Ash Lawn-Highland Tree
Genealogy Tips & Information

About the Census



Deaths, Wills, Probate Files & Obituaries

Deeds vs. Deed Books & Probate Records vs. Will Books

Signatures and Marks

Same Name

And just for fun:
The Math of Genealogy

Photo by Heather H. Doherty taken at                                
Ash Lawn-Highland: former residence of President James Monroe       
About the Census:
         - Census takers (Enumerators) didn't always know how to spell (see example below).
                       "  I am a census taker for the City of Bufflow. Our city has groan very fast in resent years and now in 1865, it has become a hard and time consuming job to count all the peephill. There is not many that can do this work, as it is necessarie to have an ejucashun, wich a lot of person still do not have. Ahnuther atribert needed for this job is good speling for many of the peephill to be counted can harle speak inglish, let alon spel there names."
           - Enumerators, unfortunately, didn't always have good penmanship. Because of this, those who transcribe the data from the census (e.g. transcriptions done for searchable databases), don't always transcribe the names (or other information) correctly. Sometimes, an enumerator had wonderful penmanship, but it's so fancy with elegant flourishes that transcribing it can be difficult.
           - If you can't find your relative on a searchable database (e.g. ancestry.com), try spelling their name phonetically or use soundex (not all searchable databases have soundex).
           - People have been known to lie about their age. Surprisingly, some didn't even know the ages of those in their household...even those who were family members.
           - When searching for a person in the census, it is always advisable to search within at least two years before and after the person's birth date (a 5 year range)...sometimes more.
           - The information from the census is only as reliable as those who provided it, recorded it and transcribed it.
           - Enumerators had bad days too. After being in the rain, mud and heat all day, they may have just skipped that last house on the list and called it a day. Also, he may have knocked on a door and found no one was home. Would he return to that residence at a later date?
           - People move. For example, John Smith resided in Newark in 1800. Before the enumerator came to his house in Newark, he had moved to Wilmington, where their enumerator had already been. Therefore, Mr. Smith wouldn't show up                             on either census. Then again, he could have been counted twice and appeared on the census in both locations.
          - See more information about each census in the Census Guide

       - There are many places you might find a reference of a marriage:
                > Probate/Will of parent, sibling or other relative
                > Deeds, specifically grantor as a husband and his wife generally had to sell their land together
                > Church records (some of which include parentage)
                > Orphans' Court: for marriage of child or widow's/widower's second marriage
                > Newspapers
        - Some Marriage records (specifically a "Return of Marriage") will include the names of the parents of those who are getting married and their birthplace/nationality.
        - If you find a marriage bond, always take note of not only the husband and wife, but the other person (usually male) who was bound to the state along with the husband. Sometimes the individual was a relative of either the husband or wife. If not a relative, they could provide clues to the family as they could show up in other types of records. Note: the date on marriage bonds were not necessarily the date in which the couple were married, but generally a few days prior.


       - Grantor = the person who sold the land
       - Grantee = the person who purchased the land
             > More definitions of legal terms that appear in deeds
             > You're more likely to see the wife mentioned in a deed when they (husband & wife) were selling land (when they are grantors).
       - What information is important in a Deed?
             > Dates, acreage, landmarks (e.g. roads, railroads, waterways, etc), references to prior deeds
             > Names: Grantors, Grantees, Witnesses, previous owners, neighbors, family members/relationships, tract names (what that land, or land of a neighbor, was called e.g. "Sullivan's Chance")
             > Always write down the source/reference/citation information (e.g. date, state, county, city, book & page number). If you, or someone else, need(s) to locate that deed later, it will be easy.
       - Try a Deed Platter (e.g. http://www.genealogytools.net/deeds/). All those "metes and bounds" can be input so you can get a better visualization of what the land looked like. Keep in mind, some land follows waterways or roads, which cannot easily be accounted for in a deed platter. Land involving such landmarks will require a more in depth look at the maps of the times. Sometimes it will be necessary to plat the land of your ancestor's neighbors in order to get a better idea of how the land was laid out.
       - Always take note when you come across a map.  Maps are an invaluable source in genealogy. On occasion, you will be lucky in that there was included in a deed or other type of record, a map of the land. Below is an example from a 14 Jul 1828 Orphans' Court record regarding land of James Faris deceased.

Orphans'CtMAP 1828  

Deaths, Wills, Probate Files & Obituaries:          
       - Always check the Will Books AND the Probate Files (see next section for more information on the difference between the two).
       - If they had a will, there would have been an Executor/Executrix.
       - If they did not have a will (died intestate), there would have been an Administrator/Administratrix.
       - If there was a will, the person died between the date the will was written (normally found within the body of the will at the beginning or the end) and the date the will was probated (usually found on the reverse side of the paper). If there was no will, use the earliest date found in the probate records as a "died by" date.
       - It is not always the case, but children mentioned in a will were usually listed from oldest to youngest.
       - All children of the deceased were not always mentioned in a will
                > The deceased may have had nine living children and only listed seven of them. 
                > If a child died before the parent who was writing his will, that child may not have been mentioned at all, however, if there were grandchildren who received an inheritance, the deceased child(ren) might have been mentioned (e.g. "...to Elizabeth and John Howell, children of my deceased daughter Rebeka...")
                > Sometimes, no family members are mentioned by name.
                > If a child was referred to as oldest or youngest, be sure to make a note of it as it can help with the birth dates of the other children (e.g. To my eldest son, Franklin, I bequeath...). Remember, if a child was referred to as the oldest/eldest child/son/daughter, it was likely the oldest/eldest of the surviving children/sons/daughters.
If you can determine the birth date of the oldest child, it can help estimate a date of marriage. Also, you can estimate the likely "born by" dates for the parents.
       - If someone dies, it does not mean they had an obituary.
       - If you're researching an ancestor from the 1800s or earlier, and you find that he remarried, it's likely that his first wife died. Divorces were not as common then as they are now.
       - The "tax man" doesn't always get the message that a person died. Your ancestor could appear on the tax assessment lists for two or more years following his death.
       - If a man died when he had children that were under 21 years of age, check the Orphans' Court records. Children were considered orphans even when they still had a parent who was living.

Deeds vs. Deed Books & Probate Records vs. Will Books:
       Deeds are the original documents of the sale of land (although they may also involve such things as a manumission, mortgage, power of attorney, rental, etc). If you bought a house, the deed would be what you have in your possession. It is extremely rare to be able to obtain an original deed unless it was passed down in the family. These documents would have authentic signatures.
       Deed Books are copies of the original deeds and would not have authentic signatures on them. They would provide information as to whether or not the person signed their name or left their mark. They would generally contain all the information that was recorded in the original deed.
       Probate Records contain all surviving documents concerning the execution/administration of a person's will/probate. They could contain such things as renunciations, wills, debts & credits, goods & chattels, list of sales, Orphans' Court references, administration accounts, distributions, etc. The Probate records contain the original documents with authentic signatures.
       Will Books contain information copied from the Probate records, but not all the information. This is why it's important to check both the Will Books AND the Probate Records. In some cases, information on a certain individual will only be found in one of the two (probably because the other records did not survive). Generally, the Will Books contain less information, but sometimes it does contain information that was not in the Probate records. Signatures in the Will Books are copies and not the authentic signatures. However, just as the Deed Books, they do show whether a person left their signature or made their mark.

Signatures and Marks:
While researching your family tree, you may come across a document that contains a signature or something referred to as "his mark" or "her mark", generally an "X" located between the first and last name.

What can you learn from a signature that is merely a copy?
 In some cases, a signature might not be that individual's authentic signature, rather a copy of it, such as in deed books and will books. Although they were not authentic signatures, such as in the above described records, there is something you can learn from them: whether that person could or could not write. This is particularly helpful when dealing with a more common name because it aides in the process of elimination. Below, you'll find copies of the signatures of Daniel H. Thomas and his wife Jane Thomas from a 4 Feb 1826 deed recorded in the deed books [D4:391] when they sold land to Nathan Boulden. These signatures, although not authentic, tell us that they signed their names on the original deed. 

                                                      ThomasDanH sig Copy                    
Below are the authentic signatures of the same two people. On the left, is Daniel H. Thomas' signature from his Last Will and Testament written on 15 Nov 1826. On the right, is the signature of his widow, Jane Thomas, who had written a memo on 25 Mar 1827 included in her husband's probate.
ThomasDanH sig Will   ThomasJane sig Probate memo
You may notice the first two signatures look like they were written in the same handwriting. That's because they were likely written by the same person. The authentic signatures differ more in the style, slant, and size of characters in comparison with other characters.  These were definitely written by two different people. Also, since neither left their "mark", they both knew how to write at the time.

Below is an example of a copied signature for Sapience Harrison (from a deed dated 22 Feb 1748 [Q1:108]). In this case, his mark was an "H".  Most of the time, a person's "mark" was simply an "X", but there are exceptions to this. We know the "H" is not a middle initial because of the words "his" above and "mark" below. Another clue is that the two "Hs" are wildly different.
                                                  HarrisonSapience his mark 1748

What can you learn from these? Let's say you're looking for John Hall and found an 1810 deed for him where he left "his mark". Since John Hall is a pretty common name, knowing that he could not write can be helpful in your search for the John Hall who was your ancestor. Knowing he could not write can help to eliminate all those who signed their name (or had some other document in their writing) in the years prior to the 1810 document. The reason I say "prior to this document" is because, John Hall could've learned to write after the 1810 document. Of course, if you find a signed Last Will & Testament where he left "his mark", that would infer that John Hall never learned to sign his name. If that was the case, all the John Halls who signed their names could be eliminated.
What can you learn from an authentic signature?
There is much to learn from an authentic signature, especially if you have more than one. Genealogists mainly use authentic signatures as a method of comparison to see if it was likely that two signatures belonged to the same person or not. This is why the more authentic signatures you have the better.

You may well know that the way you signed your name in high school is different from how you sign it now. When you are sick, tired, or even under the influence, you also may notice your signature looks different. A keen eye will look at two signatures and be able to determine what about them is the same and what is different and whether those differences amount to a conclusion that they were made by different people or the same people.

If you are interested in handwriting analysis, I highly recommend the book "Handwriting Analysis: Putting It to Work for You" by Andrea McNichol.  Upon reading it, you'll be itching to look at, not only the handwriting of your ancestors, but of those you know as well.  Find a taste of what you can learn from Andrea McNichol in this video.

Same Name:
While researching your ancestry, you may come across two or more people who have the same name as your ancestor.  How do you tell them apart?  Here are some tips that should help.  These are particularly useful if your ancestor died prior to the 1850 census where names and exact ages were given for every member of the household.

Let's start with your hypothetical ancestor, John Smith of Pencader Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware.  You know he married Melvina Ford from a marriage record of their son Richard which asked for his parent's names.  Since he died prior to 1850, you don't know his exact age.  While researching, you find there were three John Smiths in the Pencader Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware census.  So, which one was your ancestor?

1) Age - It would be unusual to find that all the John Smiths were the same age.  One method of determining age would be to back-calculate from their first appearance on a tax list, their first deed, their first time signing as a witness to a document, or anything else that would've required them to have been at least 21 years of age.  You can use census data and Orphans' Court records for information on age as well.  The more records that have clues to age, the better you will be able to narrow down their date of birth. 

2) Neighbors - Another method of telling one John Smith from another is to match up neighbors mentioned in deeds, probates, Orphans' Court or Chancery Court records with neighbors in the census.  Let's say John Smith, had an 1821 deed where he and his wife Mary sold land in Pencader Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware that bordered the lands of Wm Tatnall, Samuel Massey & George West.  You know it's your John Smith because he was selling the land with his wife, Melvina.  In the Pencader Hundred census & tax assessment lists of 1820, there were three John Smiths.  What do you do?  Look up Wm Tatnall, Samuel Massey & George West in the census to see which John Smith lived closest to those three neighbors from his deed.  Note:  Since we don't know how the enumerator decided to visit people's homes, or in what order, the neighbors might not appear right next to your John Smith, but could be within a page or two.  If two (2) John Smiths are equally close to the neighbors mentioned in the deed, try using their age to help tell them apart.  If he was selling land in 1821, he had to have been born by 1800 because he had to have been 21 years of age in order to buy or sell land.  In fact, if he bought this land in a deed (rather than inheriting it), that would push his birth date back.

If you don't have any information regarding neighbors, look at witnesses who signed documents that dealt with your ancestors.  I've found that, if it wasn't someone who worked wherever the document was recorded (e.g. a clerk at a courthouse), the witnesses were usually people who lived relatively nearby to the subject of the record.  They could even have been a friend of the family or someone in the family.

Another tactic to use whilst trying to tell three John Smiths apart is to see where their children ended up once they left the household.  This only works if you actually know who any of their children were and if they were old enough to be heads of household or married to a head of household at the time you look for them.  Searching the census for the children of your John Smith could help you find which one was your ancestor (likely lived closest to his children than the other John Smiths).  You can also look for the children of the John Smiths who weren't your ancestor to help rule them out in the process of elimination.  Let's say your John Smith had three known children Samuel, Richard and a daughter, Rachel, who married Wm Randolph.  His three children appeared to have been living in John Smith's household in 1830, but not in 1840.  If you check the census for these heads of household, the John Smith who was their father (or father-in-law) would likely have been the one closest to these individuals.  Note:  I would not use this technique alone as proof of which John Smith was which, but I would use it in combination with others techniques.

Note:  If ever you notice a child who left the household between censuses, it's always a good idea to check the marriage records for that 10 year period.  It's always helpful when you can narrow down search results, and having that 10 year period can narrow down possible results considerably...especially if the name is Smith.

Death/Probate - All three John Smiths likely didn't die at the same time.  It's a good idea to check the probates (or find out when they dropped off the tax assessment lists) to see when they died and use the process of elimination.  Probates can also give relationships such as the names of the spouse and children (see #4).  Just as with the neighbors, you can locate people mentioned in probates as well.  I've found that those that were most likely to have lived close by to the deceased were the appraisers, guardians of minor children and those who purchased goods & chattels in the list of sales.  You can also look for witnesses of the will, administrators/executors, friends or associates mentioned in the will, etc.

4) Spouse/Children - It's unlikely all John Smiths had a wife with the same name as the others.  You can use this information to match up the widow in the probate with the wife in the deeds (or a widow who appears on the tax lists after her husband's decease), or at least narrow it down.  It's also unlikely they all had the same number of children (or their children were the same ages as another John Smith's children).  You can use the information about the children from the census and match it up with how many children were mentioned in the will or probate.  If there was an Orphans' Court record, the ages of the children (if appointed a guardian <15 yrs old, if guardian chosen by the minor >15 yrs old) can be compared to the age ranges (if prior to 1850) or ages (if 1850 and later) of the children in John Smith's household in the census.  Sometimes, children were mentioned in deeds (e.g. John Smith may sell land to his son).  In this case, John's son would've had to have been 21 years of age or older.  Note:  People didn't always name all their children in their probates/wills, either because they died intestate, they didn't name any of their children in their will, they didn't bequeath anything to them, one or more of his children died or they were not on the greatest of terms.  Regardless, looking at the number of children and their ages can help guide you while searching for your ancestor among all the John Smiths out there.

5) Identifiers - The census may have had three John Smiths without any other identifiers, but the tax list might have had a John Smith of John, a John Smith Sr. and a John Smith Jr.  Then again, the census might have had identifiers while the tax lists didn't.  There could also be an identifier based on the individual's occupation, such as John Smith "carpenter".  Note:  Just because there may not have been an identifier for one year's records (e.g. tax assessment lists, census, etc), that doesn't mean they weren't present for other years, so I'd suggest checking more than one. 

Identifiers depend mainly on who's writing down the information and whether or not they thought it was pertinent or necessary to include an identifier.  Many records involved an unrelated person recording the information (e.g. enumerator), but other times, the identifier comes straight from the source (e.g. deed, will, etc).  You may find a will where John Smith referred to himself as a carpenter, a deed where John referred to himself as the son of John (perhaps he was selling his father's land).  Also keep in mind that the carpenter and the John of John could've been the same person.

There may be a record that has little to do with your ancestor, but he signed his name as a witness as "John Smith Junior" on his brother-in-law's will.  Other records may have come from a source close to the family, such as a guardian to a child of a deceased ancestor or his widow.  Each of these examples have different levels of reliability.  A statement that comes straight from the source would be the most reliable, just as in a court of law.  The next most reliable would be a source that was related to the ancestor, such as a son providing his parent's names on a marriage record.  Note:  Just because they were related, it doesn't mean they got the information right.

Besides identifiers such as Senior, Junior, of [father's name] or occupation, a person can also have a middle initial.  Just as those I discussed above, the middle initial may not appear in all the records.  Usually, identifiers were added when there was more than one person with that name in a local tax list, census (in a specific area), and sometimes in deeds and probates. 

Of the identifiers I have described, some are more helpful than others because, for one thing, they can change.  Senior and Junior were not necessarily related individuals, but the oldest and youngest in an area or document.  When a Senior died, a different person could then adopt the "Senior" identifier because, at that point, he would have been the oldest in the area.  Another thing that could've changed was a person's occupation.  Perhaps John Smith was a carpenter while he was studying to be a lawyer.  The identifiers that don't change (or shouldn't) are the "of [father's name]" and the middle initial.  These should be the same throughout that person's life.  If you're ancestor has either of these, your evidence will be more reliable as you aren't assuming that a certain John Smith remained a carpenter for his whole life or was always a Sr or Jr.  While researching genealogy, you want to avoid making assumptions.

The Math of Genealogy:
You have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 Great Grandparents, 16 GG-Grandparents, 32 G3-Grandparents, 64 G4-Grandparents, 128 G5-Grandparents, 256 G6-Grandparents, 512 G7-Grandparents.

200 Years of Descendants:
Let's say you were born on the bicentennial (1976) and want to plan a family reunion. You want to invite everyone who descended from a Revolutionary War ancestor of yours.

For the purpose of this exercise, let's assume:
1) Each generation was separated by 20 years
Your Revolutionary War ancestor had 2 children who were born near 1776.
3) Each child had 2 children of their own, and each of those children also had 2 children, and so on, and so forth.

How big a venue would you need to reserve for this family reunion. Assuming every living descendant could come.

Well, the Revolutionary War ancestor's immediate family was made up of 4 people (his wife, his 2 children and himself).
He had 2 children, 4 grandchildren, 8 Great grandchildren, 16 GG-Grandchildren, 32 GGG-Grandchildren, 64 Gr4-Grandchildren, 128 Gr5-Grandchildren, 256 Gr6-Grandchildren, 512 Gr7-Grandchildren, 1024 Gr8-Grandchildren, 2048 Gr
9-Grandchildren, 4096 Gr10-Grandchildren and 8192 Gr11-Grandchildren.
Generation Dates: 1776, 1796, 1816, 1836, 1856, 1876, 1896, 1916, 1936, 1956, 1976, 1996.

Now, let's assume that those born in and after 1936 are still living and that all of these Greats Grandchildren want to bring their spouses along. I'm also going to assume those born in 1996 are unmarried.

Born 1936 - 1024 + spouses =   2048  
Born 1956 - 2048 + spouses =   4096

Born 1976 - 4096 +
spouses =   8192
Born 1996 - 8192 
=                   8192
                                                   22,528  people

That's one big venue! Maybe you should make it a pot luck.

Of course, not everyone had 2 kids, some had considerably more, some had less and some never had children. Also, we don't know how many of them married. Then there other factors to contribute such as war, disease, the availability of medicines and technology that has increased life expectancy, etc.

Additions to this page will be added periodically.