Tax records are a valuable but often overlooked source:
They can help to fill in the decade between census enumerations and before the first federal census of 1790.
In burned counties tax records are often the only information you may find on your ancestor.
Tax records sometimes contain specific residence information, giving an exact physical location of an ancestor at a specific time.
Tax records can point to an ancestor’s occupation, give descriptions of land and animals owned and of personal property.
A few interesting taxable items:
If you owned a billiard table or a silver plate or cutlery, a carriage or wagons, you owed the government some tax. If you manufactured boots and shoes, bonnets, collars or sold miscellaneous clothing, you had to pay a tax on those too.
In 1862 in Michigan, Albert B. Judd was taxed on 8 coffins. I sure hope he was an undertaker or perhaps a manufacturer of coffins because I can’t imagine any other reason someone would have 8 coffins lying around.
John G. Burnell of Trenton, New Jersey was taxed in 1862 on his 1316 lbs. of ground coffee and spices. He had to pay individual taxes on cinnamon, pepper, mustard, cloves, allspice, and ginger.
An example of an 1862 tax record from New York:
Tax records are worth the effort to track down as they can add rich detail to your ancestor’s life.
In the Census: Understanding what the census enumerator was instructed to write.
The census is one of the first places we go to when researching our ancestors. We pour over those images, trying to interpret what is on the page in front of us. For the 1880 U.S. census, the Superintendent of the Census offered supervisors some general guidelines in choosing enumerators: “The appointments should be made with reference to physical activity, and to aptness, neatness, and accuracy in writing and in the use of figures,” to “active” and “energetic” young men “of good address.”1 Most genealogists would agree that, “aptness, neatness, and accuracy in writing” is not what we always find on the census. There is little we can do about indistinct handwriting but perhaps gaining some context to what the enumerator was instructed to write in that particular column may help us interpret something which is difficult to read or a mark or abbreviation that makes no sense to us.
George Everett Zimmerman, my husband’s great grand-uncle, was enumerated on the 1920 U.S. census as Zimmerman, E. George.2 At first glance I may have concluded that while I had previously thought his first name to be George, and middle name Everett, this census entry may make me think that perhaps the initial ‘E’ for Everett was actually his first name and George, his middle name, was the name he went by.
After studying the other families on the page, I could see that all were enumerated as [last name] [initial] [first name]. In fact, all the heads of households in the entire enumeration district were recorded in this manner.
IPUMS (The Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) uses microdata to study the past sixteen federal censuses, looking for patterns of social and economic change. It also contains a record of all census questions, enumerators instructions, and brief histories of every census from 1790-2010. For our example above the enumerator was given this instruction:
“108. How names are to be written. – Enter first the last name or surname, then the given name in full, and the initial of the middle name, if any. Where the surname is the same as that of the person in the preceding line do not repeat the name, but draw a horizontal line (-) under the name above, as shown in the illustrative example.”3
The enumerator misunderstood the instructions and recorded all the names in his enumeration district by last name, middle initial, given name.
If you want to get more out of your U.S. census research I suggest looking at IPUMS.org. The instructions to enumerators is invaluable in providing context to the information we see on the census.
1920 U.S. Census, San Joaquin County, California, population schedule, O’Neal Township, ED 153, sheet 28A (penned), dwelling 586, family 586, George E. Zimmerman household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 31 January 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 143. ↩
Recently, I’ve noticed quite a few posts in various genealogy groups where people are asking for help. That’s not new, of course. What seems to be new, or perhaps I’ve just noticed it more, is that the request for help is preceded by a sentence like this, “I’ve hit a brick wall! I’ve been looking all over Ancestry for my grandfather’s birth certificate for a few weeks now and I can’t find it.” Or something like this, “Please help with my brick wall. I’ve looked everywhere for a month now and can’t find the marriage certificate of my great grandparents who were married in 1870.”
I started thinking about that term ‘brick wall’ as it’s used in genealogy. Have we really hit a brick wall after searching for a few weeks? Have we hit a brick wall if we are only searching online for information? The answer is no. What those pleas for help show is a common misconception that all genealogical material is online and secondly, they show a lack of understanding of one of the main tenants of the Genealogical Proof Standard (the GPS). The first step in accurate research (the GPS has five steps in all), is that our searches should be reasonably exhaustive. Can you truly have exhausted all avenues of research if you are only researching online or if you’ve done it for a few weeks and given up in frustration? A reasonably exhaustive search would imply we have a) educated ourselves as to which records are available that may help our search and b) we have searched for those records, both online and in brick and mortar repositories either ourselves or by asking (and sometimes paying) others to do so for us. I have had some of my best success in locating records previously searched for and not found, by reaching out to local historical and genealogical societies, and to libraries and archives (librarians and archivists are a genealogist’s best friend!).
So how do you define your brick wall? Is it a time issue? You’ve been searching for over 5 years, 10 years, longer with nothing to show for it? (A person could say though that you have negative evidence then so really you do have something to show for it). Is it an issue of record availability, in that, the records do not exist and no other record sources have helped in solving the problem (think burned U.S. counties here, or the 1890 census, or the loss of records in the fire in the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922)? Although again, there are substitute record sets that may help. Is your brick wall an adoption or other NPE (Non-Paternity Event) that DNA has not been able to solve (yet)? I have a couple of brick walls that fall into those categories, one of which is the search for the death of my great-grandfather Harry Joshua Davis. I’ve been searching for his date and place of death for over 15 years now. You can read more about him here.
Brick wall research can be frustrating so it’s good to break from it and work on other lines and go back every now and then to see if fresh eyes can bring a different perspective. It’s always good advice to educate yourself on the history of the area and what records may be available – no sense searching for a birth certificate in North Carolina in 1883 when they didn’t start recording birth information until 1913. Know the history, know the records is a mantra I often find myself repeating and one I wrote more about here.
While some hobbyists may not be too worried about employing a reasonably exhaustive search, serious family historians and genealogy professionals know the importance of being confident that we have conducted a reasonably exhaustive search before we make any conclusions. And even then, we know that new evidence may turn up that could overturn those conclusions. Brick walls don’t exist when we have only searched online or when we have only been searching for a short time and don’t really know where else to search. Those are bumps in the research road…. they may well lead to a brick wall in the future but without reasonably exhaustive research they are still just a bump in the genealogical road.
eGGSA is the acronym for the virtual branch of the Genealogical Society of South Africa. According to their website the ‘Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA) is an international organization of people engaged in the study of genealogy, family trees and family history with a South African connection’.
From the first small colony established by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 in what is now Cape Town to the British government settler schemes of the 1820s, to the men seeking their fortunes on the diamond and gold fields in the 1860s – settlers, soldiers and missionaries flocked to what is now South Africa. Records were created as they lived their lives. eGGSA has an incredibly rich variety of records on their site, including transcripts and databases (1820 Settler correspondence, newspaper extracts, passenger lists, church and burial records); photographic collections of gravestones (now containing over 700 000 gravestone photographs), family bibles and postcards, and an incredibly useful page of links to other websites which may help with research in South Africa.
Almost all the records on the site are freely available. Membership does offer the perks of receiving eGGSA’s quarterly publication, Genesis. Members also receive FAMILIA, the quarterly journal of the parent body, the Genealogical Society of South Africa and are eligible for a reduced rate when ordering documents from the South African Archives at Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Pietermaritzburg and Durban.
If you have ancestors with connections to South Africa this is an excellent resource to start your research with.
Internet Archive: Described as ‘a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.’ Internet Archive is a great site to search for just about anything. The “Wayback Machine” allows the archives of the web to be searched. Users are then able to view archived web pages even for web sites which no longer exist.
In terms of genealogical research there is a wealth of information available. Clicking on their American Libraries collection, for example, pulls up over 2,450,000 different items in over 1000 collections. A quick look under North Carolina Directories shows 925 city and business directories with a wide range of years.
You can then select a specific directory to look at. Each directory is fully searchable and easily downloaded. All collections on Internet Archive can be filtered by Media Type, Year, Topic and Subject, Creator, and Language.
The Internet Archive collection for World War II contains almost 6000 items including 2,839 movies, newsreels and audio recordings. Did you know you can see census records on Internet Archive? The United States Census collection holds over 23,000 items, with approximately 13,004,791 page images.
Several historical societies provide content to Internet Archive as a means of preserving it for the future. The Minnesota Historical Society provides newspapers and manuscripts in the 2,661 items on Internet Archive and the Georgia Historical Society has several old journals and books in its’ collection.
You can even listen to Winston Churchill as he sends his thoughts to American troops and citizens on Thanksgiving 1944, or to President Roosevelt as he calls on Congress to declare war on Japan on 8 December 1941. Both can be found in Internet Archive’s Community Audio collection.
This brief introduction doesn’t do justice to the incredible resource that Internet Archive is. It’s a great tool to add to your genealogy toolbox.
Fulton History is a historical newspaper site containing over 37 million newspaper pages (as of December 2016) from the USA and Canada, as well as a few other locations. Even more remarkable is that the site is run by one person, Tom Tryniski, of Fulton, New York. Besides access to millions of newspaper pages, there are also postcards, maps and photographs.
The site is searchable and each newspaper page can be downloaded as a PDF. There is help available in the FAQ including different ways to search the database.
To see which newspapers are available, click on the FAQ-Help-Index button at the top of the page. The first few lines contain the link to view all the newspapers available on the site. Instead of going through the index page by page, download the index as a Microsoft Excel file. The link to download it is at the top of the screen in blue.
The downloaded Excel file gives you a list of newspaper titles arranged alphabetically by County. It’s an easy way to see which counties are covered and by which newspapers.
If you have ancestors in New York State, then you have at your fingertips an incredible free resource thanks to the efforts of Mr Tryniski.
The Arizona Memory Project is a project of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records. The site provides access to a wealth of primary source documents, photographs, maps and other multimedia items showcasing Arizona’s past and present.
A specific collection can be searched (of which there are over 270) or a general search of the entire site can be done. You can narrow your search by creator, coverage, date, subject or type.
I conducted a few different searches to see how the search engine worked and was impressed with the results. From a search on a specific ancestor’s name which resulted in finding an oral interview with an extended family member speaking about a second great grand-uncle and his settling of Alpine, Arizona to a general search on territorial stage-coach routes and a book detailing those routes across Arizona. A location search for the settlement of Maricopa Wells (a settlement which developed as a watering hole and rest area along the Butterfield Overland mail route and which no longer exists) resulted in several photographs of Indian ruins close to Maricopa Wells as well as photographs of various named and unnamed people standing outside their homes in the area.
A search for a specific event, in this case, for the ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ yielded scans of original documents including the recently discovered ‘Coroner’s Transmittal Page to the Clerk of the District Court concerning the Inquest of the gunfight at the OK Corral’. These missing documents were discovered in the Cochise County Courthouse in 2010 and were transferred to the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records where they were scanned and preserved.
The Arizona Memory Project is a rich resource for anyone conducting research in Arizona.