Tips for Successful Research

by Ruby Coleman

Beginners and advanced researchers alike often find their research comes to an abrupt end. Those ends can often be picked up and with some ingenuity researched for satisfactory results. The following are some tips and ideas that will help you turn your research around.

  1. Don't limit research of probate files to your immediate ancestor. Don't limit it to people who you "think" left a will. Don't limit it to only people who had children. Probate files, testate and intestate, usually contain information on heirs, along with dates and locations. There may be references to land that will lead you back to earlier ancestors who first owned it.
  2. The heirs may be more distant relatives, such as cousins, nieces and nephews. For example, an old aunt died in 1891 in New York state, widowed and leaving no children. She left a detailed will which names 38 relatives, many of whom were unknown until the will was located.
  3. Wills can be contested. In this case the executor will usually be listed as a defendant. They are sometimes contested in cases that involve more than one marriage. Wills are always contested in the court of original probate jurisdiction, so check the court order books, docket files and civil court records .
  4. Pay attention to Power of Attorney documents which are usually filed within the probate jurisdiction or in the land records. These often provide locations which are great for tracing migrations.
  5. The witnesses may be relatives. A person who receives through a will cannot legally sign as a witness to it. Surety bonds involved in a probate are often signed by a member of the family.
  6. Don't stop your research too short in time. A lapse of ten years between the petition to probate and the final distribution of the property is not unusual in old probate files. Unrecorded wills were sometimes filed years later in an attempt to prove ownership of property.
  7. Not all heirs may be listed. Keep in mind that they may have received their share of the land or personal property prior to date of the will.
  8. Land records provide clues in determining a former residence, conveyances through inheritance, marital status, names and dates. If your ancestor is shown as a grantee, the document will not necessarily include the name of a spouse. When the land is sold, a wife will exert her dower rights and be shown on the document, or if the person is not married, he will be shown as a single person.
  9. The first land record filed in the county for the grantee, will "sometimes" show his former residence. If the grantor has moved, the land record of the sale will "sometimes" show his new residence. Traditionally in the 1800s a woman's father signed a mortgage to cover the loan or carry the note in order to protect her dowry. This is not a rule, but always make note of the names involved in deeds and mortgages.
  10. Did the courthouse burn? Very seldom were all records lost. In anticipation of lost records, many courthouse officials made duplicate copies or removed some of the originals. Missing records were sometimes reconstructed. Keep looking and ask questions ... you may find the "burnt" records are still around, just forgotten.
  11. Are you visiting a courthouse or writing to them? Are you using Internet to scout out digitized images or transcriptions? Or are you using microfilm of records through an LDS Family History Center? All of these are effective ways to do research and all have limitations. Because of logistics I used naturalization microfilm through a Family History Center. A couple years later I was in the courthouse where the original naturalization records were housed. From the microfilm I knew my ancestral subject had not been naturalized in that jurisdiction. Even so, I decided to check the bound volumes of records. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a small book hidden in the back of the bookshelf ... containing his naturalization. It had not been filmed.

Never stop searching!

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