Tuesday, July 25, 2017

How To Do Pre-1850 Research?

The will of Jonathan Gilbert, naming all his children (Charles
and Israel's names highlight)
It's one of the first questions people ask once they've been researching for a little while. Why do most branches seem to brick wall around 1850? How do I get back further?

So often, our main resources in genealogy are census records, and in the US, pre-1850 census records only list the head of household by name. This makes it difficult to identify families and find parents names of people who were adults and living independently from their parents by 1850. Additionally, most states in the US were not issuing birth and death records this early on, meaning we have to rely mostly on church records and obituaries. Many church records either haven't been digitized, making them hard to track down, especially if you don't know where to look because you don't know where specifically one was born or what church they attended, or they may have been lost or destroyed over time. Unlike civil records, churches have no obligation to archive their records, or even keep them in the first place. As for obituaries, often times they are only a brief death notice with nothing more than info on the individual's death and burial, and that's assuming they available online or you can find access to the right newspaper offline. Occasionally, you might see a burial record that name's the decease's father, but not always. So to say that records become more scarce before 1850 is putting it lightly.

It's frustrating, but the good news is, there are other sources. Records like probates, deeds, and tax lists are often some of the oldest records available, and recently, more and more of them are getting digitized. Now, I can't promise these records will always break down your brick walls but they are worth exploring, and here's my most recent example.

In search of the parents of my 4th great grandfather Charles Gilbert (1784-1861, Montgomery County, PA), I finally found them through probate and deed records alone. Firstly, I knew that Charles had a brother Israel Gilbert, because there is a local history book detailing one of Charles' sons, Seth, and stating he had an uncle Israel Gilbert (and yes, it also confirmed Seth as the son of Charles Gilbert and my 4th great grandmother Jane Sutch). Next, I was looking for deeds bought or sold by Charles, and one of them from 1811 mentioned Israel, so I knew I was looking at the right Charles Gilbert. It also mentioned several other Gilbert men, and indicated the estate of the deceased Jonathan Gilbert. My spidey-sense immediately tingled, as it sounded a lot like Jonathan was the father of all these men and his sons were taking care of his property after his death. But how do I confirm it?

Jonathan Gilbert's will confirming his wife's unique name,
shared with her granddaughter
I went looking for wills of a Jonathan or John Gilbert in the right area around 1811 and immediately found one dated 1808 and proved in 1809. It lists all his sons names, matching those in the deed, and his wife's name. The clincher? His wife's name was Dedemiah, a rather unique name shared by none other than Israel's daughter. Bingo! Mystery solved, with nothing more than a deed and a will.

Israel also had a son named Jonathan, probably named after his father, but given the popularity of this name, that alone wouldn't have been enough to convince me.

It doesn't always go this way, of course. Not everyone owned land, and not everyone had a will, and even when they did have a will, they did not always take the time to consider us future genealogists and list their children by name. Sometimes, later probate records regarding the execution of the will, can name children though, so be sure to read those to, no matter how boring they seem.

Montgomery County, PA Deeds 1784-1866 can be found online (but not indexed yet) at FamilySearch.org
Montgomery County, PA Probates can be found at both Ancestry.com (indexed), and FamilySearch.org (not indexed)

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