Show Notes: Learn how to trace your ancestors back to Virginia just prior to the Revolutionary War. Professional genealogist Jeri Satterwhite-Dearing specializes in early Virginia research in her work as a professional genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists. She explains some of the biggest challenges you’ll face when researching early Virginian ancestors, the records you should be looking for, and some of the best resources.
Lisa: A while back, we did a video on Finding early American Ancestors in New England and we got tons of comments on it. We also received a lot of requests to dig into early American genealogical research. In this video and article, we are going to do just that for Virginia.
Guest: Jeri Satterwhite-Deering, professional genealogist at Legacy Tree Genealogists.
What are some of the unique challenges that face people who are trying to research ancestors in Virginia?
Jeri: I think the main thing is that the further back you go, the different record types that you would expect to find and use. You won’t have census records before 1790, and you won’t necessarily have marriage records, or death certificates, because that didn’t come till much later. But those records are there, and then you just have to really know where to dig and what to look for.
I rely more on land records, tax records, court records, and those types of record. As I said, census records go back to 1790, maybe 1783, when they have county type census. Then at that point you need to rely on tax records more and look for your ancestors in land records. Land records are full of all kinds of genealogical clues about your family as you as you dig in deep.
Lisa: And it can be a bit of a challenge for folks who might be researching Virginia for the first time. We hear about things, like you mentioned the land records and tax records, and that could be very new territory for us. It can be a little intimidating to jump into a record collection you haven’t worked before.
Jeri: Right, especially because then you’re relying on original documents, which means reading the handwriting of the time. That takes practice. It’s like when you first learn to write cursive in school. It’s not that hard, it just takes a little bit of time. It’s kind of fun, because they write different, and their terminology is different. But that’s where your dictionary comes in. Practice makes perfect. The more you do, the easier it gets.
Most of those records are going to be at county level. If you have a burned county, then you may have to rely on state records. The Virginia state library may have more than what is left in a burned county. There are all kinds of records there. It’s just a matter of knowing where to go.
Learn More About the County in Virginia
My first recommendation would be to learn more about the county you’re going to be dealing with. First go to the FamilySearch Wiki for the county. Read what they have to say about which records are available for that particular county and start there. Make a research plan. Make notes and determine exactly what to look for.
I know that you’ve done a couple of past episodes, especially I think it was episode 64, where you talked about how to do research using FamilySearch. I think those are things you need to learn a little bit before you jump right in. I think that would be a really good start if they’re not familiar with FamilySearch. It’s one of the best places to go to look at records when you’re starting out.
Lisa: And it’s free, which is great.
Jeri: That’s right, so it’s definitely a good place to start along with learning about the county. Learning about the formation of the county, that’s almost a genealogical research adventure in itself because you need to know how the counties changed so quickly over time. And you do need to get back to what that parent county was. It’s important to know the genealogy of the counties and know where to look for those records, because they’re not all just going to be in today’s county. You may have to go back to multiple counties to find those records.
Lisa: Typically, when a record was created in a particular county, and then that county maybe splits out or changes we should be looking in the county that it was at the time our ancestors were there, right?
Jeri: Exactly. You might think, “that’s it, I’m done. I can’t find anything else.” When you feel that way, step back, review the various forms the county has taken. Check all of them. You’d be surprised where those records will be in many different places. They might even be in the courthouse basement. I’ve come across that many times as well.
In Virginia, not all deed records are going to be online. For example, here in North Carolina our counties have so many records available online. But in Virginia, they might not be on FamilySearch. You may have to go to a courthouse to actually see those records. However, they are getting better about getting them filmed.
If you’ve exhausted some of that, like I mentioned before, check out tax records. These put your person in their place in time, and that’s what you’re looking for. You always want to remember that a man by one name is not necessarily that man. Always remember that because there are so many same named people throughout history, and you have to be careful which one you’re chasing and get the right one.
Lisa: I love your idea about the genealogy of a county! Getting to know the history county at the same time as you’re getting to know the history of your family.
Virginia Burned Counties
You mentioned burned counties. Seasoned genealogists have heard that many times. But there are those who are new to genealogy, or they’ve been researching other parts of the country, and now they’re finding that their family line takes them into the South where burned counties are more common. Tell us a little bit about what you mean by a “burned county” and what does that mean to the records?
Jeri: Generally burned counties have a lot to do with war. That’s especially true during the Civil War. For the South, many courthouses burned down. But it happens even in today’s time. We see floods, we see fires. Again, look at your county history on the FamilySearch Wiki. It will tell you which counties were burned. Then you can determine where else to look for records.
I had a project recently that was in Washington County, Arkansas. The county was totally burned, and there was nothing really left. But at the state level, I was able to find the tax records. So, for the client’s ancestor, we were able to place him in that county in the time that we needed to place him there even though there was no information about him anywhere in the county. Those records were burned at two different times. Once in the 1800s, and then again later on.
When your ancestor got a deed, they would take it into the courthouse to get it recorded. This means that when you’re looking at a deed book, you’re not looking at the original record because they didn’t keep the original deed. They just recorded it, and then they handed it back. Folks then took it home to keep it in a safe place. I was very fortunate in one of my research projects that when we had burned counties, they had all the people bring their deeds back in and they recorded them again. And so that’s how we ended up with still having deeds that were probably burned the first go around in the clerk’s books.
I inherited deeds from my great grandmother that were in a trunk. That is probably what started this whole journey for me 30 years ago. One of the deeds was from 1812. It was just amazing! They had kept those deeds. The courthouse over in Orange County did not have that deed, so I took it over there, and they got to copy it into the deed book. And then they had it. There’s a lot of ways to get around the burned counties, and there’s reason for hope.
Lisa: That’s very encouraging that they brought records back in and entered them again.
State Level Records for Virginia
How do records end up at the state level? You mentioned a couple of times to check with the State Archives. Was there a process where every so often the counties were supposed to send copies of books to the state? Or did that happen much later?
Jeri: Well, I think it did, like, are in North Carolina, particularly. So many of our marriage records have gone to the state. So, they’re at our archives now. And so, they came out of the county’s hands, I don’t know, maybe because they just kept getting burned to the ground. They, and so they ended up, you know, at the at the state level at the State Archives for most of them. And so, your state archives is a good place for your research. State libraries are good, like the Library of Virginia (state library), as the just you couldn’t ask for better. And online and offline. It’s a great, it’s a great resource for learning and looking for records as well.
Important Types of Records for Early Virginia Genealogy
Lisa: You’ve mentioned a couple of different types of records. We talked about tax records. Would we find tax records for somebody who doesn’t own property?
Personal Property and Planned Tax Records
That would be your personal property tax records, and then you had planned tax records. So, there are two different ones and you want to look for each. There may only be just one white pole, which means that one person is over the right age to be taxable. It might be a horse, it might be a silver watch, things like that.
Land Tax Records
Then there’s the land tax where they’re going to tax you on how much property that you own.
Included in the property tax would be enslaved persons. So, if you’re doing African American research, especially for Virginia, these are helpful. If the person you are researching was an enslaver, they would have these people listed by their names, typically their first names because that’s generally all they had. Some of them were sorted out by age. Not necessarily every county would be the same. But you would have perhaps age under 15 or 16, and then over 16. And while that’s a broad range, you’re looking for every little thing you can when you’re doing that type of research. Those are the kinds of things that you would see in the tax records.
Another great resource is chancery records, which I love. They’re court records which you can find at the Virginia Library. You can search by plaintiff or defendant or just a surname. I usually just do the surname when I search. You go to each county so choose your county, and then choose your name. It’ll bring up folders of court records. Everybody sued everybody just like they do now. Everybody was in court all the time. Sometimes it’ll just be maybe a lawsuit over land, or it could be a lawsuit over a horse or an enslaved person as well. But a lot of times you would find records that would involve state records, probate records, and every now and then you will really get lucky and you could find a whole family’s history in some of these files that explain the parents and the grandparents, the grandchildren. I’ve had them go many generations in one file and even include the neighbors. It puts your person in their place and time and helps you not confuse them with someone else
Virginia Chancery Record, courtesy of Jeri Satterwhite-Dearing
I would say that if you don’t look at those you’re missing out, totally! They are refilming a lot of the records right now. So, when you search your file might not come up. You would be able to see the file folder, but you might not be able to see the contents of it. But then you could take that information and go to your county level court records. Again, I would go through FamilySearch and do your search in the catalog by the county, not just a record search. By doing that, you can actually find those folders are still going to be within the county. You’ll have to dig a little deeper. But it’s always rewarding to do that.
Lisa: You’ve mentioned several really important types of records, chancery court records, deeds, wills and estate records. What other types are there? You have on your list colonial tithables. What are those?
Jeri: Those were really early. They’re like taxing, and it has to do with who the person by the age, and if they’re old enough to be taxed. It’s another form of the tax record. Those are the really early lists that you would be back quite far. You might not need those for a while, but if you get lucky, and you’re really getting back pretty far, then those are good.
Understand Virginia Law
Lisa: I imagined to be able to really use these records, we have to really understand things like geography and the law. What are your recommendations to a genealogist on really getting to understand the law? What’s a good way to go about that?
Jeri: Reading, taking classes, I mean, there are so many classes available online nowadays, just from the comfort of your home to be able to learn a lot. That would be the best thing to get familiar with the law. Learning the law is a little bit more complex but it is important. For example, it helps you determine if someone would have been the right age to get married. It’s a good way to separate the person out that might be the same name. It would help you know if your ancestor was able to buy and sell land, whether they could be a witness, all those ages change frequently. Then you know whether to go look for those records.
Understand Virginia Geography
Lisa: Are there any other resources that you think should really be on the forefront of the minds of people who are going to be digging into their Virginia roots?
And I definitely look for maps with Google. (Resource: The Genealogist’s Google Toolboxby Lisa Louise Cooke.) You can Google historical maps for Roanoke County, Virginia, for example. Some of those older maps have the landowners on them. I’ve got a huge map collection. You can find them from the formation of the county. They will have the landowner’s names written where their land was. Maybe your person did not own land, maybe they were just tenant farmers, but you found the name of the landowner, or you find them in another record. Look to see who they were living around. You can then find where they were, when they were in that particular county. That also gives you a way to look for more records that might involve your ancestor, as well.
Lisa: Well, that makes great sense. Maps are such an important part of it’s all location and timeframe, right?
Jeri: Yeah, because everything was about land. It still is, but it always has been about the land, and you don’t want to bypass that. You don’t want to just look at census, marriage, and death records, and that’s it. You really need to understand the context of their life and everything that was going on around them in the area that they lived. You then know more about who they are. Say their name, know who they were, and make them come back. They can be alive.
Getting Help from a Professional Genealogist Specializing in Virginia
Lisa: That’s a great way to look at it. Jeri, if people get really stuck, and they just feel like I need help with a professional genealogist, how could they get in touch with you? And what do you guys do at Legacy tree genealogist?
Jeri: They can contact us, and we can steer them to the right professional genealogist for their project. We have a wonderful team, and they do really good work! If you get stuck or if you don’t feel like you have the years to go and take the time to take classes and do everything, come join us and we’ll be happy to get you on the right track and help you find your ancestors.
The 1950 census must be indexed so that we can search for relatives by name, location and much, much more. You can help with this exciting project, and no special skills or background are required. Jim Ericson of FamilySearch 1950 Census Community Project explains what’s happening and how you can get involved.
Lisa: The 1950 US federal census was released by the National Archives just a short time ago on April 1 2022. But it was just a release of the digitized images of the census pages. The indexing of those records happens afterwards. It’s really the indexing that makes it possible for all of us to be able to search the records and find our families. Here to tell us about that really important indexing project. To get all this done is Jim Ericson from FamilySearch. They are heading up this project. Welcome, Jim.
Jim: Thank you, Lisa. It’s wonderful to be here with you today.
Lisa: I know you guys are so busy. You’re right on the heels of Rootstech which just wrapped up. And now we’re here with the release of the US Federal Census for 1950! Do you have somebody you’re looking forward to seeing in that census record?
Jim: Yeah, both of my parents will be there. My dad will be 20 years old. He turned 21 that year after the census. And my mom is 15, she will just have had her 15th birthday.
I know where my mom was. She was in Salt Lake City. But I have no idea where my dad was in 1950 as a 20 year old. He’d left college and I know that he had enlisted in the in the army. But I don’t know. He also worked in San Francisco for a couple of years. I don’t know if he’ll be in San Francisco, or where exactly where he would have been in 1950 when the census was taken so there’s a little mystery right there.
Lisa: Absolutely, and that’s a perfect example of why the indexing is so important, because you’ll be able to name search for him when this is done.
The History of FamilySearch
Before we jump into that indexing project, for those who maybe aren’t familiar or haven’t used FamilySearch, tell us what familysearch.org does and what it offers the genealogist.
Jim: FamilySearch is a nonprofit organization. We were founded in 1894 as the Genealogical Society of Utah.
FamilySearch is more of a recent incarnation of the organization that kind of reflects when we went online, and when we started publishing CD ROMs in the 1990s.
We’ve been microfilming and digitizing records since 1938. We started a worldwide project to go and collect records from around the world. Microfilm was really the innovation that allowed us to store all those records in a library. Getting a whole bunch of books or physical records in one location was difficult.
Since then, all of our record operations are now digital. All of our records are captured digitally now. We have worldwide operations in hundreds of countries. We publish over about a billion records a year.
As a nonprofit, we partner with commercial entities who have an interest in profit, because we know that they know how to innovate. And that also helps our resources go further through partnerships with these commercial entities. The 1950 census is actually an example of that sort of a partnership. We’re working on this with Ancestry and using the resources that they have.
FamilySearch has a collaborative family tree where you can see what others know about your family. We have, like I mentioned, 10 billion records that are online. We have free resources to learn how to do family history. And we really try to just bring people wherever they are, to the experiences that can help them learn about their family.
(04:32) Lisa: It’s amazing how much it’s grown! I remember the days of the CD ROMs with the record sets that we used to order. And now so much is available for free from home. Users just need to sign up for a free account to use the website and take advantage of the records. And I love the Wiki. It’s such a wonderful treasure trove of knowledge when it comes to genealogy research
Let’s talk about the most exciting and the newest record collection, which is the 1950 census. When it was released by the National Archives did you get all the images? Does that mean instantaneous publication on familysearch.org? How did that work initially?
Jim: Well, 10 years ago, in 2012, when they released the 1940 census, we were actually waiting at the National Archives with a van and hard drives. We had to transfer all the data onto hard drives and take them to our data facility in Virginia.
This time, everything was available online. Everything was downloaded and uploaded to our servers immediately. There was high demand. So that was one of the challenges that we faced was making sure that we’re going to be able to download those images, over 6 million images is a lot of images to be able to download. And those images include records for 151 million people. So that’s a lot of information at high quality, resolution. So that was actually the first hurdle.
And since we are doing this project with Ancestry, we also have to wait for Ancestry to do the same thing and download the images, to be able to process them to create their computerized index with their own handwriting recognition technology that then comes to us. It makes it so much easier to review an index as opposed to starting with transcription from scratch. So, there are so many innovations that have taken place. But from the National Archives, the online delivery of images was one of those innovations.
Lisa: How fantastic to be able to do that online. I can imagine that speeding it up. And then you’ve got artificial intelligence, which is already impacting how we use genealogy websites, how we access digitized books, and here you are using it to help index the records.
I’d love to know kind of a comparison between the speed at which you indexed the 1940 census which I thought was pretty darn quick to how that looks for 1950.
Jim: There is a great question, and we’re still learning how this is going to play out with the 1950 census.
The history of census indexing by FamilySearch
One of the first projects that we did as FamilySearch when we were publishing, CD ROMs was the 1880 census. The 1880 census took us more than a decade to press on to CD ROM. It was a huge project! It was crowd sourced, but before the advent of the internet. It was sending packets and physical papers around and then gathering them and then creating a CD ROM.
We went from a project like that, to doing the 1940 census just over a decade later in a matter of about six months. So already the technology was just astounding because of what you’re able to do because of the internet. Now you have the artificial intelligence, the handwriting, character recognition, and then you have innovations that we’re doing with the crowdsourcing. And all of a sudden, you’re able to take those tasks that we’re all human, I guess bounded by human capabilities, and you’re now allowing the computer to do what the computer can do.
With the 1950 census, we are actually indexing or reviewing this automated index for every single field that was captured in the 1950 census. It’s way more data than we were dealing with for the 1940 census. Because of the cost and the time, we just wanted to make sure that we just had the most logically relevant fields captured, so occupation, and some of those fields were seen as extra fields. But for 1950, we recognize that we can do a lot more in terms of the experiences that we can provide and that these other entities can provide if we have a full index, so that’s one of the big innovations. It’s going really well.
When will the 1950 census index be complete?
We have a goal to get it all done by Flag Day, so that’s June 14. That will be about two months from when we really got the project going and up to speed. That just depends on how many people come and participate.
There’s more than one way to participate. We feel like we have a lot of options, and it’s more accessible than it’s ever been because of how recent (the 1950 census) is. Recognizing handwriting from 1950s is not that different from recognizing handwriting from a week ago. Things haven’t changed that dramatically. And so, it’s a really accessible experience. And these are people that everybody knows. It’s kind of fun to come in and see what you can find in those areas where your family is from.
Innovations in the 1950 Census Index
(11:07) Lisa: Exactly. You said something which I hope everybody really appreciates, which is that you indexing every field. I mean, you must have gotten excited when you heard that was really going to be possible. It’s a game changer because now you can slice and dice data in so many ways. You can look up everybody who worked on the railroad or whatever the fields are that were filled out. What do you think the impact will be of that? Will that change anything about genealogy research?
Jim: Yes, it will. And not just genealogical research but also understanding the makeup of our country in 1950. And really understanding the history of our nation because that is part of your family history is enabled by capturing those additional fields. Being able to see differences in income, differences in occupation from region to region, being able to easily see, neighborhoods.
The address for the 1950 census is similar to the 1940 census in that it’s a vertical capture down the side of the forms. So that is something that just allows people to see what’s there today, if their house is still there. These are experiences that that we’ve dreamed of but without the index it is impossible to provide that sort of an experience. And so now with the commercial entities and what we’re trying to do, you’re going to have a lot of different experiences now that are unlocked and available because of these innovations. And especially with Ancestry’s (technology) it has enabled us to do this.
Is the 1950 census available for free?
(13:06) Lisa: Since you’re partnering together, is it available at Ancestry for free as well as for FamilySearch?
Jim: Ancestry will make their own businesses decisions. But yes, initially, it’ll be available for free. They’ve opened up the 1940 census recently, and that’s been available for free. I don’t know what all their future plans are. It allows them a lot of flexibility on how to do that. Of course, we make everything we can available for free at FamilySearch.
Again, there’s going to be a lot of different experiences that are available around this record set. So, it’s exciting going all the way back to how the National Archives made it available. It’s really democratizing the records. I think their goal is to just make it accessible to as many people as possible. And then it’s these other organizations that have a vision for what they can do with those records.
Lisa: Yes, and you guys certainly had the vision around the indexing project. That’s something that is such a skill that you’ve all developed and really fine-tuned. You’ve been able to crowdsource so much of what then becomes available to everybody.
Tell folks how they can get involved in it. And I’m really interested in some of the changes. I was very excited to hear that people will be able to have, in a way a more personal indexing experience. Tell folks about that.
Jim: Something that everybody wants to do when they come in and volunteer and get involved in a project is to find their own family. That will be expedited. When the index is published and available, after it’s been reviewed, everybody’s going to have that wonderful experience. But even on the review side, we’ve made it so people can search for a specific location down to the county level, or, in some cases down to the city level. Then you can actually search for a surname, or last name within that location. Now, if your family hasn’t already been reviewed, you’ll be able to review it if it hasn’t been reviewed. That just means that it’s going to be published sooner, because progress has already been made. And then you can come back and review it.
How to make corrections to the 1950 census index
(15:42) If for some reason, the person who reviewed it did it wrong, you can still make corrections. We do corrections on FamilySearch. Ancestry does corrections on Ancestry. And we are sharing whatever corrections are made on FamilySearch with Ancestry so they can get the benefit of any corrections that are made on our website as well. So that’s terrific.
For the 1940 census we had 163,000 people come and help and get involved. And with how easy it is for 1950, we think that we’ll have well over 200,000 people who will come and want to review these names.
How to volunteer to index the 1950 census
(16:30) If you want to get involved, there are a couple different places you can go. But the easiest place to remember is familysearch.org/1950census. And on that page, there’s a lot of information. Near the top of the page there’s a big link to join the project and to come over and participate.
The project is ongoing. All the states are there, some have already been published. Come and get involved and see what you can do. It’s going very quickly, and people are really enjoying it. We’re glad that it’s along as quickly as it is.
Lisa: Volunteers can do this from home from their computer. Is there a certain minimum commitment that they have to make or a certain minimum amount of technological ability?
Jim: No. This is again one of the things that’s kind of fun. I mentioned that briefly before there’s actually more than one experience or a way to participate.
(17:42) The standard way that most people who’ve done it before want to participate is what we call the Household Review. With the household review we try to identify from the head of the house, all the members of the household or the family to the next head of the house. That can sometimes cross pages on the census forms. That is an every field review. You can review as many of those fields as you want. And then the next person can come and pick up where you left off. So that’s really fun. It does require you to be on a computer.
(18:27) There are two other types of tasks. One doesn’t require you to be on a computer. You can be on your handheld device, your smartphone. It is what we call Name Review. So, instead of reviewing all of the fields, you can download our app called Get involved. FamilySearch Get Involved is available on the iTunes Store or the Apple Store, as well as from Google, the Android store. You can download the app and you can just start looking at the images where we have the names of the people in the census. Then you can compare that with what the computer thinks it is. You can either say yes, that’s right or no, and you can actually enhance or fix what the name is. You can do hundreds of these in an hour. I’ve done it, and it’s a fun activity. It’s really engaging if you like seeing that you’re making a difference in terms of volume. It’s a really fun way to participate.
Again, the computer doesn’t always get it right. So, you have to be really careful in the review process. But it’s super easy to just look at the image and look at the index value for the name and just make sure it’s right. You don’t have to have the app though.
(20:00) So, there’s the Household Review or the Name Review. And then the other task is the Header Review.
every census image, every census ledger, has a header that includes all of the location information and the information about the enumeration itself. And reviewing that is a separate task. We broke that one out because again, the data is formatted differently. If you want to go in and help us, those have to be done as well to be able to publish the dataset. We invite you to come in and see what states still have the header review available, and you can help us finish out that as well. It’s not as exciting because it doesn’t include the names of the people. But it still has to be done to be able to publish the reviewed index.
Lisa: I hadn’t thought about the header, but that’s pretty important. If that’s not right, then we get way off track pretty quickly. It includes our enumeration district number, the county, etc. That makes a lot of sense.
Well, Jim, it sounds like you guys have really been innovating over at FamilySearch. We’re grateful. We’re grateful that you’re giving everybody watching an opportunity to also give back a little bit and we can all pull together and get this done by Flag Day.
Are you ready for the release of the 1950 census from the National Archives? Lisa Louise Cooke covers how to prepare and everything you need to know to get the most out of this important genealogy record collection being released by the National Archives on April 1, 2022. Before you start searching for your family, familiarize ourselves with this important records collection and start preparing for success.
This episode brings you the audio from Elevenses with Lisa episode 51 PLUS important updates. You will learn:
the interesting and little known stories behind the 1950 census,
what it can reveal about your family, (and who you will NOT find!)
the important documents associated with it that you can access right now!
The status of the Infant Cards.
What you can expect when it comes to indexing the collection.
Thanks to our sponsor: Get 20% off Newspapers.com. Click here and use coupon code genealogygems
Listen to Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 260
Watch the Original Video
This audio comes from my series Elevenses with Lisa. You can watch the video interview at the Elevenses with Lisaepisode 51 show notes page.