Do you have a set of favorite genealogy resources? I definitely do and, while the websites might change, depending on the research goal, the type of record sets remain somewhat static.
Although these are record sets I constantly use, they are not always indexed, which means hours slogging through page by page. The rewards are often more than worth the energy and time – I highly recommend that you add these tools to your research “must dos” if you haven’t already.
Here are my top ten favorites:
1. I have to mention one website for two reasons. FamilySearch has a huge amount of records available for free. Free is always good, although I am not opposed to paying for access when needed. Second, it is the easiest place to find digitized genealogy books.
2. Probate Files – Wills are terrific, but robust probate files are 1,000 times better! Heirs marry, die, and move away and occasionally become lost to time. Probate files tell so much more about our ancestors’ lives, family, FAN club and occupations. It’s even better when a probate fight among heirs results in a lawsuit.
3. Church Registers – Parish registers are not always accessible, but if they are, what better way is there to seek out birth/baptism, marriage and death/burial information. Church records give identify orphans and children who died young, give dates of confirmation and state religion. For my Slovak ancestors who were Catholic, their parish priests noted whether bride and groom were Greek Catholic or Roman Catholic, which, in turn, told me where to go looking for the earlier generations of that family. I also learned about cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1870s, which took the lives of 50-100 people at a time in villages of only a few hundred people. While Protestant church minutes don’t give the same details, much can be learned about social mores and religious expectations of an era.
4. Land Deeds – Another of my favorite records, deeds provide much more than physical descriptions of the land and who the buyers and sellers were. A deed identifies a specific time when an ancestor lived in a locality. Wives’ names can be found when they release their dower rights and agree to the sale. Witnesses are often trusted family members or friends and, if the owner of the property has died, surviving heirs must sign off on the sale. Whether the seller signed his/her name or made a (X) mark will prove at least basic literacy. The legal description of the land identifies owners of bordering properties, who often are relatives, and, if not, are still members of the sellers’ FAN club. I have even found a handful of deeds that gave two or three generations of ownership in the land description.
5. Tax Lists – Tax lists definitely are not indexed and must be manually read. Names are organized in one of two ways – either alphabetical by first letter of the surname, which makes it simple to find all the Smiths or Williams and is my less favorite way to find the lists or by neighborhoods. This second method makes it much easier to figure out the FAN club. If a man died from one tax year to the next, the taxman might enter “Heirs of” or a female’s name appeared who was the surviving wife. Two states where I often research my husband’s family are Virginia and Kentucky. Both have digitized tax lists for many counties and they even stretch back into the late 1700s. I’ve used them to determine close to an exact year of arrival in Kentucky and the year of departure from Virginia. On one Virginia tax list from the 1780s, the tax collector named each slave of the slave owners!
6. Town Records – Minutes of town meetings are quite common in New England and other places. Many of them have been digitized, but almost never have an index. I have found vital records buried in the middle of decades of minutes. I’ve also proven patriotic service during the Revolutionary War for several of my ancestors who held town offices during the conflict for independence from England. I’ve even found church records buried in the text where mention is made of who owned the covenant for the church (women are mentioned by name). If an ancestor held a town office, or ran afoul of local laws, he/she might be mentioned.
7. Court Minutes – Court minutes and court orders of all kinds are fabulous. A word of warning, though, from someone who has read many pages from many different counties. Even though there might be an index at the beginning or end of a volume, I have found MANY TIMES that the index is NOT COMPLETE. I would have missed mentions of my ancestor if I didn’t read page by page even though he wasn’t in the index. These records may identify fathers of children born out of wedlock and name children with their exact date of birth who are bound out – along with the name of the person to whom they are being bound. If land deeds are not extant, court orders usually include the recording of real estate sales, noting the buyer and seller, along with the date. Animal branding marks appear in these records as do local squabbles between neighbors.
8. County Histories and Mug Books – Learning the history of a community is important in understanding our ancestors’ lives. County histories include all kinds of details, from names of early settlers to occupations to those who gave military service. Many county histories published in the 1800s are in the public domain and have been digitized. One caution here is that the histories are often massive – sometimes 1,000 pages – and indexes can be limited or non-existent. Biographical sketches provide many tantalizing clues about ancestral origins and paths along which they migrated. However, people paid to have their family sketch included in the book and sometimes embellished the family history. Be sure to document claims made in the sketches.
9. Google – Let’s face it. Google can find millions of obscure bits of information. With most of my searches, one of the steps I consistently do is to google the name and place and often add the term genealogy to see what useful clues might already be floating around cyberspace. I have found little known books, decades-old forum discussions, transcribed wills, town vital records and much more. I’ve also found nonsense, but a general online search, particularly if your ancestor had a less common name, is so worth the time.
10. Online Trees – Yes, I admit that online trees are a favorite resource, BUT they are terrific for clues. Many say they skip over any tree which doesn’t have sources. I don’t adhere to that philosophy because I’ve found that zillions of trees that have “sources” only have other trees listed as the source. However, on the positive side, I have found unknown-to-me children (that I’ve been able to document), discovered the missing branch of the tree that didn’t go to Indiana with everyone else actually turned up in Kansas, and I’ve found death dates and places not where I expected. Yes, I’ve been able to document those, too. I realize that most people who have online trees don’t do any of their own original research, but even when they have a female ancestor who had 33 kids, and the first two were born five years before their mother, there could still be a clue in that tree that turns out to be accurate.
That’s my top ten list. Thank you, Elizabeth O’Neal for hosting the 4th Annual Genealogy Blog Potluck Picnic. 🙂