When There Shouldn’t Be a Record

For years, early in my research when I did not know better, I failed to look for a probate file for an ancestor because he was “dirt poor.” I knew you needed to have money (at least most of the time) in order to have a probate settlement.

However several years into my research, I became a firm believer in the “look for anything and everything” camp. That’s why I looked for a probate file for my “dirt poor” ancestor.

And there he was in the probate records two times. How can you die twice and have two probate settlements?

Turns out for the time period in question, insanity cases were filed with the probate and estate records. It was two insanity cases I had located for him, not probate cases. If I had never looked in estate files, I never would have found out information about his insanity hearings.

Periodic Back Up Reminder

One question: Is all your data backed up?

or “Have you backed up all your data?” for those of you who don’t like to end things with a preposition.

Either way, make sure you “git ‘er done,” if you haven’t.

Local Radio Station Website?

Looking for a place to get copies of current obituaries for free besides the funeral home? In rural areas, try the website of the local radio station.

Does the Recorder’s Office Have a Miscellaneous Book?

Have you taken a look for your ancestors in the miscellaneous record books at the County Recorder’s Office? A variety of items can be in these books–not necessarily what one would expect. I’ve found divorce decrees from out of state divorces, copies of medical licenses, and a few other non-typical items in these books. Anyone can pay to have a document recorded–which just means that a “legal” copy has or was made. Soldiers might have recorded their discharge at the local recorder’s office as well.

Atypical Abbreviations: Who was Eli?

The writer of any document can abbreviate however they please. While most people do tend to follow standard abbreviations, it’s possible for someone to occasionally use an atypical abbreviation.

While reviewing a court case from the early 19th century in Virginia, I was almost convinced I had discovered a new relative: Eli Tinsley. The “Eli” abbreviations were used in a summary list of court depositions and it was clear that “Eli” was a reference to Elizabeth and not a separate person named Eli. The clerk also used “E” as an abbreviation for Elizabeth in the same summary list.

Practice to Read that Handwriting

A tip about court records yesterday included part of the handwritten image that illustrated the point I was making. On the surface the 1820-era record may have appeared difficult to read.

It’s a relatively easy read for a record from the time period (with the occasional one-word exception). But it takes practice and experience to read material like this.

I don’t mean to sound like your piano teacher or basketball coach, but it’s true. You need to practice to be able to read things of this type. I usually suggest to people that they go and read more recent handwritten documents to slowly build their skills. Start with things that are easy and go from there. Late 19th or early 20th century handwritten record copies of deeds are a great place to start–or wills and other courthouse documents from the same era. If it’s too difficult, start with something easier and build your skills.

A piano teacher or coach starts with basic fundamentals first. That’s what you should do in reading old records as well. Save those key signatures with 5 flats or sharps for later, start with a C major scale. I didn’t play basketball, so I don’t have the appropriate analogy here, but y’all hopefully get the point. I often hear people saying how something from 1730 is difficult to read (and it can be), but you have to start with later stuff first. Build your skills and practice.

Court Records May Contain Residential Clues

Clues as to residence are one of the many reasons to look at court records. Subpoenas, notices to appear, and other references may provide clues to where a person lived if not state the location specifically.

An 1825 reference in a chancery court case in Lynchburg, Virginia, involving the the Tinsley family indicated that Reuben Tinsley lived “near the Court house” in the direction of “Wood’s.” Other court records may at least mention the county in which the person was living at the time of the legal action.

Probate Clues to Church?

Your ancestor’s probate file may contain clues to their church membership.

A will may mention a bequest to a church or a minister. The expenses paid by the estate may mention a donation made to a church after the funeral or a direct payment made to the minister who provided the funeral sermon. Other payments from the estate may suggest the denomination of which the deceased was a member. An inventory of the estate (if the location, time period, and denomination is right) may mention a pew in the local church.

It is possible that there may be other indirect clues as to your relative’s religious persuasion in their probate file. Take a good hard look.

Check out Ancestry’s DNA sale–maybe you can purchase your own kit or a test kit for that relative you’ve been wanting to ask.

All the Church Records–Not Just Your Favorites

When reviewing church records, make certain you have accessed all extant records that are available–not just ones of baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

Those records are important, but there may be other church records as well. Some churches kept “family registers” where ecclesiastical information about the members of one family were grouped together. Some churches kept records of donations, communicants, confirmations, church joinings, dismissals from the congregation, etc.

Any of these records could provide you with an additional clue about your ancestor.

Remember that church records are private records and that you are not entitled to view them–so ask nicely. Some records have been microfilmed or digitized and may be available outside of the actual church.

Places to locate information about the records of a particular congregation are the church itself, regional or national denominational archives, local historical/genealogical libraries, local libraries, individuals who have also researched families in the area. Some records may be available online at FamilySearch or other fee-based websites.


When searching for individuals in records, consider the possibility that they are listed by their initials.

This happens more frequently in newspaper and census references, but any record can list someone by their initials only. Full name searches are great, but initial searches should be conducted–particularly in newspapers.