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.

Understanding Genealogy Sources: Why “Provenance” Matters

Before you rely on any genealogical sources for your family history research, you should know their provenance. Ask these questions about the records you find—and you’ll better understand the source and what it may (or may not) be telling you.

In the art world, knowing the provenance of a piece is crucial to understanding its value. Provenance looks at an object’s origins, history, and ownership. These can shed light on whether the piece is authentic. In other words, it tells us whether it truly was created by the attributed artist in the stated timeframe. It also provides insight into the value of the item.

Genealogical sources: Why provenance matters

The principle of provenance is true for genealogical sources, too. Records created at the time of an event by eyewitnesses are generally much more credible. Documents created in places associated with your relatives, by people who knew them, are much more likely to pertain to them (rather than to other folks by the same name). The same holds true for objects that are passed down through the family. Therefore, whether you’re looking at a family Bible or a typescript of a reminiscence you find online, it’s important to learn as much as you can about it so you know how much to trust it.

Questions to ask about your genealogical sources

What type of document or item is it? When was it created?

The nature of an object or record can often tell you something about its history or credibility. In the case of a photograph, we might ask these questions:

  • What type of photograph is it? (tintype, carte de visite, Polaroid, etc.)
  • Is there printing or writing on the back of the photo?
  • If it’s a studio portrait, is the studio’s name and location identified?

For example, this photograph is a daguerreotype. It is a type of image taken on a silver-coated copper plate. Photo expert Maureen Taylor says these types of photos were in most use from 1839 to about 1865. You can learn additional clues from Maureen about using hairstyles, fashions, and other clues in the actual image in her book, Family Photo Detective.

Perhaps you have a manuscript in your grandma’s handwriting. Is it a diary or an autobiographical sketch? Is it dated or signed? Is it an original or a photocopy?

You will likely date these items, associate them with specific relatives, and judge the reliability of their contents based on answers to questions like these.

If a document isn’t identified, study it closely for clues as to what it is. Contributing Editor Sunny Morton has spent a lot of time studying old diaries and life story writings. Here are some tips from her on understanding them:

  • Diaries and journals were created gradually over time. You may see date headers before some entries and changes in the handwriting or ink. Entries often focus more on the present or immediate past than the deep past and they wouldn’t reveal future events because they hadn’t happened yet.
  • Autobiographical sketches or reminiscences may or may not be labeled and dated as such. These were usually written much later in someone’s life, often over a short period of time. The writer’s tone may be more formal, introspective, defensive, or self-conscious as she reflects on the past.

Look at all other documents and items that are associated with the source in question. For example, not long ago I received a box of old family items from my sister-in-law. The box originally belonged to my mother-in-law (Pat) and held an eclectic mix of mementos. One item of particular interest was a Guest Book sporting a cover made of wood. I immediately understood the significance of the cover because my father-in-law (Bill) had worked his entire career in the forest products industry. But that didn’t mean that the book actually belonged to my in-laws. Further examination was required.

Before removing the book from the box, I made note of what was tucked in around it. Perhaps all of these items were unrelated, or perhaps they had all come out of the same closet. Slow and careful examination is key identifying all the potential clues about the item.

It took several hours of reading through the various entries to determine that the Book was given to Pat and Bill as a gift by Pat’s parents. It contained many original signatures acquired over many years from a wide range of friends and family.

If you’re looking at digitized records online, read the description of the record collection. If you’re in an archive, read the finding aid or other collection description. (Genealogy Gems Premium subscribers can learn more about using finding aids in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #149.)

Records or artifacts may come with dates or timeframes associated with them. Sometimes there is no date or only a rough range of possibilities. You may have to rely on clues from several sources to date the item and match it up with your family history timeline. For example, this quilt was found in a suitcase in my Grandmother Pauline Moore’s closet after her death with this note pinned to it.

She says in the note that it was made by her mother before her stroke, which occurred in the 1960s. Based on the flour sack fabrics, I would date it more in the range of 1925-1945. It’s possible that she may have hung on to all these scraps and made it later in life. But I know from past conversations with my grandmother that most of her mother’s quilting was done in the earlier timeframe. Adding strength to my theory is a dress that hangs in my laundry room. I inherited the dress from my grandmother years ago. I have photos of her wearing it in the pre-World War II era. It contains some of the exact same fabric that makes up the quilt.

Finally, with documents especially, consider whether you’re looking at the original version, meaning the first format it ever took. Whenever possible, consult the original. Indexes, typed-up copies, or abstracts are convenient reference tools. In some cases, they are the only versions you’ll be able to access. However, they may not be as complete or accurate. Handwritten copies of older originals may have been made in the days before photocopying technology.

Here’s a digital copy of a 4-page family history written by Sunny’s great-aunt Lena Hall (1903-1981). Sunny received this copy from her mother. The title “as told by” at the beginning hints that this is a typed version of an oral history. If an original audio taped version still exists, Sunny doesn’t have it. So in this case, this is the best version she can get.

When was it written? A note at the end simply says the document was “copied by a niece” in 1987. It was created after 1950 because Aunt Lena names that as the year her father died. Aunt Lena states that her parents now had “25 grandchildren, 58 great-grandchildren, and 4 great-great-grandchildren.” Studying a complete family tree in descendancy view would likely reveal when her parents had only four great-great grandchildren—perhaps the best way to date this document.

If you can’t identify or assign a rough date to an artifact, consult a professional historian, genealogist, appraiser, or others with knowledge of particular documents or objects.

Where was it created and where has it been kept over the years?

Sometimes, family history sources are labeled with place names, like the city stamped on the front of an old photographic studio portrait. These can help you connect them with your family—or confirm that they don’t pertain to your family.

Where the source has been kept over time, and who has kept it, is an important part of provenance. For example, last summer, I was given this camera by my uncle.

He said it was originally owned by my grandma, Alfreda Louise Burkett. Much to our delight, we discovered that the camera had unexposed film inside! I scurried off to a few local stores, and quickly learned that the film pre-dated the current standard 35mm film, and they couldn’t process it. As I mentioned before, there are times when you will need to consult an expert, and this was one of them. Google led me to a specialty photography store about an hour from my home. It also served up this website which revealed that the camera type (Kodak Senior Six-20) was produced from 1932-1937.

The knowledgeable folks at the photography store connected me with a highly specialized film developer in Colorado. I’ve sent the film for processing. They told me the film type (C-22) can be dated to pre-1970s. This time frame makes sense: my grandma passed away in 1986.

As long as it has taken for this camera to make its way to me, I’m going to have to wait a little longer to see what the roll of film reveals. There is so little of this film still in existence that it can take up to 18 months for the developer to collect enough of it to warrant a processing run. When the happy day arrives that the photos appear in my mailbox, I’m optimistic that the images will further help me narrow down the timeframe between the 1930s and the 1970s when they were taken.

This chain of ownership—from my grandma to her son to me—is strong and reliable, based on my confidence in my uncle’s memory and honesty. This makes me more confident that the pictures inside that camera will be of my family. Stay tuned, because I will surely share the outcome here on the blog.

Why was it created?

The original purpose of a source is highly relevant to how much faith you put in its contents. For example, a woman might have altered her testimony in divorce proceedings in an effort to minimize damage to her own reputation and future. A man filling out his draft registration paperwork may have lied about his age or citizenship, either to avoid military service or in order to be included despite being under age. And most certainly newspaper articles may be filled with a variety of biases by the author, publisher, or those being interviewed. Give careful thought to these possible motivations when evaluating the contents of records.

Does it appear to be complete?

Whenever possible, consider a source as a whole. It’s tempting to want to zero in on the paragraphs or photos that interest you most, but you may miss out on important information that changes what this source has to tell you. The specific placement of a photo in an album can be as significant as the printed photographic image. A photo’s position can indicate the relationship of the people in the photo to others on the same page, or the timeline of events.

Take note if any part of the source appears to be missing or illegible, especially if it appears that some of it has been deliberately removed, erased, or crossed out. You may be able to make more sense of the partial information—or take a guess at why it was removed—as you learn more about the family. (My grandma’s diaries from the 1930s gave me insight into this photo!)

There may be a perfectly innocent reason for the change. But you may also be seeing evidence that someone who wanted to erase unpleasant memories or conceal a scandal.

Who was the informant?

The informant in any record is the person who supplied the information. Sometimes this is the same person who created a record, such as the writer of a diary. In the case of a U.S. census, the informant is the person in a household who told the census enumerator about the people who lived there. In most cases, it’s impossible to know who the informant was. Thankfully in 1940, census enumerators were instructed to mark the informant with a circled “X,” as shown in these two households.

Remember that a source may have multiple informants, who would have been in the best position to provide certain kinds of information. Below is the death certificate for Mary Mollie Overbay, beloved grandma and hero of Genealogy Gems contributing writer Margaret Linford. (Read more about her here.) In this death certificate, Informant #1 reported the deceased’s personal information, and would typically have been a close relative. Informant #2 provided the medical particulars relating to the death, and would typically have been the attending physician.

What primary and secondary information is revealed in this record?

Historical evidence can either be considered primary or secondary information. Genealogical scholar Thomas W. Jones defines these terms in his book, Mastering Genealogical Proof:

  • Primary information is that reported by an eyewitness. Primary information often was recorded soon after the event, but it may be reported or recorded years or decades later.
  • Secondary information is reported by someone who obtained it from someone else. It is hearsay.”

The same document can include both primary and secondary information (which is why we now talk less about primary and secondary sources and more about information). On the death certificate above, Informant #1 shares the deceased’s last name, so was likely a relative. He likely had first-hand knowledge of the deceased’s marital status, spouse’s name, and occupation. If Informant #1 was the deceased’s father, he would also likely have provided primary information relating to the deceased’s birth, place of residence, and parents’ names. Secondary information he reported would include his own birthplace (as father) and that of his wife (since he presumably wasn’t present for it). If Informant #2 was the deceased’s attending physician, he would have provided primary information about the deceased’s immediate and contributing causes of death.

How do all these clues add up?

It’s clear that as genealogists our goal is not only to evaluate each family history source, but also each piece of information it provides. We need to scrutinize it from many angles and make some judgments. Asking the right questions helps us ultimately answer the all-important question: how much do you trust what this record is telling you?

Next steps: Keep learning

Is there more to do after you review a family history artifact or record and extract every piece of information from it? You bet! Create a research plan that will help you find other records to verify or shed additional light on the information in the document. For example:

  • If you’ve got a death certificate, look for other death-related records, such as an obituary, tombstone inscription, and funeral home records.
  • Follow up on additional leads provided in the source. A death certificate sometimes mentions a Social Security number or military service, both of which have their own paper trails.

If you’re new to research plans or looking for a way to take them paperless, you’ll find detailed answers in my video class “Using Evernote to Create a Research Plan.” The video and handout download are available to Genealogy Gems Premium Members.

About the Author

About the Author

Lisa Louise Cooke 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.

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!

Common Surnames: How Unique is Yours?

Common surnames can make genealogy research more challenging. But learning more about your last name (including how common it is) can also enrich your family history. Check out 4 free online tools for learning more about your family’s surnames. Then share what you learn the next time your relatives get together!

common surnames

If you have common surnames on your family tree, you may have become frustrated at times trying to determine whether the “John Williams” or “Elizabeth Smith” you’re looking at in a record belongs to your John or Elizabeth. Would it make a difference if you discovered they lived in an area where there very few folks by those names during that time period? It would. Furthermore, it would probably also be nice to know things like where else in the world–or within England, for example–that surname is found now (or was in the past).

The enormous amount of census, vital records, and family tree data now online is making it easier to answer questions like these. Below, find free online tools for mapping common surnames (and less-common ones, too) across time. They include surname search tools hosted by a couple of our Genealogy Giants, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com. What can you learn from the following sites? Do they agree with one another? Check them out!

Your surname in the 1990 and 2000 U.S. censuses

common surnamesThe US Census Bureau has created databases of last names that appear in recent censuses. You can look at the results a couple of ways:

  • Click here to search for your surname among the most common 150,000 surnames from the 1990 and 2000 censuses. These surnames cover about 90% of those who participated in the census.
  • Click here to view a list of all surnames that appear 100 or more times in the 2000 census. (Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, Jones, Miller and Davis all top a million occurrences!) According to this webpage, the top 15 surnames have remained fairly steady in the most recent three censuses with one exceptional trend: Spanish-origin surnames are starting to make the lists.

common surnames england walesCommon surnames of England and Wales

Find out how common your surname is today in England, Wales, and the Isle of Mann. The Surnames of England and Wales – the ONS List has a searchable database of almost 270,000 surnames shared by 54.4 million people (it excludes surnames occurring fewer than 5 times in the total database of nearly 60 million people). The list compiled between 1998-2002 does have some duplication and misspellings: “experience suggests that multiplying the result for your surname by 0.93 will give a good idea of the living population for your surname.”

What’s in a name? Ancestry.com answers

Ancestry.com hosts this fun and free tool for those with roots in the U.S., England, Scotland, and Wales:

Remember, it’s not a precise genealogy research tool. But it can prove interesting. When I ran this search for the married surname of our Genealogy Gems DNA expert, Diahan Southard, I was shown (among other things) this interesting map illustrating how the Southard family was spread across the United States in 1920:

common surnames

Surname directory at MyHeritage

MyHeritage.com hosts a searchable surname directory taken from data found on its site. To search the surname directory, choose the first letter of the last name from the alphabet shown below the search screen. (If you enter a name in the blue search boxes, you’ll be taken into their record-searching area, which isn’t the same):

common surnames

You won’t find all names surnames here, though you may find variant spellings of yours. (I never knew McClellan could be spelled in so many different ways!) Here’s a map of how they find my husband’s surname, Morton, scattered across the globe:

common surnames

Looking for more surname distribution maps? Click here to find a list organized by country.

Next Steps: Try this with your common surnames

common surnames Google search strategiesIf you’ve taken a DNA test…Thousands of people are compiling their same-surname DNA test results into surname projects. Click here to learn more about how to “social network” your yDNA test results in a surname project.

If you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium subscriber…you can watch Lisa Louise Cooke’s fabulous video tutorial, Common Surname Google Search Strategies. Use her tips to find even your most commonly-named relatives online! (Not a Premium member? Click here to learn more–for one low price, you’ll get a year’s access to hundreds of Premium videos and podcast episodes!)

Here’s Why I Reached Out for Help

Sooner or later, we all hit genealogy brick walls: a point in our family history research where we can’t seem to make any further progress. When I hit a brick wall with great-grandpa Gus in Eastern Europe, I turned to Legacy Tree Genealogists. Here’s what their experts found that I hadn’t discovered for myself.

My genealogy brick wall in Eastern Europe

My great-grandfather Gustav Sporowski was born in Kotten, Kreis Johannisburg, East Prussia on July 20, 1881. His wife was born in Kreis Ortelsburg in 1878. I’ve found all of her church records, but have had no luck with his. I’ve met so many people who get stuck researching in Eastern Europe, and East Prussia and the Belarus area in particular. (I strongly suspect that the Sporowski family came from the Sporovo lake region of Belarus). So I invited Legacy Tree Genealogists to take a look at Gus and suggest some next steps. I wondered what someone who specialized in Eastern European research might be able to tell someone like me, who knows how to genealogy but not-so-much in that part of the world.
Reviewing my work

Legacy Tree Genealogists assigned me to a Project Manager, Camille Andrus, who reached out to discuss what I already knew and what I wanted to learn. I requested their Discovery Research Plan, for which they just provide guidance about what record collections to consult and what methods or strategies to try. That way I can do the research myself (which I like doing!). I also asked Camille if she would write about her research process so I could share it with you. Here’s what she sent me:

“We looked over Lisa’s work, and upon initial inspection everything looked great. She had looked in the gazetteer (now available digitally at www.meyersgaz.org with maps of the area) and Lutheran church records. She had searched the records for her ancestor’s supposed home parish. When that failed to yield results, she had done a partial radial search, searching records in several adjacent parishes. Check. Check. Check. She was following all of the integral steps, but still not having success. What had she missed? What had she done wrong? The short answer — nothing. Her research was impeccable, and she was looking in the right places.”

While it’s nice to hear I was following the right path, I was a little worried that it meant there were no more “sledgehammers” out there that I would use to take a nice good swing at my brick wall. But Camille didn’t stop there. She dredged up several additional strategies for me to take, which was just what I was hoping for!

Getting around the genealogy brick wall

Camille had three specific suggestions for where to look next for great-grandpa Gus. At the end, she also offered some helpful reassurance. Here’s what she said:

1. Civil registration in East Prussia

After closer inspection of what Lisa had already tried, we saw several opportunities we could still pursue. We looked up civil registration records available through a Polish archive, since what was East Prussia is now part of modern Poland. German civil registration in East Prussia began in October of 1874 and is an important resource for researching individuals from this area. The Meyers Gazetteer confirmed that Kotten (where her ancestor was from) belonged to Kreis Johannisburg in the German Empire province of East Prussia. This village belonged to the Monethen (Kreis Johannisburg) civil registration district.[1]

The Olsztyn State Archive inventory lists several birth, marriage, death, and family books for the Monethen Civil Registration Office, but the books only cover the late 1930s and early 1940s. The whereabouts of the registers covering 1874 through the early 1930s are unknown. It appears as though the records covering this time period have been lost or destroyed. This situation is not unusual for East Prussia, in general due to the numerous conflicts that have occurred in the area over time.

2. Church records in East Prussia

Another major resource for German genealogy research is church records. The Meyers Gazetteer database noted that Protestant residents of Kotten attended church in the nearby town of Baitkowen (Kreis Lyck).[2]

The church book inventory for Baitkowen revealed that the Protestant parish was established in 1891, a decade after the ancestor Gustav Sporowski was reportedly born. No sacramental registers for this parish are known to be extant. It should be noted that the Baitkowen parish was created from parts of the Lyck, Ostrokollen, and Drygallen parishes.[3]

The Protestant parish of Drygallen (Kreis Johannisburg) has extant baptismal records which are available on microfilm at the Family History Library for the years 1730-1821 and 1844-1875.[4] Lisa indicated that she had reviewed these files but did not find any Sporowskis.

The Lyck Landgemeinde (the congregation for parishioners living outside city limits) was founded in 1704, but there are no known extant baptismal records for this parish after 1808.[5]

3. Following up on clues

The Protestant Bartholomew Church in Lütgendortmund, Dortmund, Germany. Von Smial – Eigenes Werk, FAL. Click to view.

A key clue came from Lisa’s notes. She mentioned that Gustav and his wife were married in Lütgendortmund, a town hundreds of miles west of Gustav’s birthplace, before ultimately immigrating to the United States. Luckily, their marriage occurred in a time when civil registration had been instituted. A search for marriage records showed there are civil registration records available for the town of their marriage, which are available at an archive in Detmold. We were able to advise Lisa that further research should pursue this record, as it may list information about his parents.

Getting Unstuck

The bottom line is that If you feel stuck, it’s not necessarily because you are doing anything wrong. Review the “checkboxes” of your research plan to ensure you aren’t missing any integral clues. If after final review of methodology concludes that you’ve pursued every avenue, the lack of success may be attributed to gaps in the records or perhaps they have been lost completely. Other times all you need is one clue to put you back on the right track.

This is exactly the kind of advice I was hoping for: expert and specific. I feel much more confident about how I’ll spend my time moving forward! If you have hit a genealogy brick wall in Eastern Europe (or anywhere else) consider hiring a professional to review your work. An investment with a pro can save you a tremendous amount of time and frustration. Doesn’t that sound good?

About the Researchers: Legacy Tree Genealogists is a worldwide genealogy research firm with extensive expertise in breaking through genealogy brick walls. For a limited time, go to  Legacy Tree Genealogists and receive $100 off a 20-hour research project using code GGP100. 

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!

[1] Search the Meyers Gazetteer, Kotten, Johannisburg, Allenstein, Ostpreussen, Preussen, http://meyersgaz.org/place/11050078, accessed August 2017.

[2] Search the Meyers Gazetteer, Kotten, Johannisburg, Allenstein, Ostpreussen, Preussen, http://meyersgaz.org/place/11050078, accessed August 2017.

[3] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Lyck, ev. Baitkowen (Baitenberg), http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

[4] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Johannisburg, ev. Drigelsdorf (Drygallen), http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

[5] Ostpreussen, Genealogische Quellen, Kirchbuchbestände Kreis Lyck, ev. Lyck Stadtgemeinde, http://wiki-de.genealogy.net, accesesed August 2017.

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