Tips & Information
- Census takers
(Enumerators) didn't always know how to spell (see example below).
Doherty taken at
of President James Monroe
" I am a census taker for the
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."
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
- 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
- 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
just skipped that last house on the list and called it a day. Also, he
have knocked on a door
and found no one was home. Would he return to that residence at a later
- 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
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
include the names of the parents of those who are getting married and
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
- Grantee = the person
who purchased the land
of legal terms that appear in deeds
the wife mentioned in a deed when they (husband
& wife) were selling
land (when they are grantors).
- What information is important in a
acreage, landmarks (e.g. roads, railroads, waterways, etc), references
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")
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/).
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
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.
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.
Deaths, Wills, Probate Files
AND the Probate Files (see
next section for more information on the difference between the two).
there would have been an
- If they did not have a will (died
intestate), there would have been an
- 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
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
> 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
> If you can
determine the birth date of the oldest child, it can help estimate a
marriage. Also, you can estimate the likely "born by" dates for the
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
- 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
- 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
Deeds vs. Deed
& Probate Records vs. Will Books:
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.
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.
is merely a copy?
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
There is much
to learn from an authentic signature, especially if you have more than
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.
highly recommend the book
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
Find a taste of what you can learn from Andrea McNichol in this video.
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
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?
- 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.
- 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
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
lived relatively nearby to the subject of the record. They could
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
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
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.
- 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.
- 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
also be an identifier based on the individual's occupation, such as
John Smith "carpenter". Note:
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
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
doesn't mean they got the
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
related individuals, but the oldest and youngest in an area or
document. When a Senior died, a different person could then adopt
"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
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
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.
Math of Genealogy:
You have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 Great Grandparents, 16
GG-Grandparents, 32 G3-Grandparents, 64 G4-Grandparents,
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.
1) Each generation was separated by 20
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,
Gr5-Grandchildren, 256 Gr6-Grandchildren, 512
Gr7-Grandchildren, 1024 Gr8-Grandchildren, 2048 Gr9-Grandchildren,
and 8192 Gr11-Grandchildren.
1896, 1916, 1936, 1956,
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.
1936 - 1024
+ spouses = 2048
Born 1956 - 2048 + spouses = 4096
Born 1976 - 4096 + spouses
Born 1996 - 8192 =
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
life expectancy, etc.
this page will be added periodically.