Where Was It Written? by Michael John Neill

In theory, the genealogist locates every scrap of paper they can for an ancestor. The reality is different. When obtaining everything is not possible, it may be helpful to ask, “What record could contain the information I am looking for?” This week we look at taking that approach and the opportunities and limitations that come with it.

We will start with Nancy Newman, born in 1846 in Rush County, Indiana. Where can I find a proof of that date and place? First of all I need to consider:

~ Civil birth record. Red Book by Ancestry Publishing could provide information on the civil records in this time and place. A variety of websites could also provide similar information. The key is to make certain information about the availability of records is accurate. Generally speaking websites of state archives, state departments of health, or county and town offices of vital records are good places to start. Google searches or references on county and state USGenWeb pages are excellent way to locate these sites. None are available for the state and time period.

~ Church records. The family was Baptist and the chance that church records mention her birth are slight.

~ Newspapers. Birth announcements were rare during this time period in this location.

These types of records are most likely ones to be sources of primary information about Nancy’s birth–information recorded by someone with firsthand knowledge of the event closely after the date of the event.

Other possible primary sources of information about Nancy’s birth would be letters or diaries written close to the time of the event. A letter written by a cousin one hundred or even ten years after the fact by someone who had never lived near Nancy’s family would not be considered a primary source. However, most of us do not have letters and diaries.

Consequently, we need to expand our searching to other records that might provide information on Nancy’s birth. Unfortunately, this type of information usually becomes secondary and not primary.

Secondary Sources
It is necessary to know where Nancy and her children lived, married, and died. It is possible that records for Nancy’s children may provide information about her. Nancy was married and died in Illinois, as did most of her children (two died in Minnesota). I need to become familiar with records in these states for the correct time period.

Nancy died in 1923. Her death certificate could provide information on her date and place of birth. Her obituary could also provide the same information. Even if the death certificate and obituary “agree” on the birthplace, it does not mean I give more weight to the information. It is likely that the same person provided the information for the death certificate and obituary. Multiple sources may have had the same original human source.

The Husband(s)
Nancy married Riley Rampley in 1867. It is possible that a biography of Riley in a county history may contain information on his wife. In this case, Riley’s Civil War pension file contains significant biographical information on Nancy. Records on Nancy’s sons-in-law should also be referenced. It could be that a biography of one of them in a county history mentions their mother-in-law.

The Children
Seven of Nancy’s children died in Illinois after 1916, when deaths were required to be recorded and birthplaces of parents were listed.

Nine of Nancy’s children married in Illinois after 1877 when (outside of Cook County) marriage applicants were asked for the names of their parents and their places of birth. Nine more places to locate information on Nancy’s place of birth.

If the information provided by the children is consistent, accuracy is not necessarily implied. Consistency implies consistency only. A marriage or death certificate of someone’s child typically is not a primary source of information on the parent. If the data obtained on the mother from these records agrees, it likely means the children were told the same thing about their mother and repeated that information to the record clerk.

So far, I have approximately twenty places to locate information on Nancy’s place of birth. But I am not yet done.

The Census
Nancy should be enumerated in the censuses beginning in 1850 through 1920. In each of these seven enumerations at least her age and state of birth should be given. While census ages can be incorrect, these ages should at least be relatively consistent. And the earliest one (when she was approximately four years of age) should be the most accurate. We need to remember that who the informant was on any of these records cannot be stated with any certainty.

Summing It Up
Generally speaking, it is important to learn about the records that were created in the area(s) where your “problem” ancestor and any children lived. This provides you with the ability to know what records are likely to provide the desired information. A good question to ask is, “Where might the fact I want to know be written?” Get away from the ancestor and your direct lineage for a moment.

Many of the pieces of information obtained during this process will be secondary. They will need to be evaluated individually based upon your perceived accuracy of the record and the knowledge of the likely informant. It also is necessary to get beyond local government records and consider church records, business records, and state and federal records as well. And it may be worth remembering that in some cases, a primary source of information may never be located–although you should always keep your eyes open to the possibility.

In future columns, we’ll look at more records that may answer your hard questions.

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Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website at: www.rootdig.com

5 thoughts on “Where Was It Written? by Michael John Neill

  1. I started reading this article in the April 28th edition of Ancestry Newsletter. After the first paragraph, I was totally confused. It was only after I came to teh Family History Circle did I understand where “Nancy” came from. The Ancestry version does not tell us you were starting with Nancy Newman, and I was thinking,”where did the name Nancy come from?”

    Other than that, the article is very helpful.

  2. I had the same problem! For some reason, the second paragraph of this article, identifying Nancy Newman, was substituted in the copy in the Ancestry Weekly Journal, by another paragraph with this general advice:
    “Think about what you can do from home or on-site to help preserve family information, community history, cemeteries, and church records; index records; teach others the joys of genealogy; or write about that library you recently visited. It can be as simple but important as writing a letter to legislators about records access concerns.”

    However, the article as written here makes perfectly good sense, as it first identifies the problem as “Nancy Newman, born in 1846 in Rush County, Indiana”. Works for me!

  3. Another thing to remember when checking names is that the name may be a diminutive and Nancy may legally be found as “Ann” on documents. As a Nancy who is really an Ann legally (“Nancy” is no part of my legal name, yet I have Always been known as such–even my own brother forgets this, that my name is Ann, so stock transfers, etc., get misnamed), I know this to be true! Nancy as a nickname for Ann was probably much more widely known in the past than it is today. So if you are looking for Nancy Newman on documents, you might perhaps find her as something like Ann Elizabeth Newman.
    Great article!

  4. It is so true that you can’t trust obituaries and death certificates for ‘primary’ facts. I have an obit for a distant relative which states she was married 5 years to her husband. When I finally located a descendant, she was married 52 years — the 2 had apparently been dropped in printing. My maternal grandmother has different death dates on death certificate and tombstone. I have encountered numerous minor mistakes in death certificates. Even the family Bible has a wrong death date for a great-grandmother, but on a previous page, the correct one is given. I happen to know the correct one so i will insert a piece of paper with the correct date for future generations.

  5. Church Records. Just a comment that there are different types of baptismal registers kept by churches at different times. Often they do include date of birth as well as baptism information, names of parents and/or sponsors. She could certainly be mentioned, even if only as “daughter of” It would very much depend on the church denomination and the period.

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