Cedar Hill, TX. I received that question from a friend after he thanked me profusely for the 200-page family history I’d just handed him. I’ll have to admit, it was quite impressive, especially for a family that I had known nothing about when I started.
The family research is much easier and quicker than before the internet with Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. You can find a lot on the internet, but not everything, yet. The census records are a good start, but they provide little more than names and approximate birth, marriage and death dates. Online indexes and records can give you specific information, but they’re often not available for many of your ancestors and their descendants. Try the public library and internet first, but eventually you’re going to have to go to courthouses to look at actual records. None is sure to tell you everything you want. You need to try them all. For starters, check land records, probate files, tax rolls, vital records, and fellow genealogists.
Land Records: At the courthouse find your ancestor in the “grantor” and “grantee” indexes, and then go to the book and page indicated. You’ll find a description of the property. Numerous sites on the internet will tell you how to interpret property descriptions. You’ll learn where they lived. Some unexpected findings: a probate final decree that included a transcription of third (three greats) great-grandpa’s will. It included a list of the heirs confirming my previous research! Great-grandpa’s given name was John Adam Klauck. The only time he used his full name was when he bought the homestead land from the US land Office. He went by Adam Klauck in all other matters. That had caused me problems identifying him. Apparently it was a problem for the probate judge, too as nearby in the deed book was an affidavit sworn by his son Adam. This affidavit stated that John Adam Klauck and Adam Klauck was the same person. Problem solved!
Probate Records: These records can be a good look at the life of your ancestor. In Manitowoc, Wisconsin, the courthouse had these files. My second great-grandpa had 13 children. Several had died before he did, so I didn’t know whom their children were or where they lived. One son had married, had two sons and died, all in the 1890s. His widow had remarried and her sons took her new surname. His family avoided the censuses entirely! The file listed their first and new last names among the heirs. Another son’s widow and kids moved to another state. That gave me just the clue I needed to track them down.
Tax Rolls: Our ancestors may not have done much else noteworthy, but they did pay taxes, and if they did, there’s a record. Texas County tax rolls are online and searchable on FamilySearch.org. In other states, you may have to visit the county courthouse. In one line, you see how much land they owned, where it was, the number and value of horses, cattle sheep, hogs, money out on loan, merchandise on hand and miscellaneous. It often had a description of the “miscellaneous.”
Vital Records: While at the courthouse, be sure to look at the actual death certificate of your ancestors. The name of the informant is often a married daughter. The cause of death can lead to interesting discoveries. My great grandpa died at age 86 of shock from fractures incurred while pushing a wood cart up a driveway. That led me to the microfilms of the local paper—the story was front-page news! Another death certificate of a distant cousin indicated he died in 1906 when struck by lightning at a baseball park. That story showed up in internet newspaper archives across the Midwest!
Fellow Genealogists: Genealogists love to talk about how they solved their toughest problems. You can learn a lot by listening to their stories and asking questions. The best place to find genealogists is by attending genealogical society meetings. The meetings usually have a speaker making a presentation on some facet of genealogical research. You can learn even more from conversing with attendees before and after the meeting.
How do you know which of these to use? Use every resource you can. In the examples I gave, I found what I was looking for, plus the unexpected. That’s the fun part! If you can’t get to the courthouse in Dubuque, Iowa, for example, find a friend or relative who lives there to do so for you. The information you’ll collect will give you and the reader of your family history important insight into the life and times of your ancestors. After all, our ancestors are a part of who we are.
You can learn about many other places to look for “all that stuff” at our society’s next meeting. It is at 7:00pm, Thursday, June 13 at the Zula B. Wylie Library, 225 Cedar Street. For the months of June and July, the meetings will be workshops to help individuals with their family research. We will have experienced genealogists on hand to work one-on-one with you.
Dave Klauck, Cedar Hill Genealogical Society