Looking in the Right Place: Some Concepts

It doesn’t make sense. They should be there. They’re supposed to be there. What’s the problem? Why can’t I find them?

More often than not, the answer to that line of questioning is pretty simple: You’re not looking in the right place.

Fine. Great. I’m looking in the wrong place. How, exactly, do you propose I fix that? How do I find the right place?

Not to worry. You’ve got this. To start, take a look at the 1982 NGSQ article by the late Elizabeth Pearson White, CG, FASG, (and later FNGS): “Finding Elusive New Englanders.”[1] White’s focus is on New England, but her concepts are broadly applicable and can help researchers reconsider their own geographical areas of interest. “In this paper,” she says, “I will not spend time discussing the standard sources for the records you need. Instead, I am going to suggest different ways in which you can look at the records you find and how to interpret them.”[2]

White acknowledges that the search for ancestors in New England is generally easier than in any other region of the country. But she also acknowledges that the very processes that make that research easier can inadvertently introduce problems.

New Englanders, from an early date, recorded the vital records of births, marriages and deaths in both their churches and in their town halls. If one set of records has burned, the other may still be available. A page in the record book at the town hall was allotted to each family, with the father’s name at the top and his wife’s name below his. As the children came along, their names and the dates of their births were added under the name of the father. Deaths were sometimes added there, too. When a man moved to a new town, he would often record his whole family over again, all at once. But he didn’t say where the children were born. If the second set of records is all you have found, you may look only in the second locality for the family’s ancestry and never find it. So this is one of the problems you have to solve, even when the records are there for you to find. Your ancestors could have come directly from England or Scotland or Ireland. Or they may have come from farther east in New England, or north or south. You have to look in the right place before you can find them.[3]

First, whether in New England or elsewhere, use maps, an absolute necessity in genealogical research. Get familiar with the names and locations of villages, towns, and counties surrounding the place where you last found your ancestors. Then consider expanding your record search to those localities to find additional, important evidence. Modern maps can be fine for that, but look at historical maps too. Were there boundary changes or boundary disputes in your area of focus? Almost certainly, the answer to one or both of those questions is “yes,” and White discusses those changes and disputes for New England in great detail.

Other areas of the country also had evolving boundaries and jurisdictions. One line of my Moon ancestors, for example, lived for a time in the late 18th century in part of the Cherokee Nation, in colonial North Carolina, in the Watauga Association, in Washington District, in the State of Franklin, in the Territory South of the River Ohio (Southwest Territory), and finally in the State of Tennessee, all without moving or moving only a very short distance. Find out the various jurisdictions your area of focus fell under over time. It’s critical to understand who created records and when they created them.

It’s equally important to find out where the records created by those jurisdictions might now be. White discusses those at length for New England. My Moon ancestors’ records for the period discussed above, for example, are now widely dispersed (driven mostly by the record creators) at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, the National Archives in Washington, DC, the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville, the East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville, and the McClung Historical Collection at the Knoxville Public Library. Had they remained in the area after the county courthouse burned in 1856, they would also be found in records at the Sevier County Archives. Dig in to find out where the records for the various jurisdictions your ancestor lived in are now held.

“The correct interpretation of probate records is another very important part of finding elusive ancestors,” White points out. She provides the example of a dower right.

A dower right of a wife in her husband’s estate was a “life interest” to be used for the support of herself and her children from his marriage. After her death, the proceeds were divided between her husband’s children by all of his wives, if he had been married previously. No child by the wife’s second marriage could share in the first husband’s estate. . . . A man often bequeathed “to my dearly beloved wife, as long as she remains a widow.” This is exactly the same as “dower.” Therefore, to protect the rights of the children of a previous marriage, a relative of the first husband, or of the wife, signed the surety bond required by the court when the widow remarried. However, if the children were by a second marriage, and had a different surname, they would not share in the estate resulting from their mother’s previous marriage, because her dower rights in the previous husband’s property would have reverted to her previous husband’s relatives. Her dower rights could not go to anyone who was not a blood relative of her first husband.

Notice that, if you can identify the people who signed the surety bond for your ancestress who married for a second time, you will then be able to identify which family your ancestress belonged to. A woman usually lost her maiden name when she married for the first time. At her second marriage, she was sometimes called “widow” so-and-so. . . . But often only her married surname is given. If you think that is her maiden name, you will never find her parents. So identify the people who signed the surety bond and you ought then to be able to figure out just who she was. The name on the surety bond is usually the name of a relative of the person being insured.[4]

Adding onto this point, be sure to consider cultural customs and practices with regards to last names, whether surnames or patronymics. For the Dutch of New Netherland, for example, a woman did not take her husband’s name after marriage. That custom remained largely in place until decades after the English took over and established the colonies of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Even in more recent eras, many Italian households continued similar practices well into the 20th century, directly affecting what name you might be searching for in passenger lists.

Also consider the terms “son-in-law” and “daughter-in-law.” In early records, they can refer to either a child’s spouse, as we use the term today, or to the child of a spouse from an earlier marriage, what we now call “step-children.” Both are relationships established by law (marriage); not by blood.

White’s final piece of advice is something we can all take a note from, no matter where we’re researching:

When you are completely baffled about how to find your elusive New Englander, put all of the bits and pieces out in front of you, list them all chronologically, and figure out just exactly the clue you need—the slender thread—that might solve your problem. Then stand back, take another look, and see if there is a different way to approach it. Are you looking in the right place? Are you looking for the right name? Are you looking in the right time period? . . . Look in the right place and there you should find your elusive New Englander.[5]


[1] Elizabeth Pearson White, “Finding Elusive New Englanders,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 70 (1982), 83–95; PDF, NGSQ Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/ngsq/ngsq_archives/ : 13 October 2020).

[2] White, “Finding Elusive New Englanders,” 83.

[3] White, “Finding Elusive New Englanders,” 84. 

[4] White, “Finding Elusive New Englanders,” 91–92.

[5] White, “Finding Elusive New Englanders,” 94. 

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