonably well. Additionally, an attorney from Colorado who was a Jean descendant has researched the Jean line. In both instances, I have been given access to their work.

Edmund’s parents were William Jean and Huldah Brown. He was born about 1755 in Brunswick County, Virginia. According to the U.S. Revolutionary War pension application files of two of his brothers, I know that his father William was an Episcopal minister who lived in Brunswick County until about 1772 when the family moved to Bute County, North Carolina in a section that became Warren County in 1779. Adjacent counties were Stokes, Surry, Guilford and Franklin and members of the Jean family resided in all of them.

About 1776, Edmund married, although we do not have any information on his wife, other than the fact of her existence by way of names of their children. They had nine known children, the first being Wiley who was born about 1777. There was a gap in the ages of their children between 1778 and 1783; this gap could be accounted for by as yet undiscovered or deceased children or perhaps by Edmund’s service in the Revolutionary War.

An 1818 act of Congress established a pension for soldiers who had served during the Revolutionary War and two of Edmund’s brothers applied for pensions. Since Edmund died before that time, he was unable to apply but it seems reasonable and likely to surmise that he did serve and the gap in children may support that supposition.

There is a 1790 census for Guilford County, North Carolina that likely represents Edmund, although the name appears to be Edward; however, there is not an Edward Jean listed within the known children of William and Huldah, and the 1790 census lists as neighbors, William, Sr. (his father), William Jr. (his brother), and Philip (his brother). The family has one male over 16 (which would be Edmund), 5 males under 16 and 5 females (one of which would have been the first wife), which would indicate there is an, as yet, unidentified female child, plus one slave for a total household of 12 people.

Edmund married again on October 2, 1795 to Martha “Patty” Beasley. This marriage leads to a supposition that Edmund’s first wife died, probably in childbirth since David Elroy Jean was born in 1795. Edmund was about 40 years old and Patty about 21 when they married. They had four children, the first of whom was my great-great-great-grandfather, John Jean, born in 1796.

A land transfer record dated December 13, 1797 named Edmund Jean and William Jean as Trustees to oversee one acre of land donated to Love’s Methodist Church. In addition to learning the family moved from Virginia to North Carolina, his brothers’ pension files also mentioned the fact their father was an Episcopal minister and that William was a Methodist minister [some families have Edmund listed as Rev. Edmond Jean but I have not yet found any support for that assertion]. The land transfer record does indicate Edmund was at least active within the church.

The 1800 census for Stokes County, North Carolina enumerates Edmund and his brothers William and Joseph as neighbors. Edmund’s family consisted of four males under 10, two males 10-15, one male between 16 and 25 and Edmund who was over 45 plus 1 female under 10, two females 10-15, one female between 16 and 25 and Patty who was between 26 and 44.

Edmund died in 1802. There seems to have been no will and since he was only about 47 years old, it seems reasonable to assume his death was unexpected. I have as yet found no burial records to indicate where he was interred. It is possible, since he and William were Trustees at Love’s Methodist Church in 1797 that he is buried there.


This blog was prepared as a part of Amy Johnson Crow’s  No Story Too Small 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.

52 Ancestors #7 – Amy Collins Willis

Yesterday, February 14, would have been my great-great-grandmother Amy Collins Willis’ 188th birthday. She was born February 14, 1826 to John M. and Edith F. McCarter Collins in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Early records are often difficult to find, but we believe, based on census records, she may have been the twelfth of perhaps sixteen children born to John and Edith Collins.

Census records prior to 1850 only show tick marks separated by gender and age categories for family members of heads of household. The 1830 census for John M. Collins, indicates a household of 19 people: 7 males under 20, one male between 40 and 50 and one between 50 and 60; 7 females under 10, one female 30-40 and one female 50 to 60. One set of parents probably are living with them to account for the couple between 50 and 60 and two daughters have already married and moved away from the household.

The Collins family apparently had membership in the Holly Springs Baptist Church of Spartanburg. A transcription of the constitution of the church is available on the internet; John M. Collins was a member of the 1834 committee to write a church constitution to replace the one that had been lost or misplaced. At the end of the articles of their constitution, there is a listing of members of the church who were dismissed; those members include several of John’s family and of the Ballenger family who were his neighbors. The Collinses and the Ballengers moved to Fayette County, Alabama as did a number of their other neighbors.

By the time Amy was about three years old, her older sister, S. Ann was married to David Loftis and Judah, was married to William J. Willis  Sometime between 1831 and 1833, the Willises and Loftises moved to Fayette County, Alabama. The Collins family and Ballengers joined them in Alabama sometime after April 1834 when Amy was about eight.

Her sister Judah died sometime after 1842; she had a daugther, Anna, who was born about 1842 according to the 1850 census and there are no further records of Judah’s life.

Amy’s parents both died prior to the 1850 census; the 1850 U.S. Federal Mortality Schedule, which covers the time period from June 1849 to June 1850, lists them side by side, John in August of 1849 and Edith in May 1850. 1849 Mortality

The 1850 census record shows Amy living with her brother-in-law, William Willis and her nephew and nieces, and next to her older brother, John Whitten, older sister, Edey, and younger brother, James, and her older brother, Alexander McCarter Collins and his family. 1850 censusWe do not have a marriage record for Amy and William Willis; she appears to be listed as Ama or perhaps Amia Wilas in this record (the enumerator apparently tried making a correction to the name). Amy may well have been taking care of her sister’s children and married William out of propriety, perhaps following the death of her parents.

We have some minimal estate administration records from 1855 that show William died in April of that year, leaving Amy a widow with responsibility for her younger stepchildren/nieces and their 2-year-old son, James Franklin.

1860 censusBy the 1860 census, Amy and her son, James Franklin, were still next to her brother John Whitten and his family; her stepchildren had apparently formed separate families by that time. The ages of Amy and her brother are not accurate: J. W. should have been listed as 42 and Amy should have been listed as 34 (inaccuracies in census records are relatively common).

The Civil War began in April 1861 and Alabama was heavily involved in that conflict. Many of the young men from the area around Fayette County enlisted in the Alabama 41st Infantry, including Amy’s stepson/nephew, Jabez Willis; her stepson-in-law, James Hamilton Ballenger; her brother-in-law, Zadock Graham; her future daughter-in-law’s father, John Buckner, to name a few. Zadock died in August 1862, John in September 1862, Jabez in January 1863 and James Ballenger in April 1863.

On a trip to Alabama in 2010, my cousin Charles Burns, showed us some land on the corner of Old Gin Road and Ballenger Road that had belonged to what was referred to locally as “the three widows:” Amy Willis, Sarah Graham and Eady Caroline Ballenger. The 1866 Fayette County, Alabama census supports that relationship by the enumerated proximity of the three widows: 1866 censusIn addition to the three widows, Jabez’s widow Priscilla had married William Miles who is enumerated next to the three widows. The three widows apparently lived in separate households on land held and farmed in common to provide both emotional and financial support to one another.

The 1870 census reveals the same supportive relationship between the three widows as well as Amy’s ongoing connection to her brother, John Whitten Collins. Again, census records are not always fully accurate and this census record is no exception. 1870 censusWhat may be interpreted as E.E. Ballenger is actually E.C. or Eady Caroline Ballenger and her two sons and T. F. Graham is actually S. F. or Sarah F. Graham and her three sons. In addition, Amy and James Franklin or J.F., as he was most frequently identified, and her brother John and his family are living in the midst of the women. The age shown for J. F. is also not accurate – he should have been 17, although it is possible the enumerator had intended a 16 rather than a 10. The numbers in the center reflect first the property value and second personal property value; for the three widows, only Amy has property value – $200, while Eady has personal property value of $50, Amy of $200 and Sarah of $100. John’s property value was $400 with personal property value of $400.

By the 1880 census, Amy’s only child was married and J.F. and Mary Jane Buckner Willis were now providing grandchildren for her to interact with. 1880 census

Because the 1890 census does not exist, there is no record showing my grandfather living in the household with his mother because he was not born until 1881 and she was dead before 1900. By the 1900 census J. F. was widowed and Amy was continuing her lifelong practice of providing a mother’s influence over the lives of children in need of parenting – this time her grandchildren. 1900 censusAmy was missing from the 1910 census and we have not yet found details or records of her death; however, in some materials my daughter and I brought home from our 2001 visit to Fayette County, I found a brief mention in the Fayette County book “150 Yesteryears” on page 79. It is listing of those news snippets culled from different Fayette County communities in 1905. From North Mt. Vernon this note: “Aunt Amy Willis, who fell and broke a limb some weeks ago, is improving, we are pleased to note.”

Family tradition says Amy was buried in the Willis family plot at Old Mount Lebanon Church Cemetery, which is located off Old Gin Road just a few miles east of the home where she lived near the other two widows. There is no headstone for her specifically although one of her grandsons, Delma Douglas Willis, provided a small stone that says “Willis” to represent all the Willises buried in a rather large segment of the cemetery. Her husband and his first wife, Amy’s sister Judah, are apparently buried a few feet away from the plot allocated to the immediate family members of James Franklin Willis.

What I infer from these records of the life my great-great-grandmother lived is that she was a compassionate woman who saw needs and sought to meet them. As was true for many of her generation, life was frequently hard and filled with losses, but I suspect she found much joy in interacting with her stepdaughter and sister and their children and her sibling’s families and working together to accomplish more than any one of them could have accomplished alone. I think she was likely a testament to the resilience and hope of the human spirit. Once again, I have no photos of this ancestor and if some of her descendants may have photos of her, perhaps in their attic, I would relish a digital copy.


This blog was prepared as a part of Amy Johnson Crow’s  No Story Too Small 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.

52 Ancestors #5 – William J. Willis

My great-great-grandfather was William J. Willis. I know very little about his life. We have four records that we can tie directly to him, none that let us know specifically where he was born or who his parents were.

The one most clearly identifiable is the 1850 census for Fayette County, Alabama. William Willis 1850Although the last name is spelled Wilas, he is identifiable because of the names of two of his children, Jabus G. and Edy C., that we have been able to link to my great-grandfather, James Franklin Willis, as being his half-siblings. The things we learn from this census about William is that he was born about 1805 in South Carolina and that he could read and write. We also learn the family moved to Alabama between 1831 (Jabus’ birth in South Carolina) and 1834 (Martha’s birth in Alabama).

The female listed below him is not one of his children; although he married about 1829 and had a daughter born about 1830, this female was born about 1826. William’s second wife was my great-great-grandmother, Amy E. Collins, who was born about 1826 in South Carolina and I assume the difficult-to-read name that may be Amia is likely her. Family tradition states his first wife was Amy’s sister, Judah Collins, who had died sometime between the birth of Anna (shown above to be about 1842) and the time of the 1850 census. Additional support for identifying William is that the families enumerated on either side of him were the families of Judah’s and Amy’s brothers John W. Collins, Alexander Collins and sister Sarah Collins Dodson.

William Willis 1840Moving backward in time, the 1840 census for Fayette County, Alabama, which only provides the name of the head of household and tic marks representing gender and age ranges of members of the household, shows William, born between 1800 and 1810, and his wife also born between 1800 and 1810, one son born between 1830 and 1835, two daughters born between 1835 and 1840 and one daughter born between 1830 and 1835. Those ages are consistent with what we know about William and Judah and their children: Jabez (born about 1830); Martha (born about 1833), Sarah (born about 1835) and Edy (born about 1839).

Census records for Fayette County provide evidence that a fairly large number of the families had moved from Spartanburg and Union Counties in South Carolina between the 1830 and 1840 censuses, including the Collins, Ballenger, and Bobo families with which my Willis family has intermarried.

William Willis 1830An 1830 census for Spartanburg, South Carolina shows William Willis born between 1800 and 1810, a woman also born between 1800 and 1810 and a female born between 1825 and 1830. Because this is a tic mark census and because the 1840 census for William Willis does not show a daughter born between 1825 and 1830, and because of the Spartanburg County connection to Fayette County, I am assuming this is my William Willis and that their first daughter died between 1830 and 1840 and that it is possible or likely he was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

Census records for 1790, 1800, 1810 and 1820 in Spartanburg only two Willis families: Richard and Drucilla Pearson Barnett Willis and their children and, for a short time his brother William Willis. William only had one son who moved to Kentucky. Only one of Richard’s sons’ families, John and Martha Patsy Smith Willis, was married, living in South Carolina, and shows sons born between 1800 and 1810. Several Willis family trees list one of John and Martha’s children as being a William born about 1813. Even though these trees provide no information other than a name and approximate birth with no supporting documentation, I still have to question where that connection arose and, if they are accurate, then there is no room for another William within that family.

On the other hand, my brother provided a Y-DNA sample, which we submitted to the Willis DNA project. Based on similarities and dissimilarities with the other DNA samples, it supports the likelihood that we are a part of the Richard and Drucilla Pearson Barnett Willis family, which leads me back to the only census records within that family where William might possibly fit and that is John and Martha Patsy Smith Willis.

The 1860 census for Fayette County lists Amy Willis as a widow with a son, James Franklin, which places William’s death between the 1850 and 1860 censuses. Although William did not leave a will, administration papers were filed with papers dated between 12 April 1855 and February 1857 and naming his son, Jabez G. Willis as administrator. With these papers we learned William had been treated with quinine, morphine and medicinal powders for a year before he died. The net result of the accounting of his property, sales of crops and outstanding debts was a declaration of insolvency. None of his children are listed in any of the papers, other than Jabez as administrator.

We found some references to Jabez Willis that seemed to refer to the father rather than the son. Because of these references, we believe William’s full name was William Jabez Willis.

The Willis family in Fayette County has had a long relationship with the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church and family tradition states that William was buried in the original cemetery grounds along with his first wife, Judah. On a trip to Fayette County in 2010, my daughter and I visited the Old Mount Lebanon Cemetery with a second cousin who is still a member of that church; I took photographs of the area where they are believed to be buried. 2010 153 William J Willis Traditional spot smallerThe unmarked location is only supported by family tradition but is just a few feet to the right of the location of the rest of the Willis family buried there, including his second wife, Amy, and his son, James Franklin.

I have been unable to find any information on his daughters, other than Edy Caroline who married James Hamilton Ballenger. Early marriage records for Fayette County are very spotty and there are none I have found for Martha, Sarah or Anna Willis. Jabez G. Willis died during the Civil War and his widow, Mary Priscilla Middleton Willis, remarried into the Miles family. Oftentimes, daughters keep family heirlooms and it is possible information regarding William and Judah or photographs of them exist in the hands of descendants of his daughters. I would love to hear from anyone who might have more information on William Jabez Willis, his parents or any of his children.


This blog was prepared as a part of Amy Johnson Crow’s  No Story Too Small 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.

52 Ancestors #4 – Rhoda Harmon Lineberry

Harmon, Rhoda LineberryMy great-grandmother, Rhoda Harmon Lineberry, was one of eleven known children and the fifth daughter of Thomas Benjamin Harmon and Delilah Davis born about 1843 probably in Grayson County, Virginia, although her marriage record states she was born in Carroll County [her father was born and died in Grayson County so it would be a reasonable assumption they were living there at the time of her birth].

We don’t know very much about Rhoda. We don’t know her birth date, just three censuses that indicate she was born about 1842 or 1843. There is a marriage record indicating she married George Alex Lineberry on February 26, 1867 in Carroll County, Virginia at the age of 21, which would place her birth in 1846. Since she was listed as 6 on the 1850 census and had two younger siblings, the 1843 date is probably reasonable. The census records also indicate that, like many women, Rhoda could read but not write.

George and his family had an iron forge they operated on Crooked Creek as well as farmed the land on the hills that overlooked the creek. My daughter and I took a trip back to Carroll County in May 2013 and walked part of the family’s land; it was a misty, overcast day, but I was able to take a zoomed-in picture of Crooked Creek below their farm land.IMG_0855 A death record indicates their first child, a daughter named Nancy, was born January 15, 1868 and died January 31, 1868, having lived sixteen days. By the 1870 census, George and Rhoda had a second child, son Leander Francis born in 1869. Four more children were born between 1870 and 1880: my grandfather, Jacob Wesley in 1871, Dillie Viola in 1873, Thomas Allen in 1875 and Piety Catherine in 1878. Another death record identifies an unnamed child was born and died September 8, 1872.

The next few years brought more children:  Callie Dora in 1881, Linnie Ann in 1883, and George Alexander in 1885 – ten children in all. The majority of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire so there is no record listing Rhoda with these children.

My grandfather, Jacob, left home about 1894 and moved to Missouri joining other Lineberry and Harmon relatives who had moved there sometime after the Civil War. His letters back home to his brother, Leander, indicated he had left home because their home was not a very happy place and left no doubt the cause of the unhappiness was his father, George. He did, on the other hand, mention his mother in very positive terms. Kay wrote a story of Jacob’s obvious love for his mother and his grief upon learning of her death in her blog, Such a Good Mother.

Records indicate Rhoda had inherited some land from her father and upon her death on January 31, 1896 at the age of 53, that property was divided among her children. My grandfather was the only one of her children who did not remain on the land. Rhoda was buried on the family land in what is known as the Alex Lineberry Cemetery between her husband, George, and his second wife, Amanda Thompson Lineberry, and surrounded by several of their children and their spouses. IMG_0842_________________

This blog was prepared as a part of Amy Johnson Crow’s  No Story Too Small 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge.

Searching for Ancestors

In several social media contexts, the topic of how to search has been touched on; status posts, in my opinion, don’t seem to be adequate for responding to such topics so here is a general review of my method.

First, find a genealogy software program where you can record your results. When I began, my only desire was to have a searchable copy of my daughter’s database, which meant free was the major criteria. We found Legacy’s description to be reasonable, downloaded the program and loaded a gedcom of Kay’s database. Over time, I have expanded what I do with our family history information, including becoming primary researcher on my paternal line, and I have upgraded to the Deluxe Legacy, which I continue to use and find quite functional.

Second, begin building a tree on Ancestry.com. I know that many experienced genealogists see no reason to have a tree on Ancestry, but I do not agree. I also do not see a reason to make the tree private; living people are, by default, private. I’ve read others’ frustrations that they don’t want others to be able to take their hard-fought for research, but for me, I would rather have my hard-fought for, accurate and thorough research available for others to utilize to hopefully cut down on erroneous information on trees, which is one of the reasons people give for not putting up a tree.

Here are a few reasons why I have an Ancestry public tree: the tree itself is free [it’s only researching on Ancestry that requires a fee] and others can be invited to view your tree in capacities of your choosing – Editor, Guest, Contributor, and with limited or unlimited ability to see what is on the tree [for example, living people], etc. [it does require they get a free Ancestry log on account but the tree is fully searchable by your invitees]. People with Editor status will have access to your tree after your death so there is a way your research can continue to be available updated and available to your family. A public tree on Ancestry is available for others searching, which means your tree can be found by potential relatives, which may further your own research [Randy Seaver refers to the tree as cousin bait]. Ancestry is most useful with a paid account because of their large collection of records, databases, images, stories,etc. Each of the databases or images you find can be linked to the individual on your tree, which makes a handy cloud-based storage retrieval system for such documentation, thus avoiding the need for complex filing systems in binders, file drawers, or on your computer, external hard drives, Evernote, and personal cloud storage. I also have public trees on FamilySearch, My Heritage, Geni.com, etc. [to provide accurate information and work as cousin bait] but none of those have an interface that can be seen in ways I prefer.

For me, a database and Ancestry are the basic tools for recording what I find. Ancestry.com has provided many training videos to help people search their collections: here’s a link to a seven-minute video on how to search. Many other tutorials are available from their YouTube channel.

Now for how I search. From the person page in Ancestry with as much information as I have recorded, I press the Search Records button [there is also a search button on the person’s name tab in the tree view]:

Search RecordsThis link takes all the details (birth, death, family members, residence locations) I have entered and fills in the search screen for me. I still have options to refine my search as I wish, but I don’t have to enter the basic search information every time I search again.

Search results appear on two different tabs: Records and Categories. I generally begin with census records because those records provide information on the person and the family over time, which provides a framework for how and where to search for every other record. I have noticed that many of the family trees have no attached records or perhaps only one census. But without utilizing every census for the whole family [parents, siblings and children] you will have an incomplete picture and, perhaps, even an erroneous one – it is all too easy to find a person with the same name, general age and location and, without the verifying information regarding extended family over time, you may end up on the wrong track.

In the early stages of your research, it is probably best to begin with the most recent census for your target person so you have the most accurate information from which to evaluate the record. Because there are few records available before 1940, the best results will be for those born prior to that time.

If the person I’m searching for died in, say, 1934, I would begin with the 1930 census, recording in my database management program all information from the census on every person listed in that household – name used [including spelling of surname because it will likely vary through the years], age, birth location, occupation, etc. can all be used as clues in other searches. The information asked for varies from census year to year, so learn what you can from each one. The 1900 and 1910 censuses asked about marriages and the number of children. This information can be quite useful, so don’t overlook it. For example, if the mother in the family lists herself as having been married for 7 years and is the mother of 5/3 children, and there are eight children listed in the family, some of which are older than seven, that mother is not the mother of all of them.Take the time to think about what you already know about the family and what you can learn from the new information. You may be able to infer from the list of children still living which children may have died as well as the decade in which they died.

Please note that the accuracy of census information is dependent on many factors including who was giving the answers and how much they actually knew [for example, the information may have been given by a neighbor or the mother-in-law] as well as the quality of the enumerator in terms of spelling ability, attention to detail, and recording details based on hearing, as well as the attitude of the family toward allowing the government to ‘know their business.’ For all the reasons a census may contain errors, the consensus of the information over time should provide a more accurate picture of the family. For example, a child may be listed as being 9 in the 1920 census, which would put their birth at about 1911, but they may also be listed as being 1 in the 1910 census, which would put their birth at about 1909. In this case, the 1909 birth has to take precedence since it is not likely the 1910 listing was precognitive. Tombstones may or may not be a reliable source for birth or death information; I have seen some of those with birth dates later than the first census in which the person was recorded – some headstones have been added later by well-meaning family members but may have been based on that one erroneous census age. Our long ago ancestors may have been unsure of their own birthdays – just this week I found a pension file where my ancestor listed his own birth date with the clarification of “I think it was …” When asked if he had any record of his birth he noted he had his father’s Bible in which the names and birth dates of the children were recorded. If they were fuzzy about their own birth dates, why should it surprise us if census records and tombstones show variability in recording those dates.

Take note of other names on the census page and review a couple of census pages either side of the target census page to see if family members are nearby [this is more important in earlier censuses when extended family was often nearby versus later censuses in more urban areas where family members are less likely to be seen within a few pages of one another].

Once I have extracted all the information from the census to my database including documenting the source for the information, I save it to my tree – note the far right side of the graphic below to see the location of the save button. Prior to 1880 people have to be attached individually, but from the 1880 census forward, all family members should be savable to the tree once the information box has been checked – I verify this because occasionally the way family members have been indexed causes a person to be missed.

Save Button

Recording the source of your information while you have it available will save you a lot of headaches. I learned this the hard way by not recording where I got a small piece of information and when someone asked me a question, although I was positive it was good information, I couldn’t discern where I’d found it. Now I record a source for everything. Please note it is possible to copy the source information from the Ancestry page where the census record is indexed for your person [the same is true for FamilySearch records – look on the bottom of the index page]. Here is the source information for an Ancestry 1940 census record:

Source Citation: Year: 1940; Census Place: Beaumont, Jefferson, Texas; Roll: T627_4076; Page: 2A; Enumeration District: 123-24.

Source Information:

Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1940. T627, 4,643 rolls.

Generally speaking, in basic searches on Ancestry, I usually will see pertinent records within the first dozen or so. If I do not see records that seem pertinent to my individual, I refine my search or work with specific categories or census years to narrow the field.

If there are others who have done research on my person, there will likely be hints or ‘shaky leaves’ [records that have already been attached to a person of similar name, age, location, etc.]. In the upper right hand side of a person’s page in the tree, there may be a listing of such hints – I click on that button and review and utilize the hints.

ancestry hintsThe above button is for a person in my tree [distant relative I have not worked on yet] that shows four historical records, one photo or story, and links to other family trees. The records links are to the 1940 census, two city directory listings and an obituary [in this case, the obituary link is no longer valid]. The photo/story is a photo of his death certificate.In this listing of the hints, the three links that work are for my person; please be aware, however, there are frequently hints that are not for the target person. For example, one of the fellow researchers in my family had found a marriage link for a person, which then showed up as a hint in mine; the ancestor had the correct name and age and was living in the expected county. The person who linked this had not gone further with the clue [because it was not a direct line person]; however, I rarely stop there. I added the wife’s name and searched for the next census record following the marriage and discovered in the next census record [and additional years] that this person was a different race from the expected family – this is because I note each bit of information from each record. I searched subsequent years because race is not always a reliable factor in any given census – I think sometimes the enumerators may have not have filled in that column as they recorded the information but went back later and dropped down the information from the previous families on the page, failing to remember there was a family of a different race within that area. By using that marriage record as a clue and searching for other records, I learned that hint was not accurate. I then contacted my fellow researcher regarding what I found so they could update their own research which, after thanking me, they did.

The next aspect of the hints are the other family trees that are purported to have my person in it; in this case, there are five, each of which can be reviewed for clues. I do not ever copy others’ trees into mine; I do sometimes review a specific person for clues that may be traceable for my purposes but record information only after I have completed searching for documentation myself. If I find nothing to support that clue, I merely note the name and source of the clue in the research tab of my database program. Please review the other trees carefully because they may be completely and obviously different people or they may be an interesting compilation of several people. On the other hand, there may be clues even in an erroneous tree.

[NOTE: because many people do not do complete trees, but only put in people who are in their direct line, it is sometimes helpful to look at every tree of parents of a person because there may be one tree with a single sibling listed who seems to have a name of a spouse. Because these are people with an interest in only the one person, they may be direct line people with personal knowledge. Again, I use this information only as a clue from which to search for supportive documentation since these trees rarely have any.]

Once I have exhausted all the reasonably easy-to-find documentation on Ancestry, I search FindAGrave [currently those may also come up as hints on Ancestry]. FindAGrave can be a great source of information. The person putting up a memorial may have included headstone photos, pictures of the person and/or family or death certificate, biographical information, and links to other family burial locations. I retrieve all available information for the person and every person linked to his/her memorial [again using them as clues to be verified and noting FindAGrave as the source]- and those linked to the linked person as appropriate to my tree. Depending on the amount of detail, this can be fairly involved. Based upon my relationship to the person and/or the location, I may also click on the cemetery name and search for that surname or other surnames from the location.

Next, I go to FamilySearch.org to search for any documentation or records not yet located. Different websites search differently, so play around with search information. In my experience, it does not search well from the woman’s name so I generally begin with the husband’s name and the spouse’s name with age and location parameters. Try it every way imaginable because each search string may come up with different information. If searching for a female, I will usually switch out her surname to encompass any records that may be indexed only by her name at the time. Sometimes a search for a name with no other parameters will provide results not seen when more information has been given. Experiment!

If I am having a particularly difficult time finding a specific census year for an individual, I also utilize my library’s database collection, which has access to Heritage Quest. This contains census records for 1790 through 1820 and 1860 through some 1930 censuses. Again, it searches differently – exact matches only by using alternate spellings in subsequent searches – and I have occasionally found a missing record. It also permits searching by first name, within age parameters, locations, etc., which again can be useful. Because their images are not quite as clear as those on Ancestry, I would note the information from the District, page, and family number and search for that record by browsing the collection on Ancestry, which means, once found, I can then attach the record to the person on my tree. If I am still having difficulty, I may search for the surname in the known location and browse nearby pages to see if they have been mis-indexed. I once found a missing census for a Buckner who had been indexed as a Ruckner. This particular census held a lot of clues that paid big dividends so I was rewarded for taking the time to do a page-by-page browse.

Heritage Quest also has Revolutionary War Records where I recently found a 13-page pension file for a GGGGgrandfather, again with much information, including his signature.

My library database collection includes access to Fold3 and I search that for military records, if they did not come up on Ancestry [particularly Civil War records when the age and/or location makes it likely they may have served] or a 1930 census if it has proved to be difficult to locate; Fold3 search is often more successful for the 1930 census.

Once I have gone through all these websites, I begin to search the internet. Ancestry has a prepared search string that can be accessed by clicking the link at the bottom of the person’s page – it utilizes variations of the person’s name in multiple orders and with and without wildcards. Legacy also has search strings, but it is geared to specific sites and the Ancestry string is geared to whatever search site you have as a default. I have also used Mocavo.com though I opted not to utilize their paid service. I have rarely found anything that did not also come up on the searches of other browsers.

Following all this specific to the person research, I next search the Internet for genealogical information for the county/state(s) in which my ancestor lived. There is a huge amount of variability in those websites – some offer next to nothing while others are total goldmines. For example, the Fayette County, Alabama rootsweb site has a cemetery listing that includes links to every cemetery in the county – they include cemetery photos and names of the people buried there (up to the last cemetery survey, which may be fairly far in the past but still helpful), but they’ve gone one step further by doing an every name index of every person in the county cemeteries (again, at the time of the last survey). It’s rare to find an every name index for a whole county, so this is a real treat. Another goldmine is Wise County, Texas where they have indexes to all the older births (by both surname and mothers’ maiden names), deaths and marriages . Cyndi’s list contains lists of resources by state and county so check her out and see which ones are the most useful for your purposes.

Old newspapers are the most entertaining of the information I have found, but I wait to search for those until I know, by way of other documentation, the locations to search. Again, there is a huge variability in what is available and how to search for it and Cyndi’s List offers loads of sources for newspapers to review. Some of them are fee based and some are not. For my hometown, my library database provides access to the archives of the local newspaper, which I do utilize. Our Oklahoma Historical Museum has partnered with others to provide funding for the digitization of newspapers and periodicals and those images are available for searching. Many universities and state archives have digital collections so explore and see what you can find.

Some of the interesting tidbits we’ve found in newspapers include the marriage announcement for my grandparents, a front page account of a little girl’s birthday party my uncle attended [he was listed as ‘Toodles Lineberry’ and when I asked my mother who Toodles was, she replied, “why, George, of course”], a front page note that my aunt, when she was five, got lost and was found crying but returned safely home. There have been a number of newspaper notes indicating my great-great uncle was quite a character [he was an attorney described as having a heavy unkempt beard with tobacco spittle on it; he was sued for striking a journalist; his wife almost died from accidental? poisoning, he had practices in Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Colorado, ran for public office, etc.]. These newspaper items have boosted him to the number one position of ancestors we most enjoy searching for – and he’s not even a direct line ancestor, just a brother of my great-great grandfather.

There are websites with digitized books that can be searched for surnames, locations, occupations, etc. My library database includes WorldCat as a place to search for respositories of books and some of those may be in nearby collections. Explore the possibility of interlibrary loan, but know that many of the books may be rare and available for in-library use only.

I also have searched for currently living descendants by name on Facebook and Google+ and have established connections with several by this means. One of the extra benefits of this is that many of these people post photos of family members – perhaps a picture of grandparents on a birthday or anniversary. I have also searched online phone directories for descendants. For example, I called a descendant of one of my great-grandmother’s brothers. They were out but returned my call once they got home. They had an interest in the family’s history and were delighted to hear from me; we have since emailed several times and they sent me a very old photograph album for my daughter to scan and return.

Because new record collections are being added and more newspapers are being digitized and more people are writing family history blogs, continue to search for family members on a rotational basis every few months to see what else may be available.

For the past several years, my daughter and I have taken research trips to be able to photograph cemeteries, home sites and the locations where my ancestors lived and to research the record repositories that may be available only in the county or state where they were created. We have found many records in that way, but I am pleased to live in the digital age where we can limit our location research to what is as yet not digitized and searchable.

Finally, I have a blog in which I write about my research findings and my research questions – maybe someone out there has an answer. The blog puts the information out in story form, which I tag with key words to aid family members in finding the story so they will hopefully find it and comment – more ways to connect with family I don’t yet know and to pick up additional information and clues for my next round of research.