What type of sources (other than BDM's) do you use for difficult to identify ancestors?

+6 votes
Recently I extended the profile of my ancestor Ann (Stack) Smith (Stack-486) who was a difficult brick wall for many years. Initially, I researched her BDM's but later discovered that I had the birth and death of the wrong person and the marriages of my ancestor blended together as though they were one person. Other information began to emerge that enabled me to correct the mistakes I had made enabling me to identify who my ancestor was. Without the less traditional sources I would not have been able to separate my ancestor from the other person. What type of sources do you use to confirm difficult to identify ancestors and how effective are those sources?
WikiTree profile: Anne Smith
in The Tree House by Maree Waite G2G6 (6.3k points)
For one ancestor I trailed through every census in the area, hard work! He moved about , and appears to have been married three times, I checked the marriage records (church) after I had found him. and the marriages all worked, and his name was the only hit in each census, I couldn't find one other instant of his name with the right children and age(s) - Can't be sure I've even found everything but enough to be able to continue
Hi Heather, thank you for your comment. You have made a good start with your ancestor. That is one of my methods too, comparing sources, it is really good when it all comes together. We have very few census here but my ancestors came from the UK etc and I was able to find my ggg grandparents, Henry Irwin and Margaret Harley, on the 1851 English Census. I found Margaret with some of their children in Clerkenwell, London and Henry in Devon with one of their sons. The place Henry stayed on the night of the census turned out to be his sister's. So from those two entries I was able to confirm quite a few relationships in my Irwin family. I am finding that as more records are digitised that my family information is increasing in leaps and bounds.

8 Answers

+7 votes
You can use wills (and probate files), land records, tax records, obituaries, county histories, other newspaper articles, and the list goes on.
by George Fulton G2G6 Pilot (341k points)
Hi George, thank you for your answer. How do you use those sources in your own work and how effective are they? And are some of those sources better to use than others? I find newspapers particularly useful.

In the replies that follow are a lot suggestions on how to use these and other records.

Not to belittle your ability, but some of the basic books on how to do genealogy in general discuss these types of sources, and more, and how to use them. None of us know everything, or are familiar with all types of sources, and often we benefit by reviewing some of the basics.

Go to your local library and look at their “how to” books. Your local bookstores likely have more recent books. Used bookstores typically have a genealogy section, but things there can be a bit dated. Books on using the traditional sources are probably ok, but the internet related ones can be really out of date.

I do not know what country you are in, or what ethnic group you belong to, but there are often books specific to countries, or religions, or ethnicities. These can provide some guidance that the general references do not.

Not everything is online, but there is a lot. Look at local archives and national archives, these can be much better that some of the general sites.

Not all websites are free, but many are. You can use some of the subscription sites at the LDS Family History Centers for free.

Best of luck!

Hi George, thank you for your comment. Don't worry about belittling my ability I have a Masters Degree in History and a genuine interest in what sources people use and how they use them. I think I am well beyond the introductory genealogy level although not adverse to learning new methods and techniques. I was not asking what sources I could use in my research or how I would go about using them. My question is about the sources beyond birth, deaths and marriages (BDM;s) that people use when challenged by difficult to identify ancestors.

To me a difficult to identify ancestor is a brick wall or an ancestor living in a place where multiple people have the same name, ancestors who have changed their names and those with inconsistent or incomplete information etc.In your comment to me you said 'None of us know everything, or are familiar with all types of sources' but if we begin a conversation on sources does that not mean that people will get to know them better and put them to better use?

I am Australian (from the state of Tasmania) and although my family has been here since 1790 clearly my more distant ancestors are on the other side of the world. The arrival of genetic genealogy reveals just how global genealogy is. Where else but WikiTree can an Australian and an American thrash out ideas about genealogy with each other as though we are sitting in the same room although in reality we are separated by thousands of k's (that's miles to you)? I have DNA matches in America and for me a better understanding of your sources and genealogy will bring me closer to researching my matches more efficiently and to solving how those matches are connected to my family tree.

I have subscriptions to Ancestry and Findmypast but I do most of my research on the FamilySearch site. I think it is a wonderful site although the growing of the family tree is a bit frustrating. Everybody draws their own conclusions in regard to an ancestor, unfortunately some of us are more right than others, but they cannot be condemned for their enthusiasm and mistakes can easily be fixed. The problem is they think you are the one making the mistakes and so it goes around like an endless circle! It's all a learning curve.

I thank you sincerely for your advice. It would be nice if we could thrash out some more ideas about genealogy, there is nothing more an Australian likes than a good debate! And I also wish you well with your research now and into the future.
+7 votes
To add to what George said, you really look at everything you can find. Wills and probate are very useful. Land records can be. How good depends on local laws and customs. In early American and Canadian land records, the wife might be talked to in private about the land transaction and sometimes that is the only source for a wife's name. This was to make sure she wasn't being coerced into giving up her dower rights. Newspapers used to be filled with local gossip so a lot could be learned about families if there was a local newspaper (my ancestors seemed to avoid such places). Also check the courts. I don't know about Ireland and Australia, but Americans have always been litigious and law suits sometimes give a lot of information. If an ancestor was literate and somewhat educated, he/she may have had a Common Place Book. My wife just found one of those where her ancestor wrote down the names and birthdates of all of his children and who they married. This was in the catalog of a local archive. There haven't been any vital records found for the time/places he lived. In many places before official vital records were kept, they might be recorded in the town meeting minutes. I've found a number of my Vermont people that way. In New Brunswick, Canada, I've found some details of my ancestors in the Governor's Colonial Sessions reports. My 4 greats grandmother is recorded there.

Another strategy that has helped me immensely on brick walls is to research siblings and neighbors.
by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (407k points)
Hi Doug, thank you for your answer, it is interesting reading about the different sources that are available. It is sad that women are so invisible in your records. It would be unusual here (Tasmania, Australia) for a women's maiden name (after about 1838) not to be recorded when the birth of a baby was registered. From 1899 our birth records also include details about the parent's birth and where and when they were married. Our birth records are not only a great source of information for the child but they are a great source for other family members and friends as well who took turns in registering the new baby. And of course there was no distinction made between the men and women convicts and their records are just as detailed as each other. We do have court records and everyone had a voice before the courts including the convict population which we have access to. Are your land records online? I have access to your census records which is good for researching how my American DNA matches are connected., Across the whole of Australia there are only about 5 or so surviving census as the practice here was to destroy them. It has only been the last two census where we have been able to say that we don't want our's destroyed but then they slapped a 100 year restriction on them. I agree that one strategy is to research an ancestors family and friends I have confirmed many of my ancestors using that method.
Our records vary a lot from place to place and who kept them. Most places didn't have mandatory record keeping until well into the 1800s and some not until early 1900s. Some wanted the mother's maiden name and others didn't. Quebec is exceptional in that, while they didn't necessarily record births, the baptisms always include mother's maiden name and marriages always include parents of both spouses. Massachusetts had reasonably good records but the mother's name might not be recorded anywhere. The USA census has a 72 year privacy timeframe. Canadian is 92 years.

Friends and neighbors comes from a technique that Elizabeth Shown Mills (she of Evidence Explained) taught that she called the FAN club (Friends, Associates and Neighbors). It works quite well.

Some land records are online but some aren't. Older ones might be. Sometimes they are digitized films on FamilySearch in the Library Catalog. A lot of old probate records are as well.
Hi Doug, I have read Elizabeth Shown Mills work (mainly articles from her Pathways site), I think she has one of the finest genealogy brains I have ever read. One of my other favourite genealogy authors is Marsha Hoffman Rising (who unfortunately is deceased now). She also explains the FAN method but calls it collateral kin (and she acknowledges Elizabeth Shown Mills for what she taught her). I am waiting for the exchange rate to improve so I can subscribe to your NGS Quarterly or I'm just going to give up on the exchange rate and get it anyway! We don't have anything like that here and I think I could learn so much from it. Thank you for the info about the land records, I will have a look and see what I can find.

Elizabeth has mostly retired from lecturing and teaching but has trained up some other excellent teachers. One of my favorites is Thomas W Jones although he is getting close to retirement as well. Mastering Genealogical Proof and Mastering Genealogical Documentation are really good workbooks. He recently retired as editor of the NGS Quarterly. I took a great writing class from last Spring.

Hi Doug, I think that Elizabeth Shown Mills is someone we can all be proud of. She has done so much for genealogy not only in your country but all around the world. Her genealogy 'vision' is remarkable. It would be nice if we in Australia had the opportunity to study genealogy the way you can in your country. I think America definitely leads the way when it comes to genealogy.
+7 votes
Anne, I've used the records of their relatives, both ancestors and descendants.

In one case, I knew the given name of a gggg-grandmother but as she was married by the 1850 census, and in her father's home in the 1840 census, we did not know her maiden name.  I searched her children's records (all 6 of them) and from a ggg-uncle, I found an early 20th century record that contained his mother's birth name.  With that, I was able to go back to her home town and search the census records for families with that name.

And never discount cousins.  If you trace the descendants of your great-great-great grandparents siblings, you can find living members of the family - your 4th and 5th cousins.  Often, one of these cousins will have a family bible, a family tree, even some photos.  Easily 1/2 of my tree is "plagiarized" from cousins.  In one case, a cousin had a website with published photos and I found my ggg-grandparents photos.
by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.0m points)
Hi SJ thank you also for your answer. I agree with both you and Doug that researching other family and friends is very fruitful as our family didn't exist as lone rocks on the cliff face. As with Doug it seems that over there you have trouble locating the maiden name of your ancestors. That is such a pity. It must be hard to to identify where to look and what sources to use when the family name is unknown. You have done a great job in locating the maiden name of your gggg-grandmother. I too have found family photos online, they are such a treasure, and I feel a bit guilty that I haven't learnt how to share mine yet.
+6 votes
I have found newspapers both excellent and problematic both! Even reporters make mistakes. My grandfather, Ralph, was listed as Robert in his father’s obit. There are other examples, but that is the first that comes to mind.

I love working with wills, but then again, if the folks who are beneficiaries are not identified as to how they’re related... I won’t talk about the handwriting on lots of these.

Deeds: the listing of neighbors helps me.

Census: same... looking at the whole neighborhood is always helpful for me. Repeat handwriting comment!

Letters: very helpful for bio material. When Uncle John writes home and says that his brother-in-law was hit by a spent bullet on such-and-such a date, then I know that Uncle Larkin was at Chancellorsville in 1863.

It takes all of these sources together to paint a clearer picture. No one source really does that well.
by Pip Sheppard G2G Astronaut (2.0m points)
Hi Pip, thank you for your answer. I think that is completely right. It is the combination of all the sources together (that we can locate on a particular ancestor) that enables us to reassemble their life with as much accuracy as possible. And the more sources that are gathered on a particular ancestor the more likely it is that erroneous mistakes will be picked up, such as, in my case with Ann (Stack) Smith where I discovered that I was actually using the records of more than one person for her. I must admit I do like using newspapers, they are such a wealth of information. I have even used newspaper articles about an ancestor's wedding to help identify the people in the wedding photos. We all seem to agree (you, Doug, SJ and I) that researching family and friends and as you say looking at the whole neighbourhood  is an excellent strategy.
I have the letters my granddad wrote my grandma during WW2, both when they were still courting and later when they were married. With the letters I could identify that he was present when the Germans burnt a certain city in Russia. Granddad shortened the name, but with the help of the dates of his letters and the allknowing search engine I found out which city that was.
Hi Jelena, thank you for your comment. I agree that one source of information can be used in conjunction with others (like your letters) to piece together our ancestors lives. I found a newspaper report on one of my great aunt's marriage and with that I was able to identify the people in her wedding photo. Letters are so precious, sometimes I wish our family had more of them, unfortunately my family were not prolific letter writers.
+3 votes
For American records, I like land records, as tracts were often named and can be traced through generations for clues to inheritances.  Also court records might be helpful (and sometimes fun to read just for the spice of life drama).  Wills are great, when available, because everyone seems to like naming all of their children.

For English records, I don't like BMD so much as it's less specific than familysearch.org or others with respect to dates (BMD uses yearly quarters, which drives me crazy).  So I use sibling names and census records to try to trace difficult families.

In Scottish records, I'm pretty stumped most of the time.  My Scottish grandfather was what might be called "dour" (and minimally spoken), and I find Scottish records to be resonant with him.
by Robin Anderson G2G6 Mach 3 (39.8k points)
Hi Robin, thank you for your answer. Our newspapers over here are quite entertaining at times. The early ones hung people's 'dirty washing' out whenever they could which makes for interesting reading. I think you will find that the English records with the yearly quarters are those that people are expected to buy. I have never been a fan of records being held to ransom but I guess they have to pay for the archives etc someway. For those types of records I use Free BDM and for example, for a marriage I enter one person's name, have a look at the results, note down the volume and page numbers and then got back to search, put the volume and page numbers in without any names and see if the other person comes up in the results. You don't get much detail but you do get an idea when and where people were married. I haven't done much Scottish research because my Scottish ancestors didn't stay put long enough to leave many records behind but I'm with you I don't think Scotland is an easy place to research.
I find that people not even related to the family can give you clues to your heritage. A census listing your family member as a servant allows you to look up the master in earlier records and gives you an idea of how your family member traveled from place to place.  I've found bibles, Mormon records, magazines, newspapers, find a graves, and even personal phone calls to cemeteries to be helpful. It's usually bulldozing through that last tough mile that gets me to the answer I'm seeking. Be willing to go anywhere and do anything, and you'll persevere.
Hi Betty thank you for your comment. You have a great attitude and approach to genealogy. Well done. I agree, the people that our ancestors associated with or were friends with may hold vital clues so we can build our ancestor's lives more fully. You have an interesting array of sources and I think that is what good genealogy is about. Searching outside of those traditional birth, deaths and marriages. Your idea about magazines is an interesting one, I too like magazines, they are great for placing our ancestors in the context of their times. And cooking books. Here, in Tasmania, Australia we have a cooking book called the Central Cook Book that started out as a school text in the 1930's. It is very specific to Tasmania and even now it is a prized possession and many children want their mother's, grandmother's or great grandmother's copy from their schooldays. The recipes are still in use and just as relevant today as they were back in the 1930's. I have but one copy and many children a nice problem to have!
+1 vote
Hi Anne,

I have been working my family genealogy for more than 30 years, and I was fortunate to have two cousins who researched for at least 20 years before I started. After all the obvious sources were exhausted, there were still about 7 GG grandparents who were difficult to get passed. Just this year I found a new way (for me) to use early 1800s censuses, and a cousin shared with me a 300 postcard collection that belonged to a GG grandmother.

The postcard collection had photos of old family members, postmarks, names of other family members, and places where family members were or had been. I filled in a lot of holes with these postcards.

The early 1800 censuses gave me my best discoveries. I started making inventories of family members, since in the pre-1850 censuses, the names of the family members other than the head of household are not given. You can see how I used conflicting and various information sources, along with family inventories to confirm a difficult to match ancestor here: https://www.wikitree.com/g2g/643042/are-samuel-l-hook-and-samuel-f-hook-the-same-person-or-not

The difficult to match ancestor was Samuel Hook: https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Hook-846

You can see how I sourced the records in the biography by using the family inventory on Samuel Hook's profile, and also on his father's profile: https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Hook-846
by David Thomson G2G6 Mach 1 (12.9k points)
Hi David, thank you for your answer. Your work with Samuel L and Samuel F is very interesting. I had a look at the links you left and have found a bit more information on your Hook/Mallory family. I have added a source to the profile of Elisha Hook and also three on his daughter Mary A (Hook) Mallory. I have not added the information to their profiles because I thought you might want to look at the information yourself as you know your family and I don't. To access the information you just click on the number that is in the square brackets at the end of the source citation.

I found Elisha Hook living in Iowa, Louisa, Jefferson in 1850 on the FamilySearch site in the 1850 Census for that location. This record includes the names you have in your profiles in regard to your Mallory/Hook families. Included in that record is Horman/Herman (it's hard to distinguish) Mallory and Mary A Mallory. Although there are no relationships indicated you will find (once you look at the marriage of Herman/Horman Mallory and Mary A Hook) that they are in fact Elisha's son-in-law and daughter, also there are some of their children recorded and therefore Elisha's grand children.

The sources to records I left on Mary A (Hook) Mallory's profile are her marriage to Herman/Horman Mallory which includes her parents names. I have also included 2 sources from the 1880 Census with the same location as above. Image 3 of 12 has Herman/Horman and Mary A on it. I included image 4 of 12 (which you can delete if you want or move somewhere more appropriate) because it has Mallory's and Hook's on the same page.

In fact there is a whole cluster of Hook's and Mallory's in that location and what I would do is look at all 12 images (to move from one image to another just click on the arrows attached to the image box, you can go both backwards and forwards) to get an idea of how they are all connected. Maybe there are people in that area who were born in one of the locations Samuel may have gone to? The two images I left have Mallory's living consecutive to each other and a Hook family about two doors away.If you grow Samuel Hook's family, friends and associates around him you may come across sources that list him with his family etc, making it easier to decide whether Samuel L and Samuel F are the same person or not.

I hope this helps and I would be interested to know how it turns out.
Hi David, just another comment. In the 1870 Census (Iowa, Louisa, Jefferson) you have Mary A (Hook) Mallory with husband Harman and children living next door to her sister Martha with husband Willard and children. At the bottom of the page is Charles H Mallory in the household of a older couple named Root (The man was born in Virginia, the same place as Elisha Hook). Also on the page is a Mallory family with a child named Cora which is the same name as one of Mary A and Harmon's children. The Root name may be a lead back to Virginia and where the Hook's were.
Hi Anne, thanks for your observations. I will be following up on Elisha's family this Winter. What I did not know was the Root family was living nearby. Before leaving Virginia, Elisha owned a family of 11 slaves. I want to learn as much about this slave family as I can, and until you mentioned this, I had no leads. I would be very pleased if he brought them to Iowa to give them their freedom.
Hi David, I enjoyed having a look at your USA Census and helping you with your ancestors even if it was a only a small contribution. Your census' are so interesting, we hardly have any here. I too hope that your ancestor gave them their freedom. I can't comprehend how horrible that must have been for the enslaved people but our past here in Australia isn't squeaky clean either. Our first people fared dreadfully at the hands of the white settlers. And even today we have not come to grips with our past. And yet I don't feel like I have any other home other than where I was born. I must admit I'm glad you are approaching winter because that means summer is just around the corner for us. Bring on the warmth I say!
+1 vote
Military and widows pension records for Vets - homestead records - there is a couple more to check out
by Navarro Mariott G2G6 Pilot (145k points)
Hi Navarro, thank you for your answer. I will keep those sources in mind as I work through my DNA matches.
Want to add my voice to the pension record recommendation.  These are filled with depositions or family and neighbors that often reveal relationships and timelines.
The one I was checking out was so interesting - poor woman had to fight years to get that few bucks for herself after losing her husband who was in the war of 1812 - had to prove her marriage - guess that took a long time then his service records were lost as well, finally got a little before she too died - they can really tell a lot some of them
+1 vote

In one of my earliest research endeavors to "leap the pond," I tracked the names of baptismal sponsors (godparents) and marriage witnesses.  This revealed likely family units that I then looked for through the IGI on familysearch. I describe this process here and here (links go to part of a longer set of articles about an early genealogy journey). 

One thing that hasn't been mentioned is what you do with all these records.  That's my favorite part of research.  I describe that in a few places including the links above. I also illustrate it in my online research notes that led to my published NEHGR article. My husband is descended from a 17th century Richard Taylor-- a name almost as common as John Smith. I needed to tease apart multiple men with this name, two of whom had each married women named Hannah. I share my research notes here and here

I haven't looked at these pages in years.  They're fun. (To me!) 

More recently and due to my work on wikitree, I've used google docs to track and compile and analyze research efforts of multiple volunteers to analyze tricky genealogy questions: 

* what's known about the supposed Cornblossom, supposed Native American wife of Jacob Troxel? Here  

* making sense of the various sources related to the disputed ancestry of PGM immigrant Robert Hicks  here (still in progress)

by Jillaine Smith G2G6 Pilot (765k points)
I am sure glad you got that cleared up but I bet it is a big disspapointment to some people too - dang myths - I had thought a few times that my one way great Grandmother Titameg would go that way and evaporate into a story with no facts but it stayed in the tree and is backed up by the Hudson Bay Company records - so that is that
Hi Jillaine, thank you for the comments and the links you left. I having finished reading it all yet but I will keep digesting it. That is an extraordinary amount of work. I like your idea of writing the problem and the problem's pros and cons in columns. I think I might try that. I had a brief look at what others were saying and it would appear the issue is quite contentious. I also looked at a transcript of some Plymouth records. They were quite interesting although transcripts do offer opportunity for error. I did find a Gabriel Whielding as a Supervisor of Highways (our English not their's) and a Richard Tayler who was Surveyor of Highways (again our English not their's) both of Yarmouth and I couldn't help wondering if that was a bit of nepotism going on back in the 1640's! Sorry I'm not more specific but I have found if I leave my comment to look up info my comment isn't there when I come back and I have to write it all over again. Do you have a solution to that problem?
Be sure to save your comment.  Oops.  That's on the google docs.  I'm unaware of the ability to leave comments on the Rootsweb pages.

Related questions

+4 votes
4 answers
+5 votes
3 answers
+3 votes
1 answer
+2 votes
0 answers
+3 votes
2 answers
153 views asked May 7, 2016 in WikiTree Tech by Anonymous Barnes G2G6 Mach 3 (32.6k points)
+6 votes
1 answer
89 views asked Jan 8, 2020 in Genealogy Help by Leandra Ford G2G6 Mach 7 (77.8k points)
+36 votes
9 answers

WikiTree  ~  About  ~  Help Help  ~  Search Person Search  ~  Surname:

disclaimer - terms - copyright