Recently I was assisting a friend with her family research. She had inherited old family trees and other information without any source documents. While searching on WikiTree and Ancestry and similar sites, she found trees with her ancestors plus additional ancestors two generations back. That’s great, right? Hmm or maybe not. Let’s look.
For the sake of keeping this example simple, let’s call her ancestor George. His information is well documented and is her oldest proven ancestor. The other trees extended her ancestry two generations back with another George and a Henry. Some information across the trees matched while others had discrepancies with dates and places. Unfortunately, none of these trees had any source information other than referencing other family trees. We don’t know if these trees are correct. I offered to look and see what I could find with additional research.
So, what could we look for to help prove these are her ancestors:
Birth, Marriage, and Death Records
Her people were in Indiana and Ohio, and we found the marriage record for her ancestor George. Unfortunately, it didn’t list his parents. We found other marriage records for George’s children, but no birth or death records were found that would give us a clue about George’s parents. Many Midwest states didn’t start tracking birth and death records until much later.
We were able to find George’s family in Indiana in census records from 1850 census and forward. The census records prior to the 1850s only list the head of household by name with other family members noted by age range and gender. George didn’t marry until 1845 so the 1840 census would not have clarified much for us. If you already know your family details (siblings, ages, and place of residence) these earlier census records could support your data. You would compare what the people you know from 1850 with the gender and age of people in the earlier census records.
We are fortunate to have many newspapers online that we can search. We did not find anything for her ancestors in Indiana. We did find an obit for a more recent ancestor in Washington that confirmed other data. Not every newspaper has been scanned. Further research with a local library might be something she could pursue.
I thought that county histories might be one way that we could tie the two generations together. While it was interesting reading about the early settlers and a potential relative was listed, there wasn’t enough context to declare him a relative. These county histories do provide clues about settlement timelines and if the county was originally part of another county. The records might be there. These county histories are written by families who stayed in the area. Her people left for Minnesota in the 1870s.
A will or probate would list the ancestor and his children and spouse. This is a good way to understand a family unit if such a document exists. Unfortunately for us, it did not.
We did not pursue land records at this time. If the land was passed to the next generation, you might be able to find records that would provide more context. You would need to get information from the County Courthouse records of the parcel of land.
A good rule of thumb is to gather information about the people you know and then work backwards. We will also look at her ancestor’s siblings to see if we can find additional information. Since her George died in Minnesota, we were able to find his cemetery record in Find A Grave. The Minnesota Historical Society has death records from 1908 and forward so no death record was available there. Her next step will be to see if there are local county records for these ancestors. Perhaps they will include a clue as to the earlier generation.
While this was a fun exercise in researching her family, I have a better appreciation of researching prior to the 1850s. My ancestors all came to the United States after 1850. If you have relatives in the New England area, you might have better luck finding your people as they kept records much earlier than in the midwestern states. It is a good reminder that we should explore as many options as possible when researching our family history.
Here are additional articles and information about research prior to the 1850s.
Find Female Ancestors in Pre-1850 Census Records - Are You My Cousin? (lisalisson.com)
A Guide to Pre-1850 US Federal Censuses | Legacy Tree Genealogists
If you are researching for an ancestor in the United States prior to the 1850s I hope these are ideas that you can use. With persistence and luck perhaps, we will find my friend’s ancestor. Have fun researching!
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.