Tips from the Pros: You Can’t Believe Everything You Hear, from Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

Over the many years I have been researching, there have been several times where I’ve been advised against researching in valuable collections. A librarian, historian, or archivist might tell you that a certain set of files, index cards, or an electronic database or image doesn’t have anything to do with genealogy. Some have even said it would be a waste of time to check the record or index. A recent experience demonstrates how much we might miss if we heed that kind of advice.

Browsing around a library is great way to become acquainted with it and possibly find some things you did not expect to find. I was searching through an extensive old card catalog and was told that there was “nothing in there for genealogy.” I smiled and politely said I was just going to browse a bit. What did I find in this catalog? County histories, biographies, autobiographies, town and community histories, excerpts from diaries and journals, war history, maps, historical directories, histories of hereditary and occupational organizations (some with list of members), Daughters of the American Revolution publications, fur trade history, regional histories, Historical Records Surveys (WPA), and even some personal papers.


14 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: You Can’t Believe Everything You Hear, from Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  1. A couple of years ago I was visiting Montana and ended up with time to research at the local county historical society (which shall be nameless here). The staff people were not overly helpful, but I had to rely on them to find information about my ancestors because I wasn’t permitted to go behind the counter or into their inner sanctum. They gave me a few items to research and I sat there happily for a couple of hours. Then a new volunteer appeared, and I asked her for help in finding family documents. Imagine my astonishment when she disappeared, went into the basement, and came back ten minutes later with an 1880s scrapbook that had belonged to my great-great uncle’s wife! Only this lady, it seemed, knew of the scrapbook’s existence! Needless to say, I was in heaven for the rest of the day.
    This story has a happy ending because when I got home to Florida, I emailed the society and asked if for a “donation” I could possibly get the scrapbook from them and they agreed, so for a rather hefty sum that I did not mind paying, I am now the very proud owner of a priceless family heirloom, found purely by accident.

  2. A few years ago I called a County Clerk and asked about obtaining a copy of my great great grandparents 1852 marriage license. The clerk politely told me that there was no use in ordering it, because the old records only contained the name of the bride and groom and the date. I decided to “waste” my money and order it anyway. It contained one other important piece of information, the Minister’s name. With that name, I found the church he had served that year, which lead to the marriage record and the name of the village in Germany where the bride was born. Without that small tidbit of information, I wouldn’t have been able to find nearly 100 new ancestors.

  3. This article is so true. In my local library, I found civil war records for my Great Grandfather. I also found an article on my mothers family in a Washington History book. Although there were some incorrect dates in the article, it did confirm that my Grandfather was a state representitive for two terms.
    So, if you aren’t sure, go out on a limb! There is no telling where the branch will lead you!

  4. This ties in to some degree with my own original saying, “Just becasue it is not there does not mean it is not there.”

  5. Somewhere in a beautiful courthouse in a beautiful south-central Pennsylvania town whence came many of my Scots-Irish ancestors, I found a wonderful county clerk. She didn’t have time to search the will index for me, but she gave me the appropriate books. The wills I was looking for were in the 1790s. She told me where to go to find them and, in the early 1980s in a dusty basement, I found hundreds of original wills in rusty file cabinets, some two hundred years old. So if anyone tells you that the courthouse in Carlisle has no wills, don’t believe it! (I have faith that they’re scanned or locked away somewhere!)

  6. Judi, I used to do genealogy in that Carlisle courthouse – the staff aren’t sure what’s down in that dusty basement, but they are willing to let researchers look, thank goodness. Not only are there wills, but also naturalization papers, court minutes, etc. I found a long record of testimony in an 1824 divorce in the quarter sessions minutes, available nowhere else. As far as I know, these records have not been microfilmed. I suspect other courthouses are similar. It pays to persist!

    I love Charles’s saying.

  7. As a professional genealogy reference librarian, I always encourage the use of all kinds of material in the collection. As the above comments and your article pointed out, you never know where a clue or good might be found. Even picture file may have something!

  8. Many years ago I found a vague reference to a potential ancestor in a published document in the library in Salisbury, NC. The document was a list of church members of a church in neighboring Cleveland Co NC. The church had published a 200 year history so I wrote a letter to the church including a check for the cost of the book, plus shipping.

    In the return mail I received the check and a curt “there is no genealogy in this book”. I sent the check back with a note “send me the book anyway”.

    In that book was reference to not only my ancestor but his cousins who joined the church in 1780, and some interesting information concerning life during that era. Fortunately the author had photocopied the original pages of the church minutes and included them because in the transcribed portion he only included information of ancestors who were current members. My ancestors had migrated further west into KY by 1799.

    From this record, I was able to verify the location of my ancestor, the name of his cousin’s wife, solidified the relationship to another family and also located a family I found a connection to later.

  9. After many years of research a distant cousin located our ancestors marriage record in Christian Co IL. I wrote for the 1862 marriage certificate hoping a parental consent would be included since she was only 16 at the time. I received the certificate but no information on the parents.

    Six years later, I contacted the Christian Co IL County Court Clerk’s office explaining the fact that I had the license, but would they please check for an additional document in their file that could be a separate note from the bride’s parent or guardian granting her permission to marry.

    In the return mail I recieved an application to order the certificate. I immediately called the office explaining verbally what my letter stated. I was subsequently told that was all I would get. Any other information would be considered “misappropriation of records” and could be used for identity theft. I was flabbergasted – the document was from 1862. The couple had died before 1905 and probably never had a bank account, much less a SS card!!! I asked to speak to the Court Clerk personally and was given the same information.

    Other than a trip to IL to personally view the records, and probably having to take my genealogy charts to prove my relationship, I doubt I will ever gain access to this information. I hired a professional genealogist who came up empty-handed looking for tax records for Thompson families, information on the minister who performed the ceremony, etc. She did not check for parental permission.

    My ancestor’s maiden name was Thompson, she should be in the 1850 and 1860 census(but she isn’t), her parents were born in VA, she was born in OH (per the 1880 census), her children alternately list their mother’s birthplace as IL and KS, and after 30 years we still have not found her prior to the 1862 marriage and return to KY.

    Sometimes tenacity works and sometimes it doesn’t.

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  11. I agree, often folks with various records do not really know what they have or how it can apply. The best example I have found is old deeds. If asked the Recorder of Deeds will say there is nothing there, however, after having ordered a number of deeds I have found them to be loaded with good information. Some things I have found are previous addresses, missing relatives, maiden names, siblings, and various other interesting and helpful notions along the side of the page.PS.

  12. I had spent a too long day of researching in a library. As I walked through the stacks leaving the history section, the spine of a book caught my eye. Muddy River now Brookline Records 1634-1838. My immigrant 9th great grandfather was said to have settled in “Muddy Brook.” Could this be the same town?
    I opened the broken book, it’s index torn out. It was the minutes of the town meetings of Muddy River, later known as Brookline. As I read the book starting with the organization of the community and going to the distribution of land, I found a John Cramme receiving 16 acres of land adjacent to Benjamin Ward, and describing the boundries by the names of abutting neighbors. I continued to read the entries and soon came to one naming the properties abutting a property being sold. John Cramme was now John Craine, and his neighbor was still Benjamin Ward. Other names were also spelled differently. Jarratt Bourne was now Garratt Bourne, Thomas Ollyvar was now Thomas Oliver, William Coulbourne was William Coulbron. So much for the spelling of names in the 17th century.
    But, this was not a genealogist’s usual record.

  13. I would like to add that information is not always where it one might first look for it. For instance, I was doing research on the Schuylkill Valley Transit Company that ran a trolley line from Reading, Pa to Philadelphia in the early 1900s. What started the questions for me, appeared on a development plat sheet, found at the court house, of the property where my home was located. It was for a now defunct development that was sold as individual lots or given out as prizes at a local theatre during the Depression. In one corner there appeared a small sketch of a trolley car and tracks running along the main road near my home. I spent many hours going through old newspapers in several towns before I pieced the story together, but it was at the Reading Public Library that I found some of the most valuable bits of information. On the shelf in their special collections section were a series of bound volumes containing copies of bills of sales, right of way agreements, and legal actions taken against the company. I asked where these had come from and I was told that the legal office that handled the transit company’s business was just across the street in the next block. When the office closed they gave all the old documents to the library. These documents could also be used to verify the history of land and owners. They also gave bits and pieces of information about the people who owned the land, and the agreements between land owners and the trolley lines. Sometimes farmers wanted the line to come close to their farm so they could transport milk or produce into the city. There were also legal suits filed for children being killed by trolley cars, damage to property from electrical fires, and land owners also filed legal actions when companies took their land without permission. Transit companies took land in the night, frequently laying track without prior permission to get the new system running as soon as possible. Then land owners sometimes took the track up by day or filed legal action against the transit companies. Some of the agreements were with municipalities and provided the details by which the rails would be run through a community and the concerns of its citizens. Individual property owners were listed. All these details were part of someone’s history and should be considered when doing family research too. Interurban trolley lines connected cities and smaller communities and extended deep into the rural countryside where many of our ancestors lived.

    While some of these records were available at the local historical society, the society had prepared a series of books for publication and was not willing to share their materials with me unless I bought a book. I was forced to start at the library, which turned out to be a gold mine of information. Check everywhere records might be stored, and that is not always the logical place. It might be a matter of who had enough space to accomodate the materials at the time they were placed in storage.

  14. Years ago when the census records were not online, I made a weekly trip to the Seattle National Archives to use the actual rolls of film for the census soundexes and census records.
    The first example of look anyway, is when I found my Smith family in one of the soundexes (can’t remember which one- 1900 or 1910), it confirmed that my Smiths were in the Norton County Kansas census. But when I used the National Archives catalog to find out the roll number for Norton County, no listing for Norton County could be found. Inquires proved fruitless and so months went by before I took another look at the catalog and still couldn’t find any roll number for Norton County, but I did notice that there was a (Noshoe or County of Kansas that was listed twice, with a wide gap of numbers between the two rolls. So what the heck, I pulled both rolls out and one of the rolls was actually for Norton county and not the other county and I finally got to see the actual census record for my grandfather, Lloyd Phillip Smith.
    The other example was the so called “Civil War pension index” as it is frequently called. I used it often to look up relatives who might have served in the Civil War. Then one day I noticed that though the catalog stated that index covered “between the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 it went up the the year 1926. So just to see, I started looking for all male members of both mine & my husband’s family from 1783 and 1926. It really blew me away when I found out that my father-in-law (born 1886) had applied to get a military pension for the time he served in the navy during the Boxer Rebellion, 1905-1909. Walter Chojnowski’s application was not approved, but it still added some information to our files about his military service.

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