The problem was simple–”My ancestors were married in Kentucky in 1820 and I have no idea how to find their parents.” Unfortunately, there was no straightforward answer. Pre-1850 research in states that were not recording births and deaths can be challenging, particularly if the area was still a “frontier.” This week we look at some suggestions for one researcher dealing with a couple who married in 1820.
Knowledge of local records is helpful. If you are unaware of the types of records kept in Kentucky in the early nineteenth century, read the appropriate chapter of Red Book or the Kentucky Research Outline from the Family History Library. Even if you have researched in this state for a while, a review of the materials may help you notice a source that has been overlooked. It is also advisable to see if genealogical periodicals have published articles on similar families.
Try to locate the couple in every census from 1820 until their deaths. Depending upon the exact date of the marriage, the couple might have been living with their parents as single children at the time of the 1820 census, or in their own household. Look for households bearing that surname (or the wifeâ€™s maiden name) that include a male and female of the correct age. Even if they were married before the census date, they could have easily been living with one set of parents on the enumeration date.
In later censuses, itâ€™s possible that youâ€™ll find that a parent moved in with them, although in enumerations before 1880 those relationships will not be stated. In census records before 1850, the appearance of an “older” male or female may suggest Grandpa or Grandma has moved in.
In every enumeration that you locate the married couple, look several pages before and after the entry for an older couple with the same surname as the husband or the maiden name of the wife. Of course, these individuals may also be uncles, aunts, cousins, or totally unrelated people, but youâ€™ll want to cover all bases.
Online Family Trees
Consider performing searches on WorldConnect, FamilySearch, and the Public Member Trees at Ancestry. Bear in mind that these compilations are secondary sources and should be validated and confirmed with other records, so do not simply copy information from these trees into your own family file. However, they may give you clues and you may find names or e-mail addresses of other researchers who have more information.
The census taker might occasionally miss people, but chances are the tax man will catch up with them. Look at tax lists in the county (and in collar counties) for two or three years before and after the marriage. Ferret out names of potential fathers of the couple. Many tax lists for the 1820s era have been microfilmed and are available at the Family History Library, and through it, at a local Family History Center. It may also be possible to obtain them through interlibrary loan. Some have even been transcribed and placed on the Web.
Pay particularly close attention to arrangement of the names. If the names appear to be alphabetical, clues as to the neighborhood will be lost. Otherwise, people whose names are near each other in the records are likely living within close proximity to each other. Once you locate name in a published or transcribed record, look for copies of the original, which will most likely be in microfilm format.
Court and Land Records
Records of court actions involving your ancestor may mention other family members, particularly if that court action involved the settlement of an estate. Court, land, and probate records should be searched for the potential parents. In some cases, this may be an extensive search (especially in cases where you are searching for a Smith who married a Brown). The search should start with probate records and continue to other court and land records. These records are generally county records and â€œRed Bookâ€ can provide more information.
Researchers should determine if any of these records have been published. One place to begin searching for printed local records (such as probate, court, and land records) is by searching WorldCat.
Did You Get All of the Marriage Records?
Marriage records in Kentucky in 1820 may also include marriage bonds in addition to a reference in the marriage register. These bonds would have likely been signed by a family member (or at the very least someone who knew the bride or groom well enough to know that there was no legal impediment to marriage). Unfortunately, not all locations will have marriage bonds and not all of the places that required them will still have extant copies.
There are other sources that might answer this 1820s question, but these are some good first steps. It really boils down to learning about the extant records in the area of research and finding out names of contemporaries of the couple who are old enough to be their parents. The next step is to exhaustively search available records in an attempt to determine which contemporaries are the likely parents. We have scratched the surface here in an attempt to get the researcher started. But just scratching the surface has the drawback that the itch to know the answer may not be cured.
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