Researching Neglected Lines, by Juliana Smith

Before I dive in to this week’s column, I’d like to apologize to all who have received corrupted, duplicate, or otherwise garbled newsletters over the past couple weeks. There were some necessary back-end technological changes that have made life a little “challenging” for those of us on the newsletter front. We’re very sorry for the inconvenience.

Today I decided to take out some of my frustrations on a somewhat neglected family line (I’m noticing I have a few these days). I seem to focus on my Kellys for the most part, so today I sidestepped to my Tobin line to see if I could make some progress there. I don’t know as much as I’d like about Thomas Tobin (my third great-grandfather) and his family, so I thought he’d be a good place to start.

Maybe you’ve been a little neglectful of one of your ancestral lines too. So why do we abandon a family line? Brick wall? Lack of accessible resources? Let’s take a look at some reasons and possible solutions.

Brick Walls
It’s like that old adage: If a brick wall tumbles in cyberspace and you’re not logged in, will it make a sound?

Okay, that’s not an old adage. I made it up. And it’s kind of lame. Sorry.

Let’s put it another way. If that family binder or folder is relegated to the dark recesses of your filing cabinet or closet, and you don’t revisit the resources and websites that are growing with data for the area in which you are researching, how do you know it’s still a brick wall? You may now find a small pile of research rubble is all that remains. So evict any dust bunnies that may have taken up residence and have at it.

Since one branch of the Tobins were in Rochester, the first whack I had at that line was with the Monroe County (New York) Library System’s new site that I mentioned a couple weeks ago on the blog. I checked out the directories they have available and found they begin with sporadic listings beginning with the 1820s and get progressively more inclusive through the 1890s.

I had already pulled the listings for my third great-grandfather, Thomas Tobin, who arrived in Rochester around 1847, but I had never explored what happened to his children from a second marriage–my great-great-grandmother’s half-siblings. I followed the family from 1861 when Thomas died through the end of the directories, noting when sons started their own businesses, when working daughters disappeared (married?), and when there were address changes. I was even rewarded with the following entry for the eldest son:

Tobin, John J., died March 11, 1889, age 37

I am hoping that by digging further into the records of these Tobin children, I may find more about Thomas’s family, and with all the clues I dug up today, I have a good start.

It’s amazing what you can find when you put together pieces gathered over long periods of time. I browsed through a few piles (yes, I have several going right now) and pulled all the Tobin information. Then I did what I should have done a long time ago–made room for the pages in my notebook and files. I also reread some old letters from an aunt and distant cousin related to the half-siblings we just discussed. The review was particularly beneficial.

As those of you who have read my column for a while may recall, I have been collecting Tobin hatters in the New York metropolitan area for a LONG time. Collecting being the operative word here, I was unable to link them. Today in rereading notes, a couple sentences jumped out at me. “Thomas had a hat company before he sold it and went to Rochester. He sold to Murphy Hat Co.” Murphy is a fairly common name, but something in the Tobin hatter collection rang a bell. I skimmed through it again and found a census entry from 1850 showing a George Tobin, occupation hatter, enumerated in the same residence as a Dennis Murphy, hatter.

This Seventh Ward listing tells me he lived near Peter Tobin. Peter was also a hatter and another note from that aunt I mentioned names him as Thomas’s brother. We have Peter’s naturalization with a William Tobin as his witness living at the same address.

But wait, there’s more.

I have a Peter Tobin in the New York Passenger Arrivals, 1820-1850 database at Doing a search on the ship name (the Robert Isaac), the year 1841, and the name Tobin, I also find a William, age 69; Mary, age 63; and Geo??, age 23. In the 1870 enumeration for Peter, a Mary Tobin, age 86, is living with him. Her age is a bit off, but it’s within five years so I’m willing to cut the record some slack. There is more work to be done, but I finally feel like I am closing in on some family structure!

Some Final Tips

  • Expand your search to include collateral relatives and go beyond the immediate siblings. In-laws, half-siblings, cousins, stepparents, and whomever else you can dig up–they’re all worth pursuing. With online searches and new indexes being created all the time, it’s well worth a try to see what’s out there. Pulling those directories took me all of an hour or so, and the leads it provided make it an hour well spent.
  • Revisit the area resources and related websites. I found new indexes through searches and by exploring the USGenWeb project ( These new finds and the new site for the Monroe County Library are good reminders of why revisiting is important. In addition to the fact that new content is constantly going live, as your research skills improve, you may have more luck with databases and records you have previously searched due .Check out and join local societies. Their publications can help you keep abreast of new developments in that area and they may offer free or discounted research services to members in collections that are not yet available online.
  • Reorganize the information you have. Compare timelines for those “may be related” you have with those people you know are in your direct line. Look for similarities or conflicting facts that will lead to more information, link them with your family, or rule them out.
  • Take a step back (or should I say forward) to more recent ancestors. In your haste to move back a generation, are there records you overlooked–records that may hold the answer to your problem? Or maybe there are additional records that were previously unavailable or not easily accessible to you? Go get them. Not only will you be getting a more rounded picture of those recent ancestors, you may uncover a clue you missed.
  • Explore and learn about new records. Are you new to working with probates? Do you find land records downright scary? (Metes and bounds–yikes!) Take a step towards conquering new resources. Take an online class, look for seminars, ask for help from a local society, or get your hands on a reference book that will help. What have you got to lose–except perhaps a brick wall?

Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

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13 thoughts on “Researching Neglected Lines, by Juliana Smith

  1. These article are always helpful. However, since all but one branch of our families were in this country prior to 1800, on line resources have about been exhausted. We’re fortunate that everyone pretty much stayed within the VA, WV, OH and PA region. Do you have any suggestions as to references previous to official record retention methodology?

  2. My dead-end is Smith. Would like some hints as to how to preceed with that surname. Wasn’t even lucky enough to have an unusual first name-Catharine. Things I’ve tried are her children’s names, one in particular was Francis S.; thought the “S” could have stood for Smith as well as anything else.

  3. Greetings, well there are definitely gremlins in this post, don’t know if this it the correct place to let you know, however, there it is.
    Marg Jones

  4. To Sylvia on finding her Smiths. Go to the land records. The land descriptions will show whosse land borders the owner’s property.

  5. Regarding your “old adage” regarding brick walls — my computer-oriented daughter’s comment was rather amusing: “And what if you’re logged in, but you don’t have speakers?”

  6. I would like to subscribe to your blog. How would I do that?

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