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Keeping your eyes on the road - not!

Casting a wide net can provide useful family information.


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A while ago, I wrote about rubber-sheeting; that is, taking an older map and superimposing it over a more modern one to help with finding ancestral locations. (See: Genweekly, Mapping the World and Its Data, published 14/Aug/2008.) (This is different that tracking a family or ancestors moves across a county, state or nation).

This article is more about area searching. By that I mean looking in various areas where your family lived for all different kinds of records and piecing together a story from all of them.

In a city, this can mean checking adjacent or even different neighborhoods. People can move from one area of the city to another. In my own case, the family started at one German church, stayed there till a daughter church was set off fifty some years later, and then went to the newer one. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that the family moved yet again to a suburban church.

On the other hand, another of my families started at one church, and it seems that with every event - birth, christening, marriage, and burial - they had the rite performed at yet a different church. But looking on a map one can see what churches were within walking distance (back in the 19th century), and of the same denomination. Of course family number two switched faiths as readily as changing chores, but that's another story.

The first family had one member who got married in a church "across the river." No one from the family ever went there; the couple was just married there, and it was by sheer dumb luck that I looked, as I was exhaustively checking all the (German Lutheran) churches in the city. As it happened, that family later moved out of the city into an adjoining county.

This is where it gets interesting. By tracking them there, I found that they had gone to the one church in that little village, and that's where the records were. But a surprise awaited. The historian in that little village (a day's ride by horseback back in the day, but 20 minutes by car on the expressway now), had clipped items from the papers since 1880! And they were filed by family name, in his attic. He graciously made copies of the items in those files. This was before the digitizing movement got underway. So it would have been extremely tedious to go through many years of hard copy papers of microfilms on the chance that maybe something would have appeared. This was an example of following the trails.

And the content of the items was interesting. Not only did it have who married whom and when, but the fact that the couple "has never been more than 10 miles from the farm where they now live." Whether true or not, it seems strange that their father would emigrate from Germany, fight in the Civil War in this new country, and that his sons and daughters would stay put (putting down roots literally as well as figuratively). But that's what at the article leads one to believe. So by doing an area search and expanding it to all kinds of records, you can find quite a few documents and information.

Another item I wrote twenty years ago is a quarterly issue of Rochester History, which deals with using these kinds of materials. The key point to be made is that you should look in not only the area that your ancestors lived in but in neighboring areas as well. Depending on the time period and the place, this may take you on wide ranging journeys.

For example, New Englanders may well find that they had family members who "went west," all the way to New York State. But York-Staters may find that their family members also went west, to the Middle West of Michigan and beyond. And there are several Rochesters in the U.S. There is Rochester NY, Rochester MN, Rochester MI, and Rochester IN, just to name a few. But there are clues that doing a wide-ranging search can help in your family history. We happen to have a series of books which contain extracts from wills and administrations from people whose estates are filed in this county. It gives the married names of daughters, sons and daughters who have moved and are living elsewhere, and even children who are "presumed to be alive but who have not been heard from these twenty years last past."

Another example is checking all kinds of sources. One student was researching burials in the large local cemetery. There were a series of young women and some children who appeared to be the wives of the same man. But the man was not listed in the city directories. He was listed as a soldier in the newspaper index. Checking a U.S. Army register showed that he had spent his career "out west" in Indian Territory, and had lost the wives to diseases and childbirth. He would come home, bury 'em, and marry 'em. That was why no record could be found for him living here. He was listed in marriage records, and the cemetery had burial records for his wives. But not until he died did the full story come out. That was what the student found out, because she was able to piece together the family story with various censuses. Normally, one would not think to look in Wyoming or farther west for a Rochester, New York person. If it was a common name, one could even think that it was just that, a common name. But this seemed to prove that it was, indeed, the man from Rochester, New York, in the service, with his various wives and children in various states over various years.

This does not happen often, of course. But it did happen at least once, obviously. By spreading one's gaze farther than just the neighborhood, the church or even the city or county, one can find relatives appearing in all sorts of places. Recently, I answered an e-mail query where someone had died in Rochester. Indeed, the statewide BMD indexes verified that. (Of course, we do not have the certificate, but the place of death given was Rochester). Still, even with the exact date of death, there was nothing in the newspapers of the time. The person asking the question had some knowledge of family lore which held that the children's remains were taken to the XYZ funeral home. But that funeral home wasn't in the Rochester directories.

Again, casting a wider net came to the rescue. There is a web site, which has over 10 million pages of digitized and searchable upstate New York papers. (There is a similar site for the northern area of New York State, at I am most familiar with New York since that is where I live and work. Checking in the Fulton site, we found a listing for the name of the funeral home, and of its director. It was in the nearby village of LeRoy, In Genesee County, in our area, but not in our heavily indexed series of research works. Sure enough a family was found with the name the letter writer was looking for. The two little children had died in Rochester; it appeared from the research we found that they were injured in a fire in LeRoy, taken to the large city hospital in Rochester where they died, and were sent back to LeRoy for services and burial. We then recommended that the writer contact the appropriate historian for the area to see if those worthies had any further data in the family. (Given my luck mentioned about, and that it was the Leroy, New York historian who helped me 20 years ago, they may very will have such luck.

So remember to focus your search, and not go on wild goose chases. (i.e. Well, everyone had their name changed at Ellis Island, and I found a Carpenter, and the family is German, and that's what Zimmerman translates to, so this must be my guy, because he's within a couple of counties of where they lived . But need I go on?). However, being aware of the possibilities of finding useful facts from disparate geographic sources could be a boon to your family history.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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