Three Ways to Take Aim at Southern Brick Walls

Posted by Erika Manternach on June 21, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

Tracing ancestors in the American South in the 19th century produces some of the most frustrating genealogical challenges. The troublesome trademarks of these searches are all too common: ancestors who married before 1850, and therefore do not appear by name with their parents in earlier censuses; a female family member who married and changed her surname; or a search that requires slogging through record collections from 1800 to 1850, which can sometimes be spotty or—sorry to say—nonexistent. If you have ever wished out loud that the censuses before 1850 had included the names of all household members (perhaps even, ahem, cursing each tick mark for its obscurity), you are not alone.

Elusive cases like these are the primary focus for Virginia McAlister, a research manager at AncestryProGenealogists. She has spent decades researching family trees centered in the South after the family members threw up their hands in despair and deemed the search unsolvable. McAlister shares three primary ways to seek answers when census records don’t cut it or shaky leaves fail to appear.

#1: Probate Records

When easy-to-access resources run dry, go after wills or probate records for known family members. They are the primary record type that can provide definitive statements of relationships. Men (or women) often named all of their surviving children in their wills.

Not all probate record collections are available online yet, but Ancestry has a very large collection. Be prepared for the fact that they are not all indexed, and significant time and know-how may be required to search them. Still, McAlister says a search targeted by state or county where the ancestor died is definitely worth a shot.

If you do know the name of an ancestor’s potential parents, or the death date of a male ancestor, check the collections in FamilySearch, too. If you’re lucky, you’ll hit a searchable database.

“Other times, you’re looking in digitized versions on microfilm, and you’re looking at the indexes, and you’re reading the old handwriting,” McAlister said. “You’re doing the heavy lifting yourself.”

Probate records can yield a trove of information, such as which family member was (or wasn’t) in favor with the deceased and what kind of property the family owned. This could offer insight into occupations or levels of prosperity. Sometimes African American ancestry can be illuminated by probate records of potential slave owners. Probate records can also shed light on whether widows could keep their inheritance if they remarried or were only allowed to keep the property if they remained widows. Other details, like the choice of executor or guardian for minor children, add to the family story.

#2: Land Records

As dense as they can sometimes be, land records offer the next-best opportunity to find evidence of relationships. Look for transactions between people with the same surname, indicating a transfer from fathers to sons or brothers. Sometimes a settlement of the father’s estate will indicate that his land was distributed to the various children, or all of the children together sold to one relative. Daughters (or their husbands, if they were married) were often named in general settlements, too.

“Quite often the land records will not state what the actual relationship is, so in this case you’re inferring relationships more often than not,” McAlister said. “I’ve seen land records that state ‘To my beloved son,’ or ‘For the love and affection which I hold for So-and-So,’ which basically states that this person is a child. Or if they’re only selling [land] for a dollar or five dollars—if it’s well below market value—then you can infer that it’s a parent-child relationship or, occasionally, brothers.”

Don’t forget to follow the trail of neighbors, either. Landowners of adjoining property can provide helpful clues.

#3: DNA

If the first two suggestions provide no breakthroughs, McAlister has a clear directive: “Go to DNA at that point.”

Take a DNA test, look for matches for the elusive surname and see if that match has a family tree containing helpful documentation. “You might be able to connect to an ancestor who is a few generations back than what you’re necessarily stuck on, but you can build that ancestor’s tree forward and try to figure out how your ancestor fits,” McAlister said.

If you strike out and are still stuck, call an expert! Professionals like McAlister and her team know their way around record collections and have the expertise to analyze findings that may appear unhelpful to newer genealogists. She and her colleagues also have access to collections not available online, and they have contractors on the ground in places where records have not been digitized or are only available in a courthouse.

Past Articles

Reconnect with your Roots this Summer

Posted by Ancestry Team on June 20, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

Traveling can bring any family closer together, but imagine an RV camping trip that connects your family to past generations and the places that populate your family’s history. The comfort and convenience of an RV can be a great motivator for families to take a trip to travel back in time. Here are our best Read More

Family History Goes to School

Posted by Erika Manternach on June 7, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

The final weeks of the school year can trigger anxiety, especially if project deadlines are involved. If younger students are stumped about how to complete an assigned project, consider whether family history could be the key to their success. Crystal Farish, a researcher at AncestryProGenealogists, helped her own children connect with their past through school Read More

World War II Book Resources on Fold3

Posted by Jennifer Holik on June 6, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

I was thinking about what to write for this month’s article and chose to look for D-Day resources on Ancestry and Fold3. I started with Fold3 with the idea there would be some reports that mention D-Day, and I found some in the WWII War Diaries, a collection with a large number of Naval reports. Read More

U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939

Posted by Jennifer Holik on May 26, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

Have you checked out the U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939? The description tells us about the records. About This Collection The U.S. Army Transport Service (ATS) was established in 1899 as part of the Army Quartermaster Department. It was originally created to manage the transport of troops and cargo on Army ships that Read More

Setting the Record Straight: Ancestry and Your DNA

Posted by Eric Heath on May 21, 2017 in AncestryDNA

[UPDATE] A quick update to this post. As I mentioned, we were working to clarify our Terms and Conditions language around the data rights – or license – you grant us when you take an AncestryDNA test. I’m happy to say that we have just posted the updates.] Ancestry has released updated Terms and Conditions. Read More

Liv Tyler: Resolving Conflicts

Posted by Ancestry Team on May 12, 2017 in Who Do You Think You Are?

While it’s not uncommon for details on various censuses to conflict, in the case of Liv Tyler’s Elliott ancestors, one such conflict hinted at hidden ancestry. While census records for George Elliott consistently recorded him as white, his father Robert Elliott was listed as mulatto in the 1870 census. Was this just an enumerator’s error Read More