Thursday, November 19, 2015


Now that you’ve documented your living relatives, it’s time to move on to those who are no longer with you.

But 1st, there are a few pitfalls you need to be aware of. They can slow you down and have you barking up the wrong family tree.

#1 BEWARE OF FAMILY TRADITIONS!  A family tradition makes for a good story, but they are seldom grounded in facts.  Some common family traditions are “Three brothers came over from _(fill in the blank)_____. Once here they went their separate ways” or “One of our ancestors married a Cherokee Princess.” 

One from my own past goes like this: my grandmother told everyone that her father, Freeman Scott, was found on an island in the Ohio River as a toddler. He was raised by the Scott family. Since all he could say was “Fremmie,” he became Freeman Scott.  A few years back I started out with the intention of finding what little I could on Freeman Scott.  As I checked the federal censuses of Kentucky (where my grandmother was born) I found not a Freeman Scott, but Aaron Freeman Scott at age 1-month in the home of John Ross Scott.  A little more digging and I found John Ross Scott’s maternal grandfather was Aaron Freeman.  So it appears that for over 40 years my grandmother had been telling us a huge fib. Why? I can only guess.  Maybe Freeman Scott’s parents didn’t like their daughter-in-law and cut them out of his life.   

The moral of that story is—listen to the family’s traditions, BUT verify them with records before calling them fact.
#2 SPELLINGS DON’T COUNT.  In the 40-plus years I’ve been researching, I’ve 47 different ways my surname was spelled.  The first time I went to the library to scan the censuses on microfilm, my wife came along to help.  I was reading on one microfilm reader and my wife was on  another one.  She leaned over and told me she  found a Caulley.  I asked her how it was spelled and she replied C-A-W-L-E-Y.  I told her that it HAD to be spelled C-A-U-L-L-E-Y,  so it couldn’t be the right family.  BOY, was I wrong!  It WAS the right family and my wife never let me forget it. 

#3 DON’T GET FLAT FEET JUMPING TO ASSUMPTIONS!  I assumed my surname CAULLEY was originally McCaulley and they came over from Ireland during the potato famine in the 1850s.  I even went so far as to purchase a nice wooden McCaulley family crest back when we didn’t have the money.  Later I found a document proving the name was originally CORLEY and they most likely came from England in the Colonial period. 

#4 DON’T BE A “CUT-AND-PASTE” GENEALOGIST.  Many genealogists find where someone else has already “traced” their family, they get lazy and accept what the other person did as accurate.  They Cut-And-Paste the info to their own tree to later find out it was wrong.  All I can say is VERIFY and DOCUMENT what someone else wrote.

Now that the CAVEATS     have been dealt with, let’s move on finding documents to prove your ancestry.

Probably the most useful document to the beginning genealogist is the U.S. Federal Census.  As long as you know your ancestor was born before 1940, you have a name and place you can start searching the censuses for your ancestors.  From the census you should be able to get your ancestor’s place of birth (state or country) and their parents (if they were a child).  You start with the 1940 census and work back with each previous census – 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900, 1880 (the 1890 census was destroyed by fire),1870, 1860 and 1850.  The 1850 census was the first one to list everyone living in the hose by name.  The 1840 census on back to the 1790 census only listed the heads of households and tallied all the rest by gender and approximate age. 

Now that you know what documents (the censuses) to look for, you need to know where to look.  In the dark ages we had to go to a library, check census index books then scroll through the microfilm looking for your ancestor.  Now, you can do it on line in just minutes. 

You can search for them using FAMILY SEARCH.ORG.  The site is free, but you will need to register.  This is the LDS (Mormon) Church site.

Other records you may try to find are marriage records, birth records, military records and death records.  Some of these are available at the site.  Once there click on the USA on the world map and then select the state in which you want to search.  Some of the records are indexed and others are not.  You can browse the unindexed records., as good as it is, doesn’t  have all the records available.  So, you will probably want to open an subscription account at and (a site that has military records).

I think that’s enough to mentally digest for today.

TOMORROW:  Kinds of Records & More Searchable Sites.

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