North American Family History

Those family historians, who are researching their family trees back before the start of the census collections in North America, will be aware that they have to find some alternative records sets to find their ancestors. So what suggestions can we make?

Luckily I was reading up on this subject in last month’s Your Family Tree Magazine.. Issue 96 November 2010.

The article points out that first nominal census took place in 1850 in the USA and 1851 in Canada and so for those of you trying to find ancestors from before these census took place, then the best option available to you is to use the tax records.

What you are quickly going to find is that mostly only adult males are going to be listed in these records. Questions to consider are what age did a person have to be to be included in the poll tax and also what type of property were subject to tax? Best advice is to check out the relevant government regulations so that you can interpret accurately what the data is revealing.

Regretfully there are very few records of these taxes online, but Cyndi’s list is a good place to find links when they exist. www.cyndislist.com

Here you should find links to Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Disclosure: Compensated Affiliate.

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More Devon Parish Registers On-line!

As many of you know I am particularly interested in the county of Devon, as so many of my paternal line comes from that county of England.

One of the biggest problems for me is that the number of Parish Registers on-line does not seem to be as great as for many other English counties. So here is some good news that I recently found on a trawl of the news sites..

Over 360,000 Devon baptism records have been published on the FindMyPast web site in the past month.

You are able to now search for your Devon ancestors in 363,015 new parish baptism records on findmypast.co.uk and these baptism records cover the period between 1813 and 1839.

It would seem that the Devon Family History Society has supplied findmypast.co.uk with these records, for which we should all be grateful. I know that I am!

Here is a link to the site, but first a warning to all those of you that don’t like the idea of  promotion for compensation. This is an affiliate link for which I will be compensated if you decide to join!

findmypast.co.uk




Disclosure: I am a Compensated Affiliate of findmypast.co.uk.

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Your Family History Answers Maybe Off-line

Sometimes we just need to accept that not every answer to your family history questions will be on-line. I’ve discovered this with my research into my British Family Tree, but it can be the same where ever it is in the world that you are looking for ancestors. You’ve searched for an ancestor using the various on-line tools and failed to find any trace of them?

The temptation is to believe that, because they don’t appear where we think that they should, that we are simply not going to find them. Well, what I need to remind myself  when I am on the trail of my UK forebears, is that not every record for Britain is on the web and even for those that are mistakes have been made and omissions may have occurred.

Anyone with a British Family tree is well catered for by the availability of paid and free look up websites.

Taking, for example, my family tree in England. My 4 times great grandparents, John and Sarah Thorn for whom I had obtained their names from the baptism information that I had got from a search of the International Genealogical Index at familysearch.org for their son, also called John, my 3x great-grandfather.

Baptismal font St. Saviours, Dartmouth, Devon, UK.
Baptismal font St. Saviours, Dartmouth, Devon, UK.

Remembering what the family history professionals teach, that you should always use information that has been transcribed as a finding aid only – using it to seek out the original record, I visited the Devon County Record Office in person and looked up the microfiche copy of the baptism of John Brampton Thorn in St.Saviours church, Dartmouth on the 28th September 1794.

Having verified that their names were correct, on the IGI, I had then searched for the marriage of John and Sarah. I knew that a number of their children were baptised in the same church and that there was only one other possible child christened earlier than my great-great-great-grandfather in St Saviours in 1790, however it was not certain if this individual was of the same family of Thorns. I was hunting for a marriage around 1794. Frustratingly, there were no likely candidates in that particular church.

Searching the IGI around the area came up with nothing and so I expanded it outwards. With my “possible parish” list I  searched on-line for the marriage and came up with some in Exeter for 1793. Were the Thorns from Exeter? Well the answer turns out to be no!

Visiting, in person, the Devon Family History Society in Exeter I explained about my brick wall and the staff looked at their data for marriages 1754 to 1812 for a John Thorn marrying a bride called Sarah. At this point I had no maiden name for Sarah. After a few minutes, for the bargain price of only 15 pence I was handed a list of seven marriages. The very first of which was a John Thorn and Sarah Branton married on the 12 January 1794. The bride’s surname was to become the second name of their child and my 3x great-grandfather. The parish was not Exeter, nor anywhere from around Dartmouth, but Plymouth Charles!

Having obtained this information off-line I then went back to the internet just to check if I could have found it there. On the IGI there was no record and various other websites I went to all returned no matches either.

The lessons I learnt here, is that not every record is accessible on-line. Remember this in your family history research.

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What is the Biggest Family History Problem for Those Of Us With British Ancestors?

I put up an online survey to find out what major brick walls people had in British Isles ancestor research and the largest cry that came back was the following:

Help me with my family tree research, especially back before 1837.

Perhaps this resonates with you? You’ve traced your forebears back in the census collections as far back as the 1841 census? Then you have used the Births Marriages and Deaths on the web and found that the nice and easy indexes only go back as far as 1837?

It was, you see, that in 1837 the General Register Office was set up for England and Wales and took over the registration of vital records from the Church of England.

In Scotland it was in 1855 that the General Register Office for Scotland took the same powers from the Church of Scotland. So from those years backwards we all have to use the records kept by the state church and these are known as Parish records in both jurisdictions.

Baptismal registers will normally give you the name of the child and that of its father, plus the date of the christening. Occasionally you may also see the mother’s name, most particularly if the child was illegitimate. In this case you could see the terms “base born” “bastard” or “natural born” on the record. Sometimes the godparents or witnesses also appear. This all goes to show how there was no standard format to baptismal registers until in 1812 Rose’s Act became law in England and Wales and standardised the information to be recorded on specially printed registers. It should be noted, however, that Rose’s Act did not apply to Scotland or Ireland. These new standardised registers asked for more details than before and so now the clergy had to obtain the mother’s Christian name, the father’s occupation and his abode.

Churches kept parish registers locally. They were not collated or sent to any central depository but were retained by the churches themselves. From the 16th century up until 1837 the parish church carried the responsibility of collecting records of its parishioners. While baptism was more important to the church than actual birth dates and burials were noted as opposed to deaths, the church was essentially an arm of local government.

A strong lockable box, known as the parish chest and into which were deposited records were kept. We refer to all those records, that may now be found deposited in the county record office but were once in the keeping of the parish church, as Parish Chest documents. They don’t just include the well known parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials of our forebears. You will find there are all sorts of other records that together are sometimes referred to as the parish chest.

In England and Wales you have the vestry meeting minutes while in Scotland you have the Kirk Sessions. There are also odd records such as the report of the parish surveyor! Many of you may not have even heard of such records that may just contain your ancestor’s name and if you are restricting your searching to the online environment then you are more than likely frustrated by the inability to locate them.

In most cases you are going to have to visit the county record office to get to see microfiche copies of these English and Welsh records, as they are not online. For the baptisms, marriages and burials you could go to your local LDS centre and order the films there. Scotland’s old parish registers, however, can be accessed at the ScotlandsPeople website for a fee. Oh that we could do the same south of the border!

The NoseyGenealogist.com website
The NoseyGenealogist.com website
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Great to See the ScotlandsPeople Website Updated

Scottish BirthsAs someone that has used their website to good effect with my Scottish ancestors, I am really pleased to see that ScotlandsPeople service is now up, revamped and running. I have had no problem in recommending it to those who have Scots roots because of the value of its content. Now it includes some new search features that are designed to make it easier and quicker for people to use and discover their Scottish family roots.

For example, the site now has a way of plotting search results on maps. This should enable all those who are unfamiliar with Scottish geography – such as the many users of Scottish descent living overseas – to better understand about Scotland and their ancestors and how the terrain may have affected them.

Other changes made are to the advanced search functions, that should provide quicker results and the additional information from Catholic Parish Registers.

http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/

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My Ancestors Were in the Parish Records?

As a family historian, one of the highlights of my year is to try and get to London’s Olympia for the Who Do You Think You Are? LIVE exhibition in February and mix with like minded people all “doing” their family tree and seeing what is new in our field. In 2010 I signed up early and bought my tickets on-line. This enabled me to also reserve some passes to one or two of the Society of Genealogist’s lectures in the hall. And a good thing I did, as some of them sold out before the day!

I particularly enjoyed the talk given by John Hanson FSG, who has been researching his family tree for about 25 years.

His workshop, called “My Ancestors Were in the Parish Records? Well They Should Have Been!”, gave his audience a really good overview of Births Marriages and Burials as we would expect to find in the church records of England & Wales. As I sat, taking notes and thinking to myself smugly that I already know quite a bit about this area, I found that pretty soon I was listening to some really useful nuggets of information that I just didn’t know, or had forgotten about along the way.

Old Parish Registers

For example: Baptisms

Most people, John Hanson pointed out, think that baptisms tend to peter out with the start of civil registration on the 1st of July 1873, but this is not entirely true. Yes, they have declined in modern times. Hanson’s wife is a verger in their local church and the number of baptisms that their vicar performs these days could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But go back to the eighteenth, nineteenth & early twentieth century, he said, and you would find that the number of children being baptised per week then, would be similar to the numbers that gets baptised in a year today! Up to 1900, however, we will still find our ancestors being baptised in church and it is only as we get closer to today that the numbers drop off. So although we often think of parish records as predominately those to use to get back before 1837, this is a wake up call that these records can still be interesting to look at after that date.

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Nonconformist buried in my family tree.

As you may know, if you have been following me for any length of time, that Devon is one of the areas of the U.K. that I research my ancestors in. Some of my Devonian forebears turned away from the established Church of England and became dissenters. There seems to be a rather limited number of nonconformist chapel burial records actually surviving within the county of Devon and so this can be a bit of a brick wall for us. Many family historians may well have found that in their own family trees, ancestors left the Church of England to practice their faith in other Christian churches.

By the law of the land, people of each and every denomination could be laid to rest inside their parish churchyard. Although this was the case, however, the relatives of people who were nonconformists were not allowed to have a Church of England burial service at the graveside. This would be fine if all the deceased’s family were no longer C of E, but I would guess it could be upsetting for family members who had not joined their relation in nonconformity and so would have wanted a service conducted by the local vicar!

I was intrigued to find out that people who held offices within the “establishment” were affected by another piece of legislation. I am talking here about Councillors as well as some other municipal officials. These worthy people were not allowed to put on their robes of office to attend the funeral of a non conformist councillor and this would have included the wearing of a mayoral chain etc. Should they rashly have broken this rule then they were liable to a fine of £100 and in addition they would likely end up being barred from civic office throughout the rest of their lives!

Many nonconformists, however, did not wish to be interred within land held by the Church of England. Quakers, most especially, established their own unique burial grounds. In these, the family historian will discover, plots defined by somewhat plain, uncomplicated stones that usually feature only the initials belonging to the departed.

A number of chapels established their own burial grounds, this included the Independents, Methodists as well as the Baptists. Furthermore, if you go researching your nonconformist ancestors in several country places in England, you will find that burial grounds were opened for all those involved with the various nonconformist denominations and would not specifically be confined to only one or other of the particular religious faith traditions. Around 1880 a welcome change, in the laws of England & Wales, granted the possibility for the family of a person, being laid to rest within a Church of England parish graveyard, to opt for a minister from their own religious beliefs to be able to preside over the burial service. This began the downfall in making use of separate nonconformist burial grounds as they were often less popular because of the fact that, in some cases, they were several miles from the particular village or district from where the deceased’s family resided. In 1853 and following on from the considerable overcrowding of church graveyards and burial grounds, due in some measure to the number of cholera fatalities and so forth, Parliament handed down a further law closing a large number of these areas to fresh internments. The result of the law saw many towns as well as bigger parishes setting up cemeteries, to look after the continued burial of the deceased.

To find earlier burial grounds nowadays isn’t always that simple a task. In an ideal world you would be able to find someone who possesses the required local knowledge of their location and is also willing to assist you in your research. I’ve had the happy experience of this while I was researching my family in Cheltenham, England. The local history society, as well as an amateur historian from one of the bigger churches, were luckily able to help lead me in the right direction to find my ancestor, for which I was very grateful. The basic scarcity of registers, nevertheless, will most likely make it tough if you want to research for names.

A further point, that you may need to take into consideration when researching your forebears, is that if the deceased was very poor and given a “paupers” grave, then the name of the unfortunate will not have been marked down in the burial records except for a numbered peg entered to locate the grave.

Lastly, I’d like to pass on this story that I have found reported in various places about a Church of England husband and a nonconformist wife wishing to be buried together. It is mentioned, for example, on the Bristol Times website thisisbristol.co.uk that in Arnos Vale Cemetery there is an elaborate monument raised for merchant Thomas Gadd Matthews (C of E) and his wife Mary (Congregationalist), which famously straddles both Anglican and nonconformist sections. The story seems to be that Matthews purchased a large grave plot strategically placed so that the two, while wishing to be true to their respective faiths, could be buried in a family plot that sits on the boundary line between the C of E and nonconformist parts of the cemetery. A rather lovely tale!

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Am I really sure about that ancestor?

Family Tree on a computer

In my ancestor research I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of narrow thinking sometimes. Have you?

What I’m talking about here is the occasions when I’ve focused too strictly on what I am sure are the correct facts about a forebear.  I may have been sure that I knew that his or her name had been spelt in a particular way, or that they came from a particular place. Now here is the warning I am guilty of ignoring: Am I really so sure I know the facts?

When we, as family historians, ignore this question then we can so easily cause ourselves unnecessary grief and so much wasted time. Perhaps we were searching in the right place, but were we guilty of searching in the wrong way? What we need to do is to open up our minds to researching in a smarter fashion and often we will be rewarded by finding that record that we were looking for.

Just think how your on-line research could possibly improve if you were always to:

  • keep handy a list of the known surname variants for your ancestor’s name. For example in my family I have names that could be spelt as Thorn, Thorne, Stephens, Stevens and all manner of spelling of Sissill.
  • think about what common first-name nicknames may apply and also any regularly used shortened forms of names. For example Thomas may be written as Thos. Elizabeth as Eliz. or Eliza. and I have found a John as Jono.
  • have written down some of the capital letters that can easily be confused like J and I, for example
  • remember that place names can be confused – in my Devon branch there are two Galmptons very near each other and I jumped to the conclusion that my great grandmother came from the one near to where they lived. Wrong!
  • think about the length of normal life-spans and don’t chase someone with a similar name thinking they are one and the same. What about the date ranges for their marriages, deaths and births of their children?
  • keep notes, or research logs for your family searches so that you keep track of what you have already done.
  • remain aware of the gaps that there are in any particular record collections. If you are searching a particular period and can’t find an ancestor and this time frame also matches a known gap in the data, then this will stop you wasting more time than necessary looking.

So just remember these seven ways to avoid family research pitfalls and don’t make the mistakes that I did in the past!

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