There are a dozen good places to find a date of birth, but did you know some of those same resources could be holding much more difficult-to-come-by information, too?
We all have our go-to sources for certain facts: census records for ages, relationships, and whereabouts; draft registration cards for addresses and next-of-kin; naturalization documents for immigration details and former hometowns. But did you know that some of those same sources may be holding surprise details that you didn’t even think to look for?
Here are a few of our favorite surprise sources. You might already know about some of them, or you may get to discover these surprises the old-fashioned way, like we did — quite by accident.
1. Slaves before 1870.
You expect to find details about deaths that occurred 12 months prior to the taking of the census on mortality schedules, which were created in census years between 1850 and 1880. But did you know that those lists also include slaves who died during the covered years — and that these mortality schedules may be the only record that includes a slave’s name, age, cause of death, and possibly a birthplace prior to 1870? While only slaves who fit the mortality schedule requirements will be included, and even then there’s no guarantee, it’s always worth checking for someone you might be related to. You never know when you’ll happen upon a fantastic find.
2. Other children.
It’s well known that each census has its own quirky questions — but some of those questions can lead to big discoveries. In the 1910 U.S. Federal Census, enumerators asked mothers how many children they had given birth to and how many of them were still living. The census record for my great-grandmother noted that she had 12 children, nine of whom were still alive. I had information — and photos — for the nine living children, but who were the missing ones? A search of local cemetery records answered my question. All three of the deceased children, all under 2 years old when they died, were buried together and marked by a single tombstone. Because of the 1910 census, these children have been found. And I’m making sure they’ll never be forgotten again.
— Tana L. Pedersen
Have a family member who was just the right age to register for the draft in World War I or the “old man’s draft” in World War II? Then you can find big information in that person’s draft registration cards — including the name of his or her employer. No draft card? Try U.S. federal censuses from 1850 through 1930 for occupation. Censuses after 1880 also include information about the number of months employed, which can lead to unemployment records. And the 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses include the type of business a person was engaged in, which can point you to business or association records.
4. Dad’s occupation.
Moving beyond census records for occupations, it might be even more fun to go out on a limb and try marriage records. For occupations? You betcha. We found marriages from the 1830s forward in the London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754–1921, database that include occupations for both the happy couple and their fathers. Take that information, along with ages, addresses, and marital condition (bachelor, spinster, widow) back to the census, and you might finally be able to figure out which James Smith in London is the one you’re looking for.
5. Maiden name.
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I didn’t make this find myself. A professional did it for me. I’d seen my Italian grandfather’s passenger list record showing him, his three brothers, and their mother coming to America, but until I brought in a pro to look for a birth or baptism record for my grandfather, I hadn’t given much thought to the rest of the information on the list. I should have. While I’d noted the family’s final destination, ship name, date of arrival, ages, and all of the other good stuff I would expect to find on a passenger list, I had somehow ignored the note about the closest relative in Italy as well as some of the handwritten information. That “closest relative” was my maternal great-great-grandmother (first name only); a note above my great-grandmother’s name turned out to be her maiden name. My pro used the clues I had missed to track down a marriage record for my great-grandparents in Italy. What a find.
— Jeanie Croasmun
6. Relatives and neighbors.
Ever acted as a witness at a wedding or the signing of a will? It was just as common for friends, neighbors, and relatives to witness the signing of important documents for our ancestors. Look on Petitions for Naturalization to see who witnessed the document’s signing and you could find anyone from cousins to employers. Look for witnesses on marriage records for clues to close friends and relatives, too.
Your grandpa was 6 feet 2 inches tall, had a large scar on his neck, worked as an auto mechanic, was born in Aalborg, Denmark, and immigrated to the United States on 15 October 1899. How do we know? We found it in the U.S. Passport Applications, 1795–1925, database. You might not expect to find a working-class ancestor in there (neither did we, but after searching, we found plenty of them), but try anyway. If you’re lucky, you’ll also land every family historian’s Holy Grail: a photo, even if it is of the passport variety.
8. Education attained.
While looking at a World War I draft registration card to get a physical description of my grandfather, whom I have no picture of, I happened upon World War II enlistment information for my uncles. I didn’t need physical descriptions for them: there are plenty of pictures, and I met them all while they were still alive. But I had no idea that their levels of education ran from “grammar school” to “one-year of college.” Talk about an unexpected find (where else do you get education information?) and a great conversation starter for the next family get-together.
— Paul Rawlins
9. Previous marriage.
Another spouse? You may catch that tidbit in the 1930 census, but you’ll have to be crafty to determine if a previous marriage was the case. Start by making special note of the question about age at first marriage for both husband and wife. Subtract that age from their 1930 ages — was the couple still the same number of years apart at their first marriages? If not, you may want to start searching through marriage indexes for a previous ceremony for one or both of them.
10. Even better proof of that previous spouse.
I opened my great-grandfather Jacob Benner’s Petition for Naturalization hoping to find some immigration information, maybe some clues to a previous residence, and definitely a picture. I found all of these, but hidden in the lines of personal information was a bombshell: that Jacob’s wife Elisabeth had been naturalized as a result of a previous marriage. This was the first I had heard of Elisabeth’s prior nuptials, and it suddenly put into question everything I had assumed about Jacob and Elisabeth, their kids, and the identity of my own great-grandfather (an honor which has always gone to Jacob). Now I get to dig deeper into Elisabeth’s history and hope for another great find.
— Matthew Rayback
11. BONUS: Keys to the old Austin Heeley.
You’ve seen the old photo of your ancestor in front of that hot, British sports car or the one of your great-grandmother wearing a gorgeous locket around her neck. So what happened to that priceless (or pricey) treasure after your relative died? If the death occurred overseas, you might luck into the information in the Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1960, 1963–1974, database. The forms include a line that says who got custody of the deceased’s personal effects. Typically, they went to a spouse or family member, but they could also have been turned over to the master of a sailor’s ship, a legal representative or bank, the reverend in charge of a tour group, a guardian, or an official at the embassy. One man’s effects went to his “sole heir,” who was not a spouse or identified as a family member. Another’s went to the deceased’s “common law wife” — rather than the other, apparently not common-law, “wife” whose name appeared elsewhere on the form.
12. BONUS: Religion.
Here’s the deal: if you have German roots and one of those German relatives served in the Bavarian military in World War I and you want to find out more about him, including the soldier’s religion, we’ve got you covered in the Bavaria, Germany, WWI Personnel Rosters, 1914–1918, database. Sure, you’ll need to read German. And you might already have an idea about which church your ancestor was affiliated with. But it’s a detailed database full of all sorts of personal information, and if there’s even a remote chance you might be related to someone in it, it’s definitely worth a look.
This article was originally published in Ancestry Magazine.