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The Clues are Everywhere


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The last couple of times, I’ve talked about the census and reminded you to question the accuracy of the records that you find. Now it’s time to give you some good news about your research. The clues to your families heritage are everywhere. I know from experience that many times you think that you’ve discovered all there is to know about a certain family. You’ve come to a “dead end” and can’t seem to work around that. Not to sound too optimistic, but it is usually the case that you just need to rethink where you are looking.

A lot of times, we as genealogists become too absorbed in just one resource. Take the census for instance, it’s true that we can make a lot of progress with the census, it shouldn’t be our only resource though. One obstacle to our doing this though, is falling into the mindset that there really aren’t that many places to look for information. This is wrong, there are hundreds of places to look for information on your ancestors. So far, I’ve talked about first hand stories from family members and the census. This is just the start.

Courthouse records are an important resource for the family historian because they usually give us the names of parents as well as the individual in the record. These can provide positive evidence of someone’s parents more convincingly even than the census. There is a problem though, in North Carolina at least, most birth and death records were not required to be kept until about 1913. Also, there are inaccuracies that can be attributed to such things as the informant just not knowing what his grandmothers’ first name was. (Everyone knew her name, it was ‘grandma’.) There are some records available before 1913 in North Carolina, but it depends on the county in question.

Wills are another place to look for great genealogical information. Many times however, not all the children are listed. Usually, this is because of children receiving their inheritance in the form of dowries before the death of their parents. Of course, not everyone kept wills, but taxes are another matter. Most anyone who owned any property has had to pay some sort of tax. The tax lists are only about as helpful as the 1790 census is, just listing the head of household. The 1782 North Carolina tax list is useful, to fill in the gaps in records in those years before the official federal census.

Now that you have a list of other resources to review, what if you run into another dead-end? In my experience, intuition can be as good a clue as anything else. A hunch is not documentation, but it can usually give you an idea of where to look next. Remember, names and naming traditions were very important up until this century. Almost all families recycled names, children named after a father, uncle, or a mothers’ maiden name passed down as the middle name of the oldest son. These traditions can give us vital leads as to where to turn when we find a dead end. Every time I find a name in our family tree that looks out of place, I ask myself where it came from. Some of the time, this hunch pays off by adding another branch to the family tree. “Dead ends”, usually aren’t so, they usually just wind up taking your family tree in a different direction.

Next time: Church records and the Days Before Official Records

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