Using Ancestry: Starting Fresh, by Juliana Smith

This week I’ve been working on my mother-in-law’s family. Her Wolford line is one of the few lines that other family members haven’t taken to pre-Revolutionary days, and since I had poked around this line a bit last year (albeit not using the best methodology—see the article for more on this), I decided to take another crack at it. I’m happy to say that I’ve actually found some interesting items on to share with her. Today I thought I’d share some of the techniques I used and some thoughts along the way that may help you with your research too.

Starting Fresh
I inherited a lot of charts with names and dates from various family members–but no sources. The charts end with my husband’s second great-grandfather, who is listed as “Jacob??” Because I am unsure of the sources of information, I am starting fresh with known information and building on it with records I can find online for now. From there, I’ll be seeking out church records, land records, and consulting other offline resources to fill in the blanks.

I have a lot of information in front of me, so I’ll need to focus on this one family and try not to get distracted and bounce around to other family groups (which is sometimes tough for me!).

The Census through the Years
Since the census gives us a pretty good look at family structures and provides ages to work with, I began my search there. I started with my mother-in-law’s father, and worked my way back, pulling enumerations for each decade available and for each member of the family.

As I began searching, I noted that there were several “pockets” of Wolfords in various areas of Pennsylvania. While I may find that some or all of them are related down the road, I need to use care to make sure I trace our Wolfords to the right pocket.

After going back a couple generations using census records and information from my mother-in-law (who has an unbelievably sharp memory), I made my way back to my husband’s second great-grandfather, John M. Wolford. I found his wife in the 1910-30 enumerations living with her daughter, Vinola, and her husband, Milton Christman. In 1900, I found the family with John listed as a music teacher. I found this really interesting in light of my husband’s and his mother’s deep love of music.

I really have to tread carefully as far as determining which John I have, since there are quite a few in the census. My mother-in-law helped to confirm it and when I told her about the census entries, she shared some interesting stories about the family and even remembered Vinola’s address. (Another great reason to share your finds with family–they may lead to more finds.)

Here’s the family structure as I know it:

John Wolford, born March 1844
Wife, Rebecca, born June 1850
Son, Robert Desmond, born April 1873
Daughter, Vinola, born June 1874
Son, James D., born August 1876

I found another John Wolford in the 1900 Census in Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, his wife’s name was Rebecca and he also had a son, “Robert D.” This John’s age was off by three years (not terribly unusual in census records), but more noticeably, other siblings didn’t match up. Had it not been for these other children and a thorough search of all the potential matches, my search may have taken a wrong turn. Coincidences like this are common and this is a good reminder not to take the first match you find and try to make it fit.

Going back in time to 1880, John’s occupation as a music teacher was another way to pick him out from the crowd of John Wolfords, and it helped to bridge a gap from Carbon County on the east end of the state, to Mercer County where he is enumerated on the far west end of the state. I found him there with other people in the household that I am surmising may be his mother Mary, father John, and possibly an older brother Daniel. Without relationships stated in 1870, and the family unit separated in 1880, I can’t determine from census records alone what the family structure is, so I’ll have to dig deeper to establish these relationships.

Filling in the Blanks and Starting My To-Do List
As I progressed backwards in time through the census, I began filling in more information in my database. Ages, drawn from the census records were entered, as were birthplaces; in this case, all were born in Pennsylvania. It’s important that I take a break between each decade and assess the information I have found, noting new clues and entering new data into my database.

The 1900 census lists both John and Rebecca as having been married for 28 years, so I can estimate that they were married around 1872. Using finds like this one, I’m creating a to-do list for records I’m unable to access online. I’ll be adding a search for their marriage record to that list and have already found a possible source on film at the Family History Library. I’ve noted it in the Research Journal as a to-do item and included the FHL film number, so I’m all ready when my next trip comes around or to order the film through my local Family History Center.

When I move beyond 1850 to enumerations where only the head of household is listed, I will need as much information as possible to identify them. With their birth years handy, I can easily spot in which age groups columns I should see tallies. I like to use the printable census forms at Ancestry and make a kind of template for each family with the appropriate tallies to compare to the censuses, noting which columns family members should fall in.

Online Trees
I searched the online trees at Ancestry and although I didn’t find any links to direct ancestors, I did find two references to John’s daughter, Vinola Wolford through her husband’s family. While she was the only Wolford mentioned in the databases, one of the listings gave her burial place. In this instance, it turned out that she was buried with her husband and his family and there were no other Wolfords in the cemetery. However, in many cases, you will find other family members buried in the same location. This is another important reminder to research siblings and collateral relatives thoroughly.

Stay Tuned
I found several other interesting items and I’ll share them with you next week. So until then, happy searching!

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Juliana Smith has been an 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 wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

7 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Starting Fresh, by Juliana Smith

  1. This is a wonderful article! Although I’ve been doing genealogy for 17 years and have been very successful, it’s good to see that I follow about the same procedure(s) as a professional. I’m always wondering if there is a better way to do genealogy and now I know that I’m “right on track” doing it about the same way as a professional.

  2. She spoke about a Mercer County but did not mention the state. I grew up in a Mercer County and it was Il. a small town called Aledo. I might beable to furnish some information if she was talking about Il. Let me know

    Thank You,

  3. Marcella,

    In a previous article about this line of her family, it states that she is talking about Mercer County, Pennsylvania.

  4. Juliana,

    When reading the article about you ancestors, Wolford’s, I became excited. I have Wolford’s in my ancestry line.
    My grandmother, Susie Elizabeth Pearl (Smith) Rotruck is from the Wolford line. She was born May 23, 1892 in Springfield (Hampshire County), West Virginia to Josephus and Margaret Ellen (Wolford) Smith. Grandma died March 11, 1961 in Martin (Grant County) WV. she was married to Adolph Rotruck. They had four girls and four boys. All of whom are gone now. They lived in the Martin (Grant County) area all their lives She had a sister, Anna ? (Smith) Simmons. All I know about Aunt Anna is that she died earlier than Grandma and that her husband’s name was Frank Simmons. Aunt Anna and Uncle Frank lived in Washington, D.C. They had several children. Do you think there’s any connection there?

    Ellen Martin

  5. When I read about your Wolford line I became quite interested. My father-in-law’s last name is Wilford. His father’s name was Wolford. I haven’t been able to find out much yet, but I do know that his father was in Oneonta, NY and that there are uncles that seem to be in the area of Rochester, NY. Is there a particular tip you might have in finding this name. Especially with the misspellings of it. Thanks for such an enlightening article by the way.

  6. I enjoy my genealogy e-mail information from It so full of helpful hints and information. Thank you for all you time and effort in compliling this article.

  7. Juliann – I found a transcript of an interview with John Wolford for his Revolutionary War Pension Claim which was filed in Randolph County, Virginia (National Archives). The interview was taken on 25 June 1833 and states John Wolford a resident of said county and State of Virginia personally appeared in County Court of Randolph. John Wolford stated that in the year 1777 in the month of May but does not recollect the day of the month, he was drafted in Capt. John Pipenger’s company of militia in the State of New Jersey in Col. Jacob West’s Regiment for a guard at Sussex Court House in said state; the court being convened for the purpose of trying tories and deserters. He lived in Sussex County when he was drafted. The first Interrogatory was – Where and in what year were you born? – His response was- Montgomery County, PA in 1754. To the third Interrogatory – Where were you living when called into service; where have you lived since the Revolutionary War, and where do you live now? he replied – he has already stated the he lived in Sussex County, NJ when he was called into the service, after the Revoluntary War he remained a few years in New Jersey and then removed to Hampshire County, VA and continued in that County about 17 years then removed to his present residence ein Randolhp County, VA.

    I also found a site for Historic Hampshire County, WV identifying Wolford (John) Family Cemetery, near August, WV. The site gives directions to the graveyard and shows the following: John Wolford: born 1763; died 1849; [Revolutionary War soldier]; Catherine Wolford: born 1764; died before 1849; Florence R. Bennett: died Aug 13, 1876 dau. of M.L. & Margaret Bennett” Aged 13 yrs 15 days; Agnes M. Wolford: died Nov. 1, 1905; dau of J. K. & Lona Wolford” “Aged 1 yr 1 mo 20 days”; Frances M. Wolford: Born Jul 4, 1860; died May 1, 1924; Elijah Wolford: born Apr 1, 1825; died Jun 14 1825; Lucinda Wolford: died Feb 2, 1901; “aged 68 yrs 10 mos 3 day” ” Wife of Elijah Wolford”; James M. Wolford: born Jul 9, 1859; died Aug 1, 1859; [name unreadable] born Sep 18, 1851; died Apr 16, 1856 “[unreadable] of E. & L. Wolford”; John W. Wolford: born Apr 21, 1833; died Nov 29, 1906; Harriet Wolford: born 1828; died 1901 and 37 slate markers, no names or dates.

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