Expecting names to be spelled the same way

I found a fun video from Family History Fanatics listing seven common genealogy mistakes. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes, and have some guidelines for avoiding them. In this video, I’ll cover my principles for handling different spellings of names, especially surnames.

I have five things I think about when looking at name variations:

  1. It’s the sound, not the spelling.
  2. Ignore duplicate letters and silent vowels.
  3. Drop the vowels, focus on the consonants.
  4. Drop the consonants, focus on similar sounds.
  5. Consider the possibility of anglicization.

First, the written word is an imperfect reflection of speech. It doesn’t reflect the vast majority of human communication, which is via body language and tone. There’s also nothing sacred about how a sound is represented in writing: my named is spelled Michael in the Latin alphabet, but those sounds are just as easily expressed in the Arabic alphabet مايكل. In other words, I could spell my name Mykul and it would sound the same.

Second rule is to ignore letters that don’t add a sound. Consider my surname O’Neill, which is sometimes spelled with O’Neil with one l, and rarely O’Neille with a silent e. Today, that’s three different names but the sound is identical and that’s what you key on. Third rule, drop the vowels. Let’s take Devaney and Divine, Divinney and Devane? Are they the same surname?

When you drop the vowels from all of those variants, you get three very clear consonant sounds: D-V-N. Now, I can mimic potential accents just by varying vowel sounds between those letters and see what sounds similar. Whether I have an a, e, i or u between the D and the V, it sounds about the same. Between the V and the N, the sounds represented by a, e or i work pretty well, too. The last vowel, after the N is a bit trickier though, with the ey/ee/eh sounds working, but not much else. The whole exercise yields at least twenty-four different spellings that yield very similar sounds. More important, the eh sound shortens the vowel, and gets me to Divine.

Dropping the vowels isn’t always enough: you also have to think about consonant sounds that are similar. Take baseball hall of fame pitcher Stanley Coveleski. If you limit yourself to the consonants C-V-L-S-K you could lose him. The C could be represented by a K or even a hard G. The sound represented by V in many languages is interchangeable with W. And the vowel sounds could by modified by W or Y. My final thought here is thinking about the impact of cultural assimilation.

As an example, think about ethnic German immigrants to Colonial Pennsylvania. The first generation of immigrants segregated themselves from the “English” because of language and cultural barriers, probably living near people from their same village in the Rhineland. Their children would have learned English language and culture more easily, eventually acting as go-betweens when necessary. The grandchildren might attend different churches than the Quakers, perhaps speak some German, but their identity would more closely align to their Pennsylvania community than to their grandparents’ village in the Rhineland. Along the way, an easy-to-say German name such as Schlauch would become cumbersome for descendants raised speaking English, and they would simplify to Slough.

Same goes for Stanley Coveleski: he was born Stanislaus, but adopted the anglicized Stanley. Patriotic pressures can also play a role: in my research, I saw a sharp rate of anglicizing names across all ethnicities after the Revolution, and a more limited Anglicization amongst Germans and Eastern Europeans during World War I.

Standardization of spelling on names is actually a recent phenomenon, and it’s a function both of increased literacy and of government programs. The former is pretty obvious: if you go back to Colonial period, you didn’t go to school, you apprenticed to learn a trade, whether it was farming from your parents, or as an apprentice blacksmith. If your trade didn’t require literacy, then you weren’t literate—or your literacy was limited to snippets of the bible. One-room school houses didn’t pop up until well into the 1800s. The latter… governments keep records for taxation and benefits, and when you have countrywide benefits programs such as social security and Medicare, you have to have a certain level of standardization and consistency to avoid fraud. When you don’t you have those programs, your name can vary without any real consequences. In other words, the further back you go from the 1930s in the U.S., the more you’ll see spelling variation.

Secondary sources in genealogy

You can roughly group all genealogical sources into three types: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.

Secondary source documents are detailed analyses written after the event—sometimes centuries after—based on explicitly cited primary source documents. When I say explicitly cited, I mean that there are footnotes and endnotes. LOTS of them. Pages of them.
I don’t run into secondary sources very frequently: while there are lots of write-ups of family histories, I haven’t encountered many that bother with citations. Of those that do, the footnotes are too sparse to document all the facts.

When I do find secondary sources, my rule of thumb is to spot check the author’s work for several people. Once I feel confident of the quality of the research, I’ll cite the secondary source directly when obtaining the original documents is too difficult.
This is pretty similar to my principles for tertiary sources, which are summaries of family research without supporting citations. The key difference here is that, while I use both secondary and tertiary sources as roadmaps, I’m willing to directly cite a secondary source once I have confidence in the quality of the research.

The threshold, for me, is when it’s obvious to me that the researcher has gone above & beyond what I can accomplish from my living room.

Let me give you an example: “Our Raser Family” by Edward John Raser. My father-in-law handed me a copy of this book when I first started digging into my wife’s ancestry.

This 261-page single-name study of Rasers in the United States has an additional 66 pages of appendices which include full transcriptions of probate files, real estate documents, family bibles, and stories told by his distant cousins; detailed sources of each family photo and illustration presented in the book, and 22 pages of Greek-text end notes. It represents Edward Raser’s life work, condensing sixty-seven years of research into a single, 374-page tome.

I’ve used this book as a roadmap to my wife’s paternal tree, and for every person in it, Edward not only has the standard records I can find on Ancestry, but a bunch of other hard-to-find resources such as century-old letters and family bibles. At this point, I have such high confidence in Edward’s work, I’ll just cite a page in the book if I can’t find a primary source myself.

Where can you find secondary sources? I consistently run into them in two places:

  • One is the Daughters of the American Revolution. You can order full lineages from their site, and those include all the citations used in the application. Mind you, the older the application, the lower the standard of proof.
  • You can also find them in old genealogy magazines and the like. Ancestry.com has quite a few digitized and indexed.

Tertiary sources in genealogy

You can roughly group all genealogical sources into three types: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.

In this video, I’m going to give a quick, five-minute overview of tertiary source documents, which are summaries of family research without supporting citations. Quick version: assume good intent, but know the author made mistakes. You should use their research as a roadmap to find their sources, and double-check every part of their work.

You can roughly group all genealogical sources into three types: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary.

Primary source documents are created contemporaneously with a given event. Secondary source documents are detailed analyses written after the event—sometimes centuries after—and are based on explicitly cited primary source documents.

When I review tertiary sources, I follow my principles for genealogy research. First, the person who created the source had good intentions. They’re not lying, they’re not fabricating facts out of thin air. They want to get this right. Second, despite their best efforts, they’re human. They make honest mistakes. They might have misunderstood the record, confused it with another person, or even presented a guess from another researcher as fact.

To put it another way, you shouldn’t trust tertiary sources to have the facts correct, but you can use them to retrace someone else’s steps to help speed up your search.

Let’s look at two examples of tertiary sources.

First, the genealogy of Jacob Esher Heyl contained in Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Pennsylvania, and published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1911. I was specifically interested in Philip Heyl, an ancestor of my wife and a Philadelphia baker who fought at the Battle of Princeton in January of 1777. The source gives his birth and death dates, and that’s enough to find a primary source noting his date of death, as well as a will which proves his connection to the Raser family.

Let’s take an example where assuming good intent will lead you astray: Eugene Singer’s “A Singer Family of Colonial Vermont and Canada.” First self-published in 1996, Singer’s work was the only published genealogy of the George Slough who married and had a family in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s, and died in Ontario, Canada around 1811.

Singer asserted that George Slough was the eldest son of J. Philip Schlauch and A. Margaretha Hertzel of Northampton County, Pennsylvania—their son was of the right age and came from Pennsylvania.

Philip died intestate in the 1750s, and the Orphan’s Court record notes that their eldest son, George, made claim to the estate in 1759. Singer wrote that in 1769, George’s younger brother, “Jacob Slough petitioned the court for division of their father’s estate. It is a matter of record that George did not participate in this event.” Singer then writes that the genealogy upon which he relied states that “George had ‘probably died’ since there was no further record.”

At point, Singer’s genealogy goes a bit pear-shaped, and he alleges that George Slough didn’t really die, he was just presumed dead by the Orphan’s Court. Singer says that George had just “moved out” because of his wicked stepfather, and was living seventy-miles away in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Singer’s work gives you a roadmap to retrace his steps, and the directions point to Hannah Benner Roach’s 1966 genealogy of the Herzel family published in the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine. I found that article on Ancestry.com, and it notes that Philip Schlauch & Margaret Hertzel’s son George “died unmarried and without issue.”

Taking it a step further, I found Philip Schlauch’s probate record on familysearch.org, where the contemporary record notes that “George the eldest son (who died since without Iʄsue).”

Let’s assume good intentions: Singer found Roach’s article in the 1980s or early 1990s, mis-wrote his notes, and came to the wrong conclusion. But he provided enough information in his work to retrace his steps. And with that I could conclude that he made a mistake. There were two men name George Slough of about the same age living in Pennsylvania. One died around 1760, the other moved to Canada and died in 1811.

The George Slough who died in Canada was probably born in Germany, and considering how many George Sloughs there were in Colonial Pennsylvania, it can be tough to separate them out.

Probate case study: using Virginia intestate law to prove an “illegimate” lineage

Intestate probate proceedings can be one of the most valuable primary source genealogical documents out there because the proceedings are governed strictly by law. Problem is, the laws may not make sense to you, and they can be hard to find.
In this entry, I’m going to give you a case study of how the actual text of Virginia’s intestate laws resolved a tough genealogy problem. This is a quick summary of a more detailed article I posted a couple years ago.

It started with my wife’s ancestor, Julia Chew, wife of Thomas Chew (1801-1879). According to her tombstone, she was born on 2 March 1804, and various records put her birthplace in in Virginia.

The consensus was that Julia’s maiden name was Huggins. As always, I assumed good intent when looking at secondary and tertiary sources—that is, other people’s research—and I found a March 1835 probate proceeding in Highland County, Ohio for a William Huggins who named two daughters, July Chew & Thirza Hancher, as well as a son Doctor Benjamin Franklin M. Huggins.

Fun fact: Doctor wasn’t a title, it was actually the poor guy’s first name. What a mouthful.

Anyway, the probate file noted that William owned land in Frederick County, Virginia.

Julia and Thomas spent most of their lives in Highland County, Ohio and in Indiana, but they started their married lives in Virginia, where their first three children were born between 1826 and 1830. So… they were probably married in or around Frederick County, Virginia where Julia’s dad owned land! Right? Right?

There is a record of an 1823 marriage bond in Frederick County, Virginia for a Thomas Chew, but here’s where the problem started. Thomas married a Julia Minser, not Julia Huggins. The bondsman—a role typically held by a close family member such as a father—was William Huggins, so I felt this had to be the right record. I looked for a record of a Julia Huggins marrying a man named Minser, and couldn’t find one.

I could walk away and say I’ve got it, I know the father. But… it just felt weird. When I hit a problem, a brick wall, I’ve found that one of the best ways to punch through is to examine siblings.

I discovered the name of Thirza’s deceased husband, Barton Hancher, in extended wrangling over William Huggins’ will.

Barton was from Berkeley County, adjacent to Frederick County. And in Frederick County, I found an 1832 bond for the marriage of Barton Hancher to Thirza Minser, with Franklin Higgins as the bondsman—that has to be Doctor Benjamin Franklin M. Huggins, right?

So… that’s really weird. William Huggins named both women as his daughters, but there’s no way that both women had first married a man named Minser before remarrying to Thomas Chew and Barton Hancher respectively.

At this point, I was totally confused, so I started looking around for Minsers in the Frederick area for any clues. And I found one: a fellow named Brad Minser had found a will abstract for a Rebecca Minson naming “Thomas Chin & his wife” and attached it to his ancestor, Rebecca Hancher Minser. The abstract also named “George P. Chrisman & his wife”—Thirza, widowed in 1835, married George P. Chrisman in 1837 in Highland County, Ohio.

Then I looked back at William Huggins’ will. It actually named a Wm. Minser in relation to some debts, and lo and behold, Brad Minser’s tree listed William Minser as son of Rebecca Hancher Minser.

This has to be all the same family, but there’s no explanation to why Thirza and Julia appear with the wrong maiden name. Or why they would appear in the probate proceeding of a Rebecca Minser receiving shares in her estate equal to Rebecca’s kids.

So I went back to my principles: always read the original. The abstract Brad Minser had posted listed Books 23 and 25 of Frederick County Will Books as containing the full probate proceeding. I ordered microfilms of those books from the Family History Library, and discovered that Rebecca hadn’t named Julia Chew and Thirza Chrisman in her will. She had died intestate, and since both women received shares equal to Rebecca’s other children, they had to have been her daughters. I also saw the transcription error—it wasn’t Thomas Chin in the original, it was Thomas Chew.

Both women were born well after Rebecca’s husband, Jacob Minser died, so he couldn’t be the father. William Huggins claimed both women were his daughters, but he and Rebecca never married.

My new hypothesis? William and Rebecca “cohabited without formalities.” Or to put it in the lingo of the 1800s, Julia and Thirza were bastards.

Intestacy is strictly governed by law, so the law itself could prove my hypothesis. I got my hands on an 1857 guide book for Virginia probate law, and got a clear answer. And I quote “Bastards also shall be capable of inheriting on the part of their mother, in like manner as if they had been lawfully begotten of such mother.”

At the time, bastards carried their mothers’ surname, even when the father was known. Put it all together, and it explains why Julia’s and Thirza’s maiden names were Minser, not Huggins.

Final point: Doctor Benjamin Franklin M. Huggins didn’t receive a share of Rebecca Minser’s estate, and that means he had a different mother than Julia and Thirza. Not that I have had any luck figuring out who.

Browsing probate records online

Probate documents can be goldmines for genealogical research, few documents are both digitized and indexed, so expect to put in some real effort to find these.

In this video, I’ll cover how to find things in digitized probate records once you find the repository. I’ve covered finding the repository in a previous entry.

Short version:

  1. Not every death results in a probate record.
  2. Start with digitally indexed repositories, but….
  3. Expect to browse through hand-written indices in digitized court records, and
  4. Always include a source citation.

Before we get too far, it’s really important to remind yourself that not every death results in probate records. For example, a person who lived hand-to-mouth isn’t going to make out a will. Wills made out by people without debts or real estate might not need to be recorded with the county court—the executor could just distribute the assets.

So, with that in mind, start you search on Ancestry.com or another site where probate records are digitally indexed by name of decedent.

I wish it were that easy, but it’s pretty rare when I can find what want via a digital index. That’s when it’s time to start browsing through images. I prefer doing this on FamilySearch.org because the site just feels well suited to browsing. You’ll need to create a free account, but after that, just search in the catalog for the county you need. let’s look at Lancaster Cty, Pennsylvania for sources where the author is something like “Pennsylvania. Orphan’s Court” rather than a person’s name.

We’re looking for Jacob Slough, and Lancaster county conveniently has an index off wills. Indexes can be sorted in many methods, and this is my favorite: it uses the first letter of the surname, the first letter of the forename, and the year of the document. Why? Well, surname spellings can vary—I’ve seen a dozen different variants of Slough—so just having the first letter makes it much easier. I find the J’s, and there is Jacob from 1750. Note down the book and page—that’s book A page 204. You’ll have to jump around a bit to find the right page to find it Jacob’s 1750 will.

That county’s records appear straightforward, but wills are just one type of probate record. I’ve got some videos on the types of documents involved in probate, but the quick version is that intestate administrations, inventories and other documents should exist elsewhere.

Take Belmont County, Ohio. This is a much bigger list of documents than in Lancaster county, and the index is much more complicated than in Lancaster. The case number here is pretty important: Belmont County put most probate records into files by decedent, though wills are still recorded chronologically in books.

If you’re extracting images from FamilySearch.org to add to your tree on another site—I bring them over to ancestry.com—there’s a really critical step. When you copy the image, make sure you also copy the citation text in the Information tab and include that in the metadata of the image. If you forget to do that and have a need to revisit the docs, you don’t want to go browsing through FamilySearch again.

Probate documents you may find when there’s no will

Probate documents are one of the best primary source documents, but they’re also one of the most complicated, partly because of the dizzying array of different document types, such as:

  1. Probate proceedings.
  2. Bonds, letters of administration, letters testamentary, and other administrativa.
  3. Inventories & bills of sale.
  4. Guardianship.

In this entry, I’m going to focus on intestate proceedings, where there’s no valid will. I’ve covered wills and guardianship separately.
If you’re lucky, these proceedings will be handled by a special-purpose court, which can make records easier to find. For example, in Pennsylvania, the Orphan’s Courts handled such proceedings.

Intestate probate proceedings are both complicated and extremely valuable genealogically. The reason that intestate is complicated is that the proceeding are governed by local laws which reflected cultural mores of the time. But you won’t find explicit references to those laws in the proceedings, you’ll just see decisions that seem strange today, but were really run-of-the-mill for the time.

Let me give you an example. Colonial Pennsylvania law gave the eldest son the option to buy out his siblings’ share of his father’s real property, provided he could come up with the funds within one year.

If you didn’t know this, however, you might come to the wrong conclusion. Consider this family genealogy, which states that a Jacob Slough petitioned the court to have his father’s estate divided up. The genealogy considers this to be a significant event related to a wicked stepfather taking control of the farm, and Jacob trying to seize it back. But it wasn’t even worth mentioning, and he wasn’t asking for the property to be divided up. Jacob’s motion was just a routine procedure in intestate proceedings.

Before Jacob could buy-out his siblings’ shares of their father’s estate, the law required proof—via the testimony of twelve “disinterested” men—that the farm could not be divided into equal shares without diminishing the value of the property. Perhaps it couldn’t be partitioned because only one share had access to water, or perhaps it was because most of the acreage was uncleared, leaving each farmable parcel too small to support a family.

Anyway, that’s all that Jacob was asking: that the court follow a standard procedure outlined in Pennsylvania law to send twelve men to check out the farm and decide whether it could or could not be split up. If it couldn’t be partitioned, Jacob could buy-out his siblings’ share of their fathers’ real estate.

It’s hard to provide specific advice here, since every state will have different laws. Here’s the best rule of thumb: if something seems strange in an intestate proceeding, assume that you are the problem, and that what you’re seeing is usual.

Then search for guidance about the laws of that state to see if you can learn more. If you’re lucky, you’ll find pre-built explanations. Bob’s Genealogy Filing Cabinet is a pretty good one. But it may come down to finding an old book on worldcat and requesting it via inter-library loan. I’ve actually got a case study video that hinged on how Virginia’s intestate laws treated children born out of wedlock. Without a copy of the law, I could only speculate.

Intestate probate proceedings are going to follow some boilerplate conventions, the most important of which is that children will almost always be listed in birth order. One common exception is if the first-born son has special legal rights: in this case, he may be listed ahead of any older sisters.

Intestate proceedings may also include assignment of guardians for minor children. Pay close attention to this: many courts will note that a child was below or above a certain age. For probate proceedings taking place over many years, you can get very accurate estimates of when some of the children were born.

Intestate proceedings may also include letters of administration, bonds and an inventory. These are just administrativa, and the only genealogical value is that the people named tend to be family, friends, associates and neighbors of the deceased. Sometimes you’ll get a relationship for a single person, but that’s about it.

Letters of administration state that a given individual is the estate’s administrator, and can transact on behalf of the estate until it is settled. If there are minor children, the administrator may keep showing up in court until the youngest child reaches the age of majority.

Bonds are a financial guarantee that the administrator and or guardian won’t embezzle from the estate. If a court later found the executor guilty of financial malfeasance, the executor and another person would be held financially liable for an amount that could be higher than the estimated value of the estate, depending on the extent of the malfeasance.

Inventories are the output of an estate sale, and can come in two parts: an estimate of the value of personal items, and the actual bill of sale. These can be interesting in learning about the decedent’s possessions. The bill of sale will include family members making purchases, but they won’t be identified as such—this can be a lead for figuring out who a decedent’s daughters married.

Finding repositories for probate records

Probate documents can be goldmines for genealogical research, but few documents are both digitized and digitally indexed, so expect to put in some real effort to find these.

In this video, I’ll cover the prep work you’ll need to do to find a repository for probate records. I’ll cover finding documents in a second video.

Short version:

  1. You’ll need a probable year and place of death.
  2. Check Wikipedia to see if county boundaries changed.
  3. Records can be lost—check the county’s history.
  4. Start with Ancestry.com, then go to FamilySearch, then get to the library.

Let’s dig into the meat of this. To get started, U.S. records are stored chronologically at the county level. You’ll need a rough idea when your ancestor died, and where. Death certificates, Find-a-grave, even census records can help.

The where can be tricky, though: county boundaries changed, especially in frontier areas, such as Ohio in the early 1800s or Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Court records remain in the original county courthouse. For example, if your ancestor died in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1799, you would find a probate record in York County. If they died a year later, however, you would find the record in Adams County, which was carved out of York County in 1800. I’ve found Wikipedia is a great source for understanding how counties are partitioned over time.

Also, be aware that records may have been lost, through water damage, fire or even the ravages of war. I’ve had a lot of difficulty finding pre-1865 probate records in southern states that saw heavy fighting in the Civil War.
So, with all of that in mind, start your search on Ancestry.com or another site where probate records are digitally indexed by name of decedent.

I wish it were that easy, but it’s pretty rare when I can find what want via a digital index. The next step is to check the probate inventory on FamilySearch.org. Some probate records are digitized, though not indexed. But many aren’t, which means you need to go old school.

I’m a big fan of the library at this stage. If you’re lucky, like me, you live close to a city with a great genealogy section. If you don’t, inter-library loans can bring great libraries to your local branch.

Let’s take a glance at Family Search’s probate information for Highland County, Ohio. See those books with authors? You’ll often find a handful of books published in the last 20 to 50 years that have indices and abstracts, not just of probate, but of all sorts of county records with genealogical value.

Book links on FamilySearch will take you to worldcat.org, which is a huge database of library catalogs. Worldcat provides more than enough info to have your local library request the book via inter-library loan.

And these books are goldmines. A lot of these books will index anyone referenced in their abstract of a probate proceeding, meaning you can find probate proceedings that mention your ancestor but are centered on your ancestor’s family, friends, associates and neighbors. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch can’t do that, and that kind of information can help you break down brick walls.

Take a look at the notes I took from Records of the Recorder’s Office of Highland County, Ohio. I was looking for information about the probate proceedings for William Huggins, led by his son-in-law Thomas Chew. I expected to find the first two entries about that probate proceeding, but not the third with Nancy & Zebulon Overman. Who were they? This is a topic for another video, but that unexpected entry resulted in a complete restructuring of one branch of my wife’s family tree.

Ideally, an old book abstracting probate records will point you right back to FamilySearch.org’s digitized records, but there’s a good chance you’ll have to order a microfilm from the Family History Library. If your public library isn’t a partner with the Family History Library, you can have the microfilm sent to a nearby Mormon family history center.

Now, as a fellow who doesn’t believe in a god of miracles, a personal god, I felt a little awkward showing my face in a Mormon building. Like my preference for Einstein’s “old man” was somehow tattooed on my face. Mormon co-workers told me not to worry about it, and they were right: everyone was very welcoming. So don’t feel shy.

If you can’t find what you need via the Family History Library’s microfilms, though, you have to ask yourself how dedicated you really are, because now you have to find a repository for the probate books that contain the docs you want. Sometimes, you can order them from the county directly. Other times, a local historical society may have the documents and are set-up to help you acquire them.

But the worst case scenario—and I’ve been here—is that you have to physically visit the county courthouse to view their records. Which could be hugely expensive.

As a last resort, if you can’t make the trip, you could hire a process server. I’ve done that, but… a process server is accustomed to finding modern court documents on deadline or serving subpoenas to people who don’t want to receive them. Asking them to find a court case from the 1750s… they’ll take your money but expect to it to cost several hundred dollars. And even then, they may not be able to find what you want.

Probate: Types of documents you may find along with a will


Probate documents are one of the best primary source documents, but they’re also one of the most complicated, partly because of the dizzying array of different document types, such as:

  1. Wills.
  2. Bonds, letters of administration, letters testamentary, and other administrativa.
  3. Inventories.
  4. Probate proceedings.
  5. Settlement.
  6. Guardianship.

In this post, I’m going to focus on testate proceedings where a person made out a will. I’ll cover guardianship and intestacy—when there’s no will—separately.

Testate probate proceedings are the most straightforward. At a minimum, you will have a last will and testament which documents how a decedent wants his (or her) property to be distributed.

Wills are fairly boilerplate—you’ll see similar language in all of them, and there are a couple conventions which are incredibly helpful for genealogy:

1) First, listing children in birth order. It’s not used all the time, but when you have no other indicators of age, assume the kids are listed by age. It can be a really useful way to narrow down searches.

2) Second, is the clarifying text listing sons-in-law, e.g. “Caroline, who is intermarried with Henry Roth.”

You may also encounter letters testamentary, bonds and an inventory. These are just administrativa, and the only genealogical value is that the people named tend to be family, friends, associates and neighbors of the deceased. Sometimes you’ll get a relationship specified for a single person, but that’s about it.

Letters testamentary state that a given individual is the estate’s executor, and can transact on behalf of the estate until it is settled. Getting this letter isn’t always necessary: in some locales, if an executor is named in a will, she has the legal authority to act on behalf of the estate. She doesn’t even need to prove the will in court to get started.

Bonds are a financial guarantee that the executor won’t embezzle from the estate. If a court later found the executor guilty of financial malfeasance, the executor and another person would be held financially liable for an amount that could be higher than the estimated value of the estate, depending on the extent of the malfeasance.

Inventories are the output of an estate sale, and can come in two parts: an estimate of the value of personal items, and the actual bill of sale. These can be interesting in learning about the decedent’s possessions. Now, the bill of sale will include family members making purchases, but they probably won’t be identified as such. This can be a lead for figuring out who a decedent’s daughters married.

Sometimes, the execution of a will can go sideways, and you’ll find a record of this in probate proceedings. For example, if the decedent’s spouse was pregnant when the decedent died, state law might render the will invalid.

Or the terms of the will might be impossible to meet, and the decedent’s family may have to sue the executor, who was probably a sibling or spouse. Even if the executor was in agreement, our adversarial court system means there must be an appellant and a respondent. I found a case where a wife had to sue her executor husband over the disposition of her father’s estate. The executor, of course, testified in court that he was in complete agreement with his wife, but she still had to sue him.

The actual court handling probate proceedings will vary state to state, and that can make it difficult to find.

The final document type you may encounter is an estate settlement. In my experience, this is the rarest type of document to find, and is typically part of probate proceedings. But it is worth calling out because of its potential high genealogical value.
If the will explicitly lists out all familial relationships, the settlement won’t matter much. If the decedent didn’t map out familial relationships, perhaps by saying “I leave my entire estate to my children, share and share alike,” a settlement is gold. “Share and share alike” means that each child gets an equal share, so even if relationships aren’t named, you will know that all the people receiving the same amount of money are siblings.

Settlements can also help when the recipient of one of the decedent’s bequests passed away. The settlement will list out the bequest and then name all the people who received it—that will be heirs of the recipient.

I had a case where this was the only way to prove lineage as there were no baptismal records, and both parents, Jacob Slough and Elizabeth Morey Slough, died without leaving any trace in probate records. But the Elizabeth’s father’s estate settlement named her and listed all of their children together. More important, the sum of the share of the estate given to her children equaled that given to Elizabeth’s siblings, proving the relationship.

Trying to get from Illinois to Ireland

In my intro video for Irish Catholic genealogy, I listed three things I try to do when connecting my Irish-American ancestors to their family in Ireland:

  1. Remind myself that every name will have multiple individuals.
  2. Narrow it down to one townland.
  3. Find at least one more supporting fact.

Now I’m going to try to apply this to my second great grandfather, Joseph Fitzgerald. He was born in County Clare on 5 May 1828 according to his tombstone. When he married Helena Burke in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1855, he told County registrars that his parents were James and Catherine Fitzgerald.

It feels like that should be enough to figure out where Joseph’s parents lived. While there aren’t many Irish sources from the 1820s to the 1850s, there is Griffith’s Valuation, which recorded heads of households leasing private land. A quick search on James Fitzgerald at askaboutireland.ie yields eleven entries (excluding landholders, who were Protestant). That’s in a place that is just slightly larger than Rhode Island.

As I mentioned before, it’s critical to find your ancestor’s townland, and finding maps of townlands is much easier than you think. Just use Bing Maps. Full disclosure, I work for Microsoft, but I’m not shilling for my employer in this case. Bing maps will show you townland names. Google Maps will not.

That said, if you’re looking at Griffith’s Valuation, do your search at aksaboutireland.ie—the site will pull up a map for you.

So… where are all those James Fitzgeralds in County Clare? The red Xs in the image below.

That’s a lot of locations, but thankfully, stories passed down to my grandfather tell that James’ son was born about ten miles from Limerick, and that green band approximates five to fifteen miles from Limerick.

Now, James’ son, Joseph, married a woman from the town of Broadford, which is 12 miles from Limerick, and considering how chain migrations work—people from one village in the old country often moved to the same neighborhoods in the new world—odds are good that Joseph was from Clonlea or Kilseily townlands near Broadford.

Going great, right? I don’t necessarily even need to find a baptismal record for my Joseph around 1828. All I really need to find is one baptismal record in the right parish between say 1815 and 1840 where the parents are James and Catherine Fitzgerald and I’m golden.

Unfortunately, I can’t find such a record. The best is for the 1834 and 1843 baptisms of Patrick and Bridget respectively, born to James Fitzgerald and Catherine Halpin from Clooney townland. That’s 20 miles from Limerick, not ten. Plus, family oral history notes that James and Catherine had boys named Mike and Tom, and we’re not seeing entries for those.

So… another strategy I’ve found useful is to eliminate as many other people with the same name as I can. In other words, if I can figure out that all James Fitzgeralds from close to Limerick were not married to Catherines, then I can feel more confident about the Clooney record.

I’ve looked in a bunch of different places, however, and… no joy. I can fill in the details of some of the couples, but not for the James Fitzgeralds close to Broadford.

Why don’t I just accept this couple as my ancestors?

The James and Catherine from Clooney townland just don’t meet my rules. I don’t have records for the same fact in both the U.S. and Ireland. I don’t have a clean townland match—if I’d found something close to Broadford, I would’ve taken it. And… I have to remember all those other James Fitzgeralds.

Probate: Guardianship isn’t about custody


Probate documents are one of the best primary source documents, but they’re also one of the most complicated. Where I see the most confusion, though, is understanding guardianship, especially in Colonial and early Republic probate proceedings.

If you want to dig deeper, I recommend spending some time at “Bob’s Genealogy Filing Cabinet” at genfiles.com, but here’s the quick overview. And actually, I’m going to start with a couple of quotes from that site’s Orphans & Guardians article, which really does a fantastic job of providing historical perspective.

“For most of history an orphan was a fatherless child, irrespective of whether the mother was living.”

“The guardian’s responsibility was focused on the property of the orphan [not] on the orphan himself… the primary purpose of a guardian was to provide for management of the orphan’s estate, and to use that estate for his maintenance and education… Guardianship thus had nothing to do with physical custody. Courts almost always assumed that orphaned children would live with their mother if she was alive and capable of rearing them.”

Honestly, if you can internalize that, then you can stop watching this video. You’ve got the message. Of course, I have a few things to add, along with an example of how to misinterpret guardianship.

First, pay close attention to when the courts assign guardians. Many courts will note in the record that a child was below or above a certain age. For probate proceedings taking place over many years, you can get very accurate estimates of when some of the children were born.

Second, probate was a family affair. When courts assigned guardians, they typically chose close family members to play the role. As an example, I have been struggling for three years with the role of two brothers, Thomas and Joseph Chew as the guardians chosen by Nancy Chew Overman—I can’t figure out how Nancy was related to the two men, and the widely accepted genealogy puts Thomas and Joseph as siblings to a completely different Nancy Chew, which would have made Nancy Overman a fourth or fifth cousin.

Third, realize how different education is today compared to a century ago. In 1919, only 17% of high school students graduated, which was nearly triple the rate of 1900. In 2016, 84% graduated high school.

Go back to the 1800s? High schools didn’t really even exist. Education happened in a one-room school house that ended after the eighth grade.

Go back even further to the colonial era, your education happened on the job, either from your parents or via an apprenticeship.

For example, in colonial Pennsylvania, apprenticeship was such an important educational path that a 1713 law granted the courts the explicit power to place a minor orphan into an apprenticeship or other form of employment upon the request of a guardian.

So… how not to treat guardianship. Here’s an excerpt from a genealogy of the Slough family in Pennsylvania. The story is that a wicked step-father banished his step children from their home and placed them into the care of guardians on nearby farms.

You can already see the problem right there. The author equated guardianship with custody.

What really happened is that when Philip Slough died intestate, his children were all minors, so the court assigned them guardians to protect their financial interests and represent them in court.

I guess some of the older children could have been apprenticed out to nearby farms, but this would have been typical for the period. There’s no mention of apprenticeships in the probate file, though.