Mid-Atlantic and Southern Genealogy: Tips & Record Types

Researching your U.S. mid-Atlantic and Southern genealogy can be a challenge (ever heard of “burned counties?”). These top tips and key record types may help you bust your genealogy brick walls in these regions.

Thanks to Robert Call of Legacy Tree Genealogists for writing this guest post! Learn more about Legacy Tree Genealogists below.

The Challenge

Some of the most difficult genealogical research problems filter down to us through the poor record keeping, burned depositories, and social customs of our ancestors who lived in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern United States. Notoriously challenging, many of the requests that we receive at Legacy Tree Genealogists are to assist others in discovering their Southern ancestors. In this blog post, we’ll discuss some of the key record types we use when solving a Mid-Atlantic or Southern States problem.

Top tips for mid-Atlantic and Southern genealogy

First, three general tips are good to keep in mind when researching Mid-Atlantic and Southern ancestors.

1. Be patient

Research problems from these states generally require much patience—slowly chipping away at the problem at hand, searching out documents, considering the evidence, and letting it simmer. Rushing through a problem will result in missed evidence, conclusions with insufficient proof, or even just accidental errors. Giving a research problem time allows for more evidence gathering, more critical evaluation, and for fresh ideas and potential solutions to emerge from the documents and our analysis.

2. See what’s been done

Evaluate the pertinent work others have done on the same ancestral families. Usually, the best places to find the best research are periodicals such as National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (which publishes articles pertaining to all regions of the United States), and The American Genealogist. (The article shown here comes from the National Genealogical Society Quarterly Vol 99:1, March 2011, pp. 5-14.) In addition to these, there are state, regional, and local genealogy journals. [Note from Genealogy Gems: use PERSI, the Periodical Source Index at Genealogy Giant Findmypast.com to search for surnames and other subjects that appear in genealogy journal and newsletter articles. Click here to learn more about PERSI.]

Similarly, use search engines and library catalogs (such as the FamilySearch Catalog, university catalogs, and WorldCat) to discover whether book-length treatments of your family have been published. Because these volumes are usually not published by academic presses, are self-published, and are rarely peer-reviewed, the credibility of each history must be carefully evaluated but could offer important clues for your own research.

Online family trees at the Genealogy Giants, like the Public Member Trees at Ancestry.com or the global Family Tree at FamilySearch.org, may also provide good research or point to the holy-grail source—such as a property deed, family bible, probate document, etc.—that provides the necessary evidence. Of course, there is a lot of bad information floating around the Internet (including in online family trees) so be careful about what you accept as reliable. [Click here to watch a free video comparing the online tree model at Ancestry.com with the tree type used at FamilySearch.org.]

3. Befriend your ancestors’ friends

Pay attention to the extended kinship network and friends of your ancestors. These people often followed similar migration patterns, which can help you discover where ancestors originated, especially as people frequently moved throughout the South. For example, perhaps you know your Fitzpatrick ancestors in Georgia were born in North Carolina, but you cannot determine where in North Carolina. If many of the Georgian neighbors migrated from Rowan County, North Carolina, it would be worth a look in Rowan County’s records for your ancestors. Documents pertaining to aunts, uncles, cousins, or in-laws may shed light on your direct ancestors and help untangle the web of relationships that may not be clear from documents related to your ancestors.

Now for some insight into record types we frequently use for Mid-Atlantic and Southern States problems.

Top records for mid-Atlantic and Southern genealogy

Property records

This record type is one of the most useful when tackling families in the South or Mid-Atlantic regions. Property records document the transaction of real and personal property among the parties to the transaction. This usually means the transfer of land but could also include enslaved people or other high-value items (we’ve even seen the rights to use and sell a patent in designated areas recorded in property collections).

Property was often transferred among family members, which in turn helps the genealogist in his or her work. Family relationships are not always stated in deeds, but sometimes can be inferred from the phrasing. Even a possible relationship can be noted until additional evidence proving or disproving the hypothesis is discovered. And don’t ignore the witnesses! Property records usually include one, two, three or more witnesses attesting to the validity of the transaction and the witnesses were sometimes family.

Less-experienced genealogists sometimes only search the deed volumes, but a county may have kept other types of property records (mortgages being a common one) which should be searched as well. Property records are helpful when researching enslaved ancestors as well because they document the movements among various slaveholders and sometimes the enslaved person’s family relationships. Because property almost always constituted an inheritance—which fell to family members after debts were paid—the distribution of an estate is sometimes documented in the property collections rather than the probate records.

Excerpt from a property transaction between William C. Cross and his wife, Elizabeth, and William D. Cross, recorded in Calhoun County, Alabama. FamilySearch.org.

Probate Records

Probate records are the documents a court generates to distribute a deceased person’s estate. As mentioned above, the property almost always was divided among the deceased’s family members (instances where the testator chose to bequeath his or her property exclusively to non-family which was a rarity). Thus, in the absence of good vital records, as is the case in Southern and Mid-Atlantic states for most periods, probates may offer the necessary evidence to prove a family relationship.

A word of caution: That someone was listed as an heir to a deceased person’s estate is not proof that he or she was a child of the deceased. Frequently, when an heir was not a child, he or she was a grandchild of the deceased, suggesting the parent of the grandchild was deceased and his or her portion of the inheritance then went to the grandchildren. Like property records, probate records can also help in researching enslaved individuals because they were considered property in the law and were included in probate records as property sold to pay debts or bequeathed to the deceased’s heirs.

Excerpt from a 1730s will from Cecil County, Maryland, where the testator leaves property to his “couzens.” FamilySearch.org.

[Ready to learn more about probate records? Click here to read Gems contributor Margaret Linford’s reasons for loving these genealogically-rich records.]

Guardianship Records

These records were created when a minor needed a legal guardian to represent them in legal matters (especially when the child inherited or could inherit property). It was not necessary for both parents to be deceased for a legal guardian to be appointed for a minor child. We have seen guardians appointed in instances when the mother was still alive, but the father deceased, and when the mother was deceased with the father still living. Guardianships can help prove a parent-child relationship or even whether a set of proposed siblings were truly siblings. These records also help prove the death of an ancestor. Guardians were sometimes older siblings, in-laws, grandparents, or extended families, so noting who the guardian was can help crack your Southern or Mid-Atlantic States research problem.

Excerpt from a guardianship bond from Butts County, Georgia appointing a guardian for William, Samuel, and John Shedrick, orphans of Samuel Shedrick. FamilySearch.org.

Civil court records

Once again, this type of record for mid-Atlantic and Southern states research problems often focused on property. When a dispute arose over property ownership, these matters were usually settled in the courts and there is a good chance that the documents pertaining to those proceedings may survive today. Disputes over property ownership may have been caused by conflicts regarding an inheritance. Or, perhaps neighbors argued over where a property boundary was located and the court records may document how the parties came about owning the property—which could have been through the family.

Court records may be more difficult to access because fewer have been microfilmed (the collections at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, are a good place to start but are by no means complete) or digitized, so it may be necessary to contact the local courthouse or the state archives. But the patience and effort may be well worth the discoveries.

Excerpt from the 1820s civil actions collection of Macon County, North Carolina, naming Su-e-Killah and Yo-hoo-lah as the children and heirs of Au-back, a Cherokee Indian, and his widow, Ta-nah. Ancestry.com.

While Southern and mid-Atlantic States genealogy research is some of the most challenging research in the United States, solving those “brick wall” problems is exciting and satisfying! Patiently working through the property, probate, guardianship, and court records while searching for our direct ancestors and those connected to them can help extend our ancestries and discover previously unknown ancestors.

Robert Call is a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit www.legacytree.comExclusive Offer for Genealogy Gems readers: Receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code GGP100! (Offer may expire without notice.)

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

7 Sources for Finding Immigrant Ancestors

If you have immigrant ancestors who arrived in the U.S in the 1900s, these 7 sources can help you track their journey—perhaps even to that overseas hometown, so crucial to your genealogy success!

(Thanks to Legacy Tree Genealogists for providing us with this guest blog post. Learn more about them below.)

Do you have an ancestor who came to the United States in the 20th century? If so, you’re in luck, as there are a variety of resources available to help you learn about their journey to the United States and where they came from. The biggest challenge in tracing the ancestry of immigrants is that you must first identify their exact hometown (not just country or region) before you can locate records in their home country. Luckily, there were a variety of records created when an immigrant came to the United States in the 20th century that can provide helpful clues for finding their exact place of birth.

7 record types for finding 20th-century immigrant ancestors

Naturalization and alien registration records

Naturalization records were created as part of an application for citizenship, while alien registration records were created for any non-citizens living in the United States. Both sets of records can contain a wealth of information about immigrants, including their hometown, family members, identifying information such as birthdates or physical descriptions, and when and how they traveled to the United States.

After 1906, there were three parts to naturalization records: a declaration of intention (sometimes called 1st papers), a petition for naturalization (2nd papers) and the naturalization certificate given if citizenship was granted. The declaration of intention is the most useful for genealogical purposes, as immigrants were required to state their birth dates, often family members’/spouses’ birth dates, and usually their hometowns.

Naturalization records were kept by the various federal, state, and county courts, and many have been digitized on various genealogy websites. Naturalization records can be found at the National Archives, FamilySearch.org, and Ancestry.com. After the Alien Registration Act of 1940, all immigrants to the United States were required to register and be fingerprinted. Alien Files began to be kept in 1944 and are now held by the National Archives.

(Editor’s note: Genealogy Gems Premium e-Learning members can also learn about World War I-era enemy alien affidavits, required for all non-naturalized U.S. residents, in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #146.)

You can narrow down the time period your immigrant ancestor naturalized by checking various censuses which asked citizenship information (1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930). The 1920 census is particularly helpful as it asked the year of naturalization in addition to the year of arrival. There were three codes recorded in these columns: PA (has submitted papers), NA (naturalized) or AL (alien—never applied to become a citizen). Knowing where they were living at the time of naturalization will help you narrow down which court they may have used.

Keep in mind that until 1922, married women (and their children) were automatically given the citizenship of the husband (if he was a citizen, so was the wife; if a woman married a non-citizen she lost their citizenship until he became a naturalized citizen). Prior to 1922 wives did not need to apply separately, so there will almost never be naturalization papers for married women—you’ll need to look under their husband’s name.

Passenger lists

Passenger lists were created to document the travels of immigrants and are organized by ship. Some list the travelers’ hometown and their closest living relatives there, which can be extremely useful in linking families. Keep in mind that this will usually be the immigrants’ most recent place of residence (which is not always the birthplace).

When searching passenger lists, be sure to check both emigration and immigration records. Passenger lists created at the point of departure and the port of entry and may give slightly different information. For example, the Hamburg Passenger Lists for Germany recorded those leaving, while the New York Passenger Lists give arrivals—you may find your immigrant on both.

United States passenger lists will often also state the relative they are going to meet who is already in the United States—this can help in differentiating people of the same name. (Another bonus for Premium eLearning members: learn about emigration records in Premium Podcast episode #135.)

The port they came from or arrived in can also give clues as to where they were from in the Old Country—people generally immigrated and settled with others who were from the same place. While many of passenger lists have been digitized on the big genealogy websites such as FindMyPast.com, Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch, do not overlook smaller collections like the Immigrant Ancestors Project, which focuses on other emigration records from smaller ports.

Canada Border Crossings

If you are not finding your immigrant in United States passenger lists, see if they came through Canada. Many immigrants arrived in Canada first and then crossed the border to the United States. Keep in mind that only immigrants who came through ports or trains were recorded—if they crossed by horse or car they will not be included in the records. These records vary but often include the name of the immigrant, who they were going to join, their last residence and family member there, their place of birth, and any previous visits to the United States (4). Both Ancestry.com and the free FamilySearch.org have digitized records border crossings to the U.S. from Canada beginning in 1895 (FamilySearch’s go to 1956 and Ancestry.com’s to 1960).

Passport applications

Did your immigrant ancestor ever apply for a passport? Many immigrants went back to visit family in their home country for a few months or even years, before returning back to the United States If they had already become a citizen, they may have applied for a passport to travel. These records can give you a wealth of information about the person who applied but also sometimes their parents.

If you are stuck on an immigrant, look for records about their children—they may provide valuable clues. For example, my great-great aunt applied for a passport in 1918 to be a missionary in China, and she stated that her father had been brought over as an infant from Germany with his parents, who had then naturalized. However, on her passport renewal she stated he was born in Baltimore, so his exact birthplace is still a mystery. However, the passport provided an important clue—now I know to look in the area around Baltimore for naturalization records that could mention his parents. (Click here to read a Genealogy Gem listener’s success story using passport applications and more information on finding them.)

Church records

Many immigrants attended church in their new town along with others from their homeland. Records created at the church, such as baptisms, marriages, and burials, can often provide information about where they came from. Some of these churches even conducted services in the native language of their congregants (i.e. German). These records can be challenging to locate as many of them are still kept by the local churches and have not yet been digitized by the major genealogy websites, but they are well worth it. Try contacting the local church to see if they still have records or know where the records are now. It’s polite to offer a small compensation for their time. Click here to find a list of articles on this website about all different kinds of church records.

Foreign language newspapers

A little-known fact about immigration is that many immigrant communities published local newspapers in the language of their homeland in their new community as a way to stay connected. These newspapers often include birth, marriage and death announcements relevant to the community of immigrants and may list your ancestor. Many of these newspapers are listed on the Library of Congress website Chronicling America, covered in detail in an exclusive interview in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #158. (If you’re not a Premium member, consider checking out Lisa Louise Cooke’s book How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers or click here to read articles relating to newspaper research on our blog.

For more help finding immigrant ancestors….

Thanks to Mckenna Cooper, a researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, for writing this guest article. Legacy Tree Genealogists is a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. To learn more about Legacy Tree services and its research team, visit www.legacytree.comExclusive Offer for Genealogy Gems readers: Receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code GGP100! (This offer may expire without notice.)

If you prefer the DIY approach to finding your immigrant ancestors rather than hiring assistance, Genealogy Gems is here for you! We gave you lots of links above to further reading. You may have noticed that Genealogy Gems Premium eLearning provides even more resources for you–why not consider whether this may be a good option for you?

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Finding Unprocessed Records at an Archive

This isn’t a mess—it’s a pile of unprocessed records at an archive, and buried within may be clues about your family history. Eventually, these items may be filed away neatly for you to find. But how can you access them in the meantime?

As an archivist who works in an archive every day, I get very excited when someone walks through the door with a records donation in hand. Many of our archives would not have the genealogical and historical records they have without the generosity of others. Archives receive donations of documents, photographs, ephemera and artifacts—almost on a daily basis.

Unprocessed records at archives

Many archives have back rooms full of unprocessed and uncatalogued records collections. Sometimes they are even sitting in the original boxes they were donated. These records collections have not been microfilmed. They are not online anywhere. But they exist and the genealogist needs to seek them out.

If you have made a research trip to an archive, it wouldn’t hurt to ask about any new record donations or collections. There could very well be records in those boxes about your ancestors. The archivist should know what they have in those collections and should be able to help you decide if a particular collection will be of help to you and your genealogy research. The archivist might even let you look through a specific collection. (Be prepared: sometimes the answer will be no. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.)

If you are emailing or talking to the archives by phone, be sure and ask about any new records collections that have been processed or that have recently been donated and are waiting to be processed. Most likely, you will have to travel to the facility to see the records but you can get an idea of what is available. 

Remember, the answer to your genealogical question could be sitting in a box of unprocessed records. I like to always encourage genealogists to put “unprocessed records” on their to-do list. As genealogists, we should leave no stone (or box of records) unturned.

Try these 3 steps for searching for unprocessed records at an archive

  1. Make a quick list of your ancestral surnames, time periods and places that might be mentioned in records a particular local or regional archive. Then add the names of local organizations with which your family may have been affiliated (schools, industries or businesses, churches, local militia units). Finally, jot down a few kinds of original records you’d love to find, such as photos, maps, news clippings, business or church records, militia rosters and the like.
  2. With this “wish list” in hand, look first for any processed records. Start at ArchiveGrid.org, an online catalog of collections at thousands of archives. Enter different combinations of your search terms as keywords. If you have a specific archive in mind that’s not coming up at ArchiveGrid, go to that archive’s website. Search any online catalog or digital finding aids (collection descriptions) with different combinations of your search terms. Or use Google site search to let Google help you look for your keywords across the entire site.
  3. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, call or email the archive. Mention that you’ve already searched online for items relating to your family. Ask whether they may have any additional items pertaining to your wish list (people, places, organizations, record types) that haven’t yet been processed or may not be on their website or in Archive Grid. Ask whether or when access might be available.

Tell us about your discoveries!

We love hearing about the “genealogy gems” you find, especially in original old manuscript records! Will you write in and let us know about them? Meanwhile, let these two success stories inspire your own search:

“I found 130 letters by my ancestor!”

Railroad retirement record discovery prompts a “happy dance”

About the Author: Melissa Barker

About the Author: Melissa Barker

The Archive Lady

Melissa is a Certified Archives Records Manager, the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and author of the popular blog A Genealogist in the Archives and an advice columnist. She has been researching her own family history for the past 27 years.

Images courtesy of Melissa Barker and Houston County, TN Archives.

How to Research Your Ancestors’ Occupations

Tracing your ancestors’ occupations can be one of the best ways to learn more about their everyday lives, skills, financial status and even their social status. Follow these tips and record types into the working lives of your relatives to enrich your family history.

One of my favorite things to learn about my ancestors is the kind of work they did. Whether they were laborers, owned a business, worked on a farm or clerked in a store, there are often records that can tell you more about what their working conditions would have been like; what skills they likely had; and what kind of perks (or lack of) came with the job, like wealth or social status.

Not long ago I heard from Deidre, who was thinking along the same lines. She’s already explored many records that can tell you about an ancestor’s occupation, and now she wants to take things a little further:

“Hi, Lisa! I have listened to most of your podcasts…and have come across something I need some help with. I don’t remember any episodes on business owners and how to research them. I have been recently been researching a new part of the family and they were business owners. One of these family members had a taxi business in Parkersburg, WV then moved to Indianapolis (where I live) to open a restaurant in our downtown, then owned an apartment/business building and leased it out. One of his sons owned drug stores and another was a lawyer.

By using city directories I have found some information about the business, but still wondering if I might be missing more record types. I have used censuses, city directories and local newspapers so far, but are there official legal documents filed for businesses and where would I look? And were there censuses conducted for businesses that would have some detail about the business? The time period I am referring to is 1900 to 1960’s.

It seems this family were entrepreneurial types and tried a lot of business ventures. I had also thought of going down the deed record way for looking at buildings they may have bought, but wondered if these are typically stored in the same place as land deed records at the courthouse. LOTS OF QUESTIONS TO KEEP ME UP AT NIGHT! Any insight is much appreciated! Thank you so much for your show!”

Deidre’s family sounds fascinating—no wonder she wants to learn more about their work! She’s already off to a great start, having learned what kind of work they did. If you need to start from square one, turn to the same kinds of records she already has.

How to research your ancestors’ occupations

1. Identify their line of work

A host of records created about your ancestors may reveal what kind of work they did and who employed them. Census records, obituaries, marriage or death records, city directory entries, draft registration records, pension records, local or county histories: all might mention an occupation.

A photo may reveal an occupation, too. Here’s one that does: see the H.R. Cooke’s Carriage and Motor Works sign in the upper left corner of this photo? It’s from my husband’s Cooke family.

So may a notation on a local map, which might identify an ancestor’s mill, store, school, a factory or hospital that employed him, etc. Remember, our ancestors’ jobs changed over time. A young man may have progressed from a laborer in a mine to the brake man on the coal train to a shift supervisor. Relatives may have changed career paths altogether, too.

When looking through these old records, watch for the name of an employer. The name of a business is just as researchable as an industry or type of work! (More tips on researching the business below.)

2. Learn more about the trade

Depending on the time period and the trade itself, you may be able to learn various details about what the work typically involved (even if you don’t learn specifics about your ancestor’s experience).

Many terms we see in old records today apply to jobs that no longer exist. Googling an obsolete occupation may help you identify it. For example, if you Google the question, “What is a fuller?” you’ll see a definition at the top and, below that, a clickable explanation at Wikipedia. (For the sake of accuracy, you’ll want to verify that in more scholarly sources.)

I saw once on Facebook that someone was trying to figure out what an occupation was that was on a 1910 census. It turned out to be “Topper” at a Stocking Mill. I guess they added the top band to socks or stockings! (Here’s a fun article done by the folks at MyHeritage.com: 10 jobs that no longer exist. And here’s a list of now-obsolete occupations taken from a U.S. census. If your ancestor’s UK census entry is abbreviated, click here to see what that notation might mean.)

These dictionaries of obsolete occupations may help, too:

You can learn more details about historical occupations in history books and documentaries, some of which you can find online. Use smart Google search methodologies to discover what resources are right at your fingertips.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you discover from a census entry that your great-grandmother was running a boarding-house (or perhaps her husband was listed as the proprietor, but you are guessing she probably did a lot of the daily work for it). Googling the phrase running a boarding house gets you top search results about the modern practice of running a boarding house. Instead, add two more words to your search: historical and census (the latter will capture results about this occupation as it appears in the census). As you can see from this revised search, the top results are exactly the kind of thing you want to read.

Note that the second and third search results are from Google Books (the URL in the search result starts with “books.google”). The first appears to be a history book and the second an academic study. Books written by experts in their field and packed with citations are just the kinds of high-quality research sources you want to find. (Click here to learn more about using Google Books.)

Historical documentaries and old film footage can show you an occupation at work, such as mining, working on the railroad, logging, working at a textile mill, sharecrop-farming. Look for these on YouTube. For example, Contributing Editor Sunny Morton was curious after learning from a city directory that her grandmother was a telephone operator in the 1940s. What did that involve?

She went to YouTube and found some fantastic 1940s-era training videos showing operators at work. While some of these may be staged performances, with every operator smiling for the camera and doing her job in tip-top shape, they do show long rows of operators at their stations and give an idea of what their responsibilities were. Sunny could see how they were expected to dress and behave and what their daily tasks looked like. Here’s a quick example of the kinds of short training videos she found:

The idea that telephone operators handled emergency calls surprised Sunny, who grew up in the 9-1-1 era. As a young woman just past high school, Sunny’s grandmother would have been coached to respond to frantic callers and dispatch first responders. Sunny’s grandma would also have received training on how to handle different kinds of calls, such as party lines and long-distance routing through multiple switchboards.

Click here for tips on finding old film footage online. Just for inspiration and proof that this really does work, here’s a video Sunny found after following my tips: it’s her husband’s great-grandfather driving his fire engine in 1937! (Click here to read Sunny’s story about that amazing discovery.)

3: Look for any records created by or about the business itself

If your relative worked at a major factory or mill, such as The Ford Motor Company or Lowell Mill, you may find historical books, documentaries and even museum exhibits specifically about them. But smaller businesses often received a shout-out in local history books, too. So it can pay off to run Google searches with the names of family businesses (or even the type of business, such as tailor, hotel or restaurant) and the name of the town and state. (Add the word history to narrow search results.)

Here’s an example an ecstatic Genealogy Gems listener sent in. He was tipped off by an old map about a place called Todd Pond in his ancestor’s small town. His ancestors were surnamed Todd and lived right there. So he Googled Todds Pond North Attleboro and found a real gem! His family’s business was mentioned in a local history:

“In the days before electric refrigeration, North Attleborough’s homes and stores relied upon ice harvested from either Whiting’s Pond or Todd’s Pond (depicted here). By the time this 1906 photograph was taken, farmers George, Henry, James, and William Todd found selling ice more profitable than farming and founded the Oldham Ice Co.”

(For copyright reasons, we can’t show the picture here. But click here to read more about Thom’s discovery and access the book for yourself.)

Businesses themselves often created records. Stores kept ledgers. Factories and other businesses may have kept personnel records and employee pay cards. They may have published newsletters or histories. Sunny shared the following two fun examples with me:

City directories from the 1950s state that her grandfather worked at the Sinton Dairy (he was the husband of the telephone operator, who by this time was a stay-at-home mom). Among the family papers handed down to one of their children was a company brochure. A picture in the brochure shows him standing next to a vat of ice cream.

The father of the ice cream man, Sunny’s great-grandpa, worked at Colorado Fuel & Iron for most of his life. Her mom Cheryl, a professional genealogy librarian, visited the Steelworks Center of the West, which holds the records of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company in its archive. Cheryl was able to get a copy of her grandfather’s employment application and work record. Though it’s partly illegible, this work record summarizes his dates of employment and steady progress through the ranks to become a foreman.

It’s possible you’ll find museum or archival collections like the one mentioned above by doing Google searches on the name of the company, place and industry. But you may need to search more specifically in ArchiveGrid, which is an enormous catalog of the original manuscript holdings of thousands of archives, libraries, museums and societies. Click here to learn more about using ArchiveGrid.

Now back to Deidre’s question

Deidre’s email shows she was thinking outside the box already about records that might document her family’s business, such as deeds for business properties. In addition to the above strategies, Deidre may next want to start hunting for the following:

  • Local histories that may mention her family’s businesses
  • Original archival records pertaining to the businesses
  • Maps showing her family’s neighborhood at the time, specifically Sanborn maps, which often identified businesses and included some detailed information about properties.

Deidre specifically asked about legal documents or censuses conducted for businesses for the period 1900-1960s. The special U.S. census schedules relating to specific businesses and industries largely only exist with individual data before this time period. Legal documents would need to be researched on a case-by-case basis: it’s very possible at least one of those businesses faced lawsuits, bankruptcy or other issues that would have taken them into court. Click here to read up on researching on courthouses.

Another possibility is professional directories that could have been published specific to her relatives’ line of work. Here’s a link to an Ancestry.com wiki article on professional directories: the first category mentioned is law directories.

Finally, it might be helpful to contact the local genealogical and historical societies for the areas they lived. Often, a longtime local may know about gems that may only be on library shelves or tucked into a manuscript collection that isn’t listed in ArchiveGrid.

Learn more about ancestors’ occupations

Now that you’ve finished reading, I encourage you to go back and click on links provided to learn MORE about discovering ancestors’ occupations. If you’re ready to learn advanced online research skills (like mastering Google searching and Google Books) please consider becoming a Genealogy Gems Premium member. You’ll have access to full-length video tutorials on these topics and more–for a full year! To give you a taste of Premium, here’s a preview of my Google Books class.

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke

Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.

When to Hire a Translator for Genealogy Documents

Sometimes it’s best to hire a translator for genealogy documents–even if you’re a committed DIY-family historian. Here are some fantastic tips from a pro on when and how to hire a translator rather than do it yourself (or ask Google Translate).

When should you hire a translator for genealogy documents?

This is a great question, and we’ve invited professional German-English translator Katherine Schober to address it. She specializes in translating genealogy documents. Here’s what she has to say—and don’t miss her top tips for hiring a translator.

“In today’s technological world, the internet does provide some great tools for helping you transcribe and translate your documents. In fact, I’ve previously blogged here at Genealogy Gems about tips and best websites for DIY-translations. (And here’s an even more focused blog post I did on best German translation websites.)

But sometimes it’s best to hire a translator for genealogy documents rather than trying to do it yourself (or asking Google Translate). These are the times when you want to be absolutely certain of the accuracy of your document, when you want to be sure that you are extracting all possible information and genealogical clues about your ancestor from the document at hand. And, perhaps the most obvious reason, when you just don’t have time to painstakingly decipher the document yourself.

Puzzling out the words

A key reason to hire a professional translator is to be sure the document is read and transcribed accurately. Just like today, no two person’s handwriting was ever exactly alike in the past. So while there are “alphabet keys” to help you transcribe old handwriting letter by letter, your ancestor or a church scribe may have written some letters very differently than the handwriting examples you may be consulting today. The same applies to spelling. German—and many other languages—did not have standardized spelling until the late 1800s. Our ancestors often just spelled words as they sounded to their own ears. This can result in some very unique spelling, and make it impossible for you to find a word in a dictionary or online.

Furthermore, many of the words our ancestors used are outdated and no longer in modern dictionaries. Old-fashioned dictionaries do exist, but you must find them and perhaps buy them, and you will usually need to understand the language (such as German) to interpret them correctly.

These realities can leave you puzzled and frustrated when trying to decipher a strange-looking scribble. However, translators have seen many variations of letter formation and spellings throughout their careers, and are familiar with these old words and phrases. Something that may take you hours or days to decipher—and may produce uncertain results—is much easier and more reliable when done by a professional.

Along with understanding what’s written, translators who have genealogical or historical specialties also know what information should appear in a church book or certificate. They are very familiar with the formats and phrasings commonly used in these documents, which makes it much easier for them to recognize and translate these.

What your document really means

Hiring a professional translator for your genealogy document is best when you want to be absolutely certain of its overall meaning—not just its word-by-word translation. In the genealogical field, certain words and phrases have layers of historical meaning. Some of these meanings actually varied by time period and location. A professional genealogy translator would be able to accurately convey the meaning of a word or phrase for your specific document, not just a cookie-cutter dictionary definition.

A translator will also be able to provide more information on the material found in your document. For example, I always use footnotes to inform my client of the historical context of an event mentioned in passing in a text, of additional meanings of a word that the author may have been trying to convey, of the meaning of certain symbols in church books and certificates, and so on. This helps you to have a more thorough and accurate understanding of your ancestor’s document, which can help you to discover more clues later on.

Tips for hiring a translator for genealogy

1. Hire a native English speaker (if your document will be translated into English).

In the field of translation, the number one rule for most translators is to only translate into your native language. Why? When writing a document for a client, the translator should be 110% confident of every word he or she types, understanding every small nuance the translated word might convey to you, the English reader. The text usually also reads much more fluently if written by a native speaker.

That being said, there are of course exceptions to every rule: there are many translators who grew up in bilingual households, as well as talented linguists who do translate accurately and write well in both their native and non-native languages. As a general rule of thumb, I would say that if you are translating a diary or a letter, hire a native English speaker to be sure that your document will read well and accurately in your own language. If you are translating a certificate or a record where it’s more about individual words and phrases, this is likely not as important.

2. Ask for their credentials and experience.

Nowadays, most translators have websites which list this information, but if not, feel free to ask them. In the age of the internet, trust is important, and translators understand that you need to trust them with your project and your financial investment. If they have a review section on their website, check out the reviews before going forward with your project.

3. Get a clear understanding of project cost and time required before beginning your project.

Experienced translators should have many projects under their belts, allowing them to provide you with a general idea of cost and time required for your translation. For example, before I quote a project, I look at past projects of similar format and handwriting (is it a church book? a diary? a certificate?) and look at my records on how much time was required for those specific jobs. I am then able to accurately convey to the client how much time I will need for his or her translation, as well as how much it will cost. It is important to discuss these things ahead of time so that there are no surprises for either person upon completion of the job.

How to find a translator for genealogy

Of course, if you need a translator for your German genealogy document, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to write me any time through my website, www.sktranslations.com. If you’re looking for another language, try these online directories:

American Translators Association. From the home page of this website, under Find a Translator or Interpreter, click where it says Click here for advanced options. For an initial search, you can skip some of the fields and just focus on the ones shown here. Enter the language in which the document is written and your language (in which to translate it). Then scroll down to the Area of Specialization field. From the drop-down menu, under the Social Sciences category, choose genealogy or history.

Association of Professional Genealogists. There’s not an advanced search to narrow down those who provide translation services for a specific language. Search by research or geographic specialty to find those with expertise in particular regions or languages, then read their biographies to see whether translation is listed as a specialty or service they provide. You can also click on Translator under Find a Specialist on their directory page, though you may have to click on the biography of each to see what languages they offer. (Deep language expertise by professional genealogists may vary; watch for professional-level language training listed in their academic degrees.)”

Explore more foreign-language genealogy resources

The Genealogy Gems website is packed with more tips to help you explore your family history in another language. To search for the ones you need, click here to return to the home page. Then use the category search on the left side. There’s a translation tips category, but there are also plenty of articles on researching German, Irish, Italian, Scandinavian and other ancestors whose records may be in a language you don’t speak. Start reading–you may find just the tip or tool you need to bust through your foreign-language family history brick wall.

Wills and Probate Records are Genealogy Riches!

Using wills and probate records for genealogy can lead to unexpected “inheritances” of your own: clues about relatives’ identities, wealth, personal belongings, and family relationships. Wills can reveal great family stories, too: researcher Margaret Linford entertains her mother with them during trips to the courthouse. Here’s how wills can help your family history—and Margaret’s tips for finding and using them.

Using Wills and Probate Records in Genealogy Research

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way” to find out more about your family’s history. Wills are legal records created to direct the settlement of a person’s property and other final affairs after his or her death. Probate (or estate) records are created after an individual’s death as part of the legal distribution of the estate and payment of debts. You’ll often find wills as one of many kinds of the documents included in probate records.

Wills and other probate records are valuable research tools, but are frequently neglected as sources of genealogical information. People often focus strictly on birth, marriage, and death records when searching out their family histories. If you rely solely on those records, your research will encounter many brick walls in the early 1800’s. Probate records and land records were often the only official documents left behind to tell the stories of ancestors who lived prior to the legal requirement for the registry of births and deaths.

Wills of slaveholders can also be valuable tools in conducting African-American genealogical research. Before the Civil War, enslaved people were listed in wills because they were valuable property of slaveholders. For instance, in the 1863 Smyth County property tax records, it is noted that Abijah Thomas owned 56 slaves, which were valued at $53,800. Some were given their freedom within wills, while others were transferred to other members of the family or sold. For instance, one of the first wills recorded in Smyth County is that of Hugh Cole. Within his will, he says the following: “I bequeath to my beloved wife Martha Cole a negro girl named Amanda which she is to hold during her natural life.” The mention of an enslaved person in a will—along with any personal description of him or her—may be the only surviving document to mention that person by name.

Within another Smyth County will, recorded on February 20, 1835, a woman named Elizabeth Blessing left the following directive: “I will and desire that my negro woman Betty be free at my decease, and must see to her own support during her life, as I shall not make any provision for her out of any part of my estate.”

What’s in a will? Just about anything

One organ, one compass, chain and plotting instruments, two chests, one hat rack, one music rack, one old United States map. These are some of the items found in the appraisement bill of the personal property belonging to the estate of Abijah Thomas, who lived in the well-known Octagon House in Marion, Virginia. Here is a photo of that home, now in a dilapidated state, from a Wikipedia file image (click to view image and source information).

Also included in his personal property is a church bell. The story behind the bell is intriguing and illustrates the significance of the probate process. Abijah Thomas utilized the bell at his foundry works in Marion, Virginia, to indicate shift changes. For decades, the oral history surrounding the bell indicated that he had donated it to the Wytheville Presbyterian Church before he died. The court documents reveal a different story.

Since Abijah died intestate, the court appointed three men to appraise his personal property. During this process, the bell was valued at $75. It was sold on September 1, 1877, to the Presbyterian Church in the town of Wytheville, Virginia, as shown in the above list of items sold from his estate. This document dispels the family myth surrounding the church bell. This is just one of many examples of the types of stories you find in probate records in courthouses all across the United States.

What you may find in a will or probate records

Wills and probate records can pass along unexpected genealogical wealth to you. You may find the following information in them: date of death (or approximate date of death), name of spouse, children, parents, siblings and their place of residence, adoption or guardianship of minor children, ancestor’s previous residence, occupation, land ownership, and household items.

Probate records also contain such interesting stories that they can even be read for entertainment! Whenever I go on a research trip, I usually drag some poor, unsuspecting soul along with me. That person is usually my Mom. While she enjoys the scenery on our drive to different courthouses, she rarely enjoys the time spent at the courthouse. Some of the research I do requires me to stay at the courthouse for several hours. That has posed a problem in the past since I haven’t known how to keep Mom occupied. But I have found the perfect solution. When we arrive at the courthouse, I find an old will book and let her start reading.

My mom enjoys reading the stories in these old—and sometimes tattered—books. One of her favorite stories came from a will in Henry County, Virginia. It is the will of Addie T. Thornton and reads as follows: “I also give to my nephew Thomas T. Earles, fifty ($50) in cash to be deposited in some safe Banking Institution, on interest until he arrives at the age of twenty-one (21) years old and then the principal to be invested in a watch and I request that a monogram with both his and my name, one on inside and the other on outside of watch.” Obviously, Addie Thornton cared deeply for her nephew, Thomas, and wanted to make sure he remembered her for the rest of his life.

Here’s part of Addie’s will, followed by a closeup image of the lines about the watch:

Stories like these are so much more meaningful than just a date of birth, marriage or death. Wills can help us know who these people were, how they lived and what was important to them during their sojourn here on earth. We can learn of their struggles and their successes. We can tell what their lives were like by reading through the lists of household items included in the inventories that are recorded. And with stories like Addie’s bequest of the watch, we can also learn about ancestors’ personalities and how they expressed (or occasionally withheld) love for others through the final disposition of their belongings.

How is a will created?

Before beginning probate record research, it is important to be familiar with the probate process and legal terminology associated with these records. It is estimated that, prior to 1900, about half of the population either left a will or was mentioned in one. Those who died having left a will are said to have died “testate.” Those who died without leaving a valid will died “intestate.”

A typical, legally-recognized will contains certain critical elements. It should be in written form and it must have signatures of the person leaving the will (“testator”) and witnesses, who attest to the validity of the document. A codicil is a document created by the testator to amend the will.

Once the testator dies, the will is presented to the judicial authority by a family member or executor/executrix (person appointed by the testator to see that his/her wishes are carried out), accompanied by a written application or petition for probate. These petitions include names and addresses of the closest living relatives. The court then admits the will to probate and sets a hearing, providing an opportunity for interested parties to contest the will. The will is then recorded and the executor is given the authority to settle the estate. During this process, an inventory of the estate is made.

Some wills contain detailed information, regarding the testator’s final wishes. At times, these requests will shed light on relationships that might not otherwise be discovered. This was the case for a will on file at my local courthouse. Due to the nature of the requests made by the testator, I have changed the last name of the family to Smith. This wife was, obviously, upset with her husband and the circumstances of their marriage, providing clear details of her grievances for future generations.

“Since my husband has never made me a part of his family and has completely cut me out of ever living in Chihowie, Virginia [the husband’s hometown], or never provided me with a home or paid any of my bills and has broken all marriage contracts that we agreed to—I hereby decree that I be buried in Round Hill Cemetery at Marion, Virginia, where I own a lot—that my body or anything I own or possess will never be taken into Chilhowie or the Smith household. My husband has never taken me into his own home, and furthermore stated, backed up by his nephew and his wife, whom he turned everything over to shortly after our marriage—that I would never own or live on a foot of the Smith ground, even though I have tried to build or buy or remodel a home in Chilhowie, Virginia, at my own expense.

“I give all books and material things pertaining to books to the Smyth County Library, Marion, Virginia, as I am sure that my family would not want anything to fall into the hands of anyone who has mistreated me.

“My husband has kept our marriage strictly on a time clock basis since his nephew and his wife moved back to Smyth County, and under their influence he comes at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. (whichever is convenient to them) or later, and leaves promptly in the morning by 8:00 or 8:30 a.m., never calling during the day or show[ing] any sign of caring. He changed completely after they returned to Chilhowie to break up the marriage. Therefore, if I am still his wife, or otherwise, see that my wishes are carried out and that my remains and possessions remain in Marion.”

Where you can find wills and probate records

The best place to search for a will is at the courthouse where your ancestor lived, if you can reasonably go there yourself. Since the probate process is a function of state governments, the laws governing the maintenance of these records and their location will vary by state and should be researched before making a trip to the courthouse. For example, in Virginia, probate records are maintained within the Circuit Courts and independent cities. In Massachusetts, probate records are found in county Probate Courts. A useful resource for figuring out how U.S. probate records are organized state-by-state is free on the Ancestry.com wiki: Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources. Scroll down to click on the name of the state in question. Then go to the right side and click on the probate records link for that state to read about these records.

Once you have determined where the wills for your state/county are housed, the next step in the research process is to locate the Index for Wills. Even–perhaps especially–if you are unsure of the date of death for one of your ancestors, you may want to look through the index of wills (an example is shown here). Even when no specific death record exists, you may be surprised to find probate records that reveal the date of death, a list of heirs and more.

There will, most likely, be several index books, organized by year spans. These books serve as a compass, pointing you to any available probate records that may include your ancestors. The index is divided by devisor (the person making the will) and devisee (any person who is named in the will, as the recipient of property). The research process will be incomplete if you do not conduct a search for your ancestors among the list of devisees. Even if you fail to find their names among the devisors, they could have inherited property from someone else.

Probate records include more than just the will of an individual. You may find letters of administration, lists of heirs, inventories, bills of appraisement, guardianships and other documents related to the settlement of an estate. In some counties, all these documents are found in the same collection. Other counties maintain these records in separate collections. It is important to understand the manner in which probate records are organized for your particular county.

The probate research process should not be rushed. Valuable records may be overlooked when time dictates the quality of your research. For this reason, it is important that you set aside ample time to comb through the probate records. If you find yourself confused about abbreviations or the location of records within the courthouse, there is usually someone in the records vault who would be happy to assist you. Never be afraid (or embarrassed) to ask for help.

Fortunately for many of us who can’t easily get to every ancestor’s courthouse, there are some wills available online on genealogy websites, including two of the genealogy giants, FamilySearch and Ancestry.com. For example:

  • Subscription website Ancestry.com has made it a priority to curate an enormous collection of wills and probate records from all 50 states. At last count, this collection has more than 170 million records—and they keep adding to it.
  • The free FamilySearch.org hosts millions of probate records from the U.S. and around the world (click here to browse their probate and court record collections). Many of these collections are marked “browse-only,” which means they are not yet searchable by name online. You just have to page through them. Click here for instructions on reading browse-only records on the site (it’s not that difficult—and did I mention they’re free?).

Additionally, libraries or genealogical societies in your ancestor’s hometown or county may have books with abstracts from local wills or other resources related to local probate record research.

Well worth the effort to find

Finding the will of one of your ancestors is an amazing experience. Walking into the vault of a courthouse sometimes feels like walking into a time machine. As you read through the pages that tell of people who lived so long ago, you feel like for even just a small moment that you have gone back in time. You are sitting with them and hearing their stories whispered through the aging and brittle pages that have been left behind. They are all there just waiting to tell their stories. So take the opportunity to go to the courthouse and “meet” your ancestors through the one of the last—and perhaps one of the most revealing—documents they may ever have written: their wills.

Researching wills and probate records: Your next steps

Take your genealogy research to the next level by planning a trip to a courthouse to retrieve records like wills and probate records. These resources will help you get ready:

Why you should be researching court records

Success story: Genealogy research trip produced amazing family history find

Premium Podcast Episode 128: Courthouse research tips (for Genealogy Gems Premium subscribers)

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Margaret Linford

Margaret Linford

Margaret Linford is a professional genealogist who specializes in the Mid-South Region of United States research and has logged over 20,000 research hours. Born and raised in Virginia, she has enjoyed traveling the world, and now lives in her childhood hometown with her husband and children. She enjoys teaching her children about heritage, taking them along on research trips and serving as President of the Smyth County Genealogical Society.

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