News and a Genealogy Birthdate Story

18-kjel0139of89-copyOn August 23rd, our family welcomed our second child, our first daughter, into the world! From now on, this date will have special significance to our family. For years to come on this date, we will celebrate her and reminisce about the day she was born.

It is interesting how this specific date is the one we will celebrate. I was certain she would arrive much earlier and all indicators supported this hunch. Yet, because of certain risks, my doctors insisted on scheduling the date of her “eviction” should she decide not to come on her own. August 23 was suggested and we agreed. Even though the number 23 carries positive connotations for any true Chicago sports fan, at the time I didn’t consider too carefully how I really felt about the date, because surely, I reasoned, she would come before then. Yet, as my due date came and went and this date loomed closer and closer, I began googling “This day in history” and famous birthdays on this date. Of course, once she arrived, I realized just how little these things truly matter and how the end goal is to have a healthy baby, which, thankfully, we do. Nevertheless, my genealogy research tells me I am not the first parent to care about the date on which her child is born.

My grandmother was born on December 18, 1919 – or so we always thought and so we always celebrated. This “fact” was supported by pretty air tight evidence. My mom said this was my Grammy’s birthday and my Grammy herself claimed this as her birthday. I found a copy of Grammy’s birth certificate at the FHL and indeed, the document said she was born on December 18th.[1] The only even remotely interesting thing about the document was that it was a delayed birth certificate, meaning it was written after the fact. My grandmother was born at home, at a time when Illinois vital statistics were regulated, but not always complied with[2], so it would seem that no official birth certificate was created at the time of her birth.

Then one day, when I am back home in Chicagoland, visiting family, the conversation turned to genealogy. My mom told me that she has a copy of my Grammy’s birth certificate if I wanted it. I explained how I already possessed a copy, but the topic prompted my mother to remember something:

“You know how sometimes Grammy misremembers things?” My mom asked. “Well, that’s another thing she got wrong. She once told me she was actually born on a different date, but her parents changed it because they didn’t like the date or something.”

“Wait, what?!” I replied.

“Yeah, she said they changed it, but they couldn’t have. Her birth certificate says she was born on December 18th.”

“Mom. . .” I explained, “Her birth certificate was a delayed certificate! — Meaning it was created after the fact and her father reported the date on which she was born. She was born at home, so no official certificate was created at a hospital or anything. It’s very possible they changed the date!”

In no time, we retrieved the birth certificate and I showed Mom how we know that the information was reported by my great grandfather in 1935, more than 15 years after my grandmother was born.

So, if the story my grandmother told is true, why would my great grandparents have changed my grandmother’s birthday?

While of course, I couldn’t swear to it, and knew I would likely never be able to prove my theory, I then and there developed my own beliefs about my grandmother’s true birthdate. I believe my Sicilian great grandparents, like most Sicilians of their time and place were fairly superstitious people. In their culture, 17 was considered an unlucky number.[3] So what do you do when your child is born on a day marked by this auspicious number? You simply say your child was born then next day! In this case, December 18.

Fast forward some weeks after this conversation with my mom when I find my Sicilian great-grandfather’s naturalization papers. On the 1924 document, he gave the names of his children and their birthdates. There, at the top, his firstborn child (my grandmother) is listed along with her birthdate: 17 December 1919!!![4]

Now, this may not be 100% proof that my theory was correct, but I’d say it’s looking pretty good!

The fact of the matter is that good genealogy research necessitates that we always take our ancestors’ birthdates with a grain of salt. Our modern idea of birthdays and how they are remembered and celebrated is often very different from those of our ancestors. The research ramifications of this truth are significant. I hope to expound on this idea in a future post.

But for now, I must go, since my two week old is about to wake up from her nap!

[1] Privately held by author

[2] Illinois Vital Records, “FamilySearch”, ( : accessed 6 August 2016)

[3] Ethel Alec-Tweedie, Sunny Sicily, (London: Hutchinson, 1904), 125; downloaded from Google Books.

Also, Tweedie, Sunny Sicily, 198.

Also, Wikipedia Contributors, “17 (number),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, ( : accessed 8 September 2016).

[4] Privately held by author

My New Year’s Resolutions Need Your Help!!

Here it is, nearly the middle of January and I’m just now sharing my New Year’s Resolutions. Considering we were hit with one of those weeks. . . complete with a nasty case of food poisoning AND car trouble, I am just grateful to be writing at all.

2016 will be a year of change, it seems. I have alluded to at least one of these changes in a previous post, so I guess it is time to tell you that we will be leaving Salt Lake city soon. . . too soon, if you ask me. We have yet to receive official orders to our next duty station, so I won’t say exactly where we are going; But, I will tell you that it is one of the 13 original colonies!!

Many of my resolutions came to me as I anticipated what a new geographic region will mean to my genealogy education and career. Others are projects I have been meaning to take on for some time. A few of them require some expert advice, because I really don’t know where to begin in order to accomplish them. I would be very grateful for any insight my fellow genealogists can offer! So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Make the Most of My Remaining Time in Salt Lake – It has been a dream to spend so many hours over the last year and half researching at the world famous Family History Library. I am so grateful for all that facility provides AND for their evening and Saturday hours (since I stay home during the day with my son). Yet, it is difficult to believe I will soon have to leave this amazing resource. I still have so much I want to do there. I need to take advantage of every opportunity, even on those cold, dark evenings when I might be tempted to stay home and turn on the TV!

2. Give Back by Becoming Involved in Military Repatriation Cases – Did you know that some genealogists work to find living descendants of killed or MIA veterans whose remains were never identified in order that those individuals’ remains may finally be identified through DNA testing? I first heard of this when listening to a genealogy podcast and have tried to learn more on the topic. There are so many ways we as genealogists can give back, but when I heard about these efforts, I knew this was something of which I wanted to be a part.

Unfortunately, I am having trouble getting started. I joined an organization of volunteer genealogists a while back and offered my services, but I never heard anymore. I made a few inquiries, but still nothing. If you know how I might be able to be a part of these efforts, please contact me!

3. Attach Source Citations to Genealogy Documents – Source citations are not something I generally look forward to writing, and to be honest, I am still not 100% confident in my source-citation-writing-ability. I spend a lot of time pouring over Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained. Yet, because I know how important they are and how attaching them to my documents will actually save me time in the future and make me a better genealogist, I think will call 2016 the year of the source citation. I plan to take another class or two on the topic and really buckle down on this project.

4. Continue to Take Formal Genealogy Courses – I don’t know if 2016 will be the year I can really dedicate myself to a concentrated, rigorous class or program, because you know, the whole cross-country-move and mother-of-a-toddler situation, but I would like to take some courses that I can chip away at as I have time. I currently have my eye on few offerings from the National Genealogical Society. I will keep you posted.

5. Become More Skilled at Newspaper Research – I think I am OK at newspaper research. I can find obits and major news stories if I know the dates for which I should be searching. Yet, I feel like I could do a lot more with newspapers if I understood how better to search them, both those online as well as those that might be on microfilm. I am convinced there are a few tricks I need to learn. I am hoping to read a book or take a class on the topic. So, fellow genealogists, if you have any recommendations, I am all ears!!!

6. Learn more about Tax Records and Land Records – Genealogy research at our new geographic location will be very different from anything I’ve done in the past, which I am actually super excited about. It may seem counter-intuitive that a person who is “married to the military” could have a successful genealogy career with so much moving around, but I hold a different perspective. The nuances of each geographic region only help expand my knowledge and expertise. I know that where I am going, tax and land records are going to be essential to understanding the local history and the families who lived there. So I better start studying!

7. Contact Distant Family – Listen, I like people. I enjoy meeting new people and hearing their stories. That said, I am also introvert at heart. I can be shy and I don’t particularly like to talk on the phone. While I enjoy speaking in front of a crowd, I get nervous at the thought of calling someone I’ve never met and asking a favor of them.

As genealogists, we know how amazing these interactions can be if we are just willing to get out of our comfort zone. I have a few people in my family, whom I’ve either never met, or met when I was, you know, three, whom I have been meaning to call. Yet, I keep procrastinating, worried that I might be bothering them. Afterall, not everybody shares my passion for genealogy, and what if I inadvertently step into some sensitive topic and end up offending them? These are all excuses I know. I just need to make the effort.

8. Write more – I would really like to start writing reports, case studies, proof arguments, etc. for my own family. I could use the practice and the process will inevitably help prepare me for my ultimate goal of one day writing a portfolio that will pass the rigorous standards of the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Its time. So 2016 is year!

How about you? What did you resolve for 2016?

15 Ways I Became a Better Genealogist in 2015

15 ways I became photo
Photos from author’s personal files. May not be used without permission.

2015 was quite a year. One for the history books, in my opinion. For one, I will never forget watching history as Thoroughbred racing’s American Pharoah won the first Triple Crown in almost 36 years. Something, as a lifelong horse lover, I had been waiting my whole life to see.

This year also saw the culmination of years of hard work when I finally reached my ultimate running goal of Qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

In 2015, my Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and my Cubs won their first post-season playoff series at home in Wrigley Field history.

Besides these things, I will always remember 2015 as a banner year for my growth as a genealogist. As I look back on the year, I can pinpoint specific actions and experiences which fostered this growth. I still have a great deal to learn (stay tuned to for an upcoming New Year’s Resolution post), and am uncomfortable with the number of times I use the word “I” in this post. Nevertheless, I hope my experiences may inspire you. So here, in no particular order:

1. I listened to podcasts. You guys, there are so many free genealogy podcasts out there! The best part about education via podcast is that you don’t have to be sitting down to be learning. You can listen to them while you clean the house or when you are in the car or whatever. You can also download the audio to many of the free webinars out there and upload them to your listening device. My favorites include anything by Marian Pierre-Louis, and pretty much any webinar put out by the BCG or the APG. Check them out!

2. I exercised. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, but I sincerely can’t say enough about the value of getting away from the computer screen and getting your heart rate up. We genealogists tend to sit too long, intensely staring at screens and microfilm readers. Exercise helps loosen the tension from sitting and protect our health. For me personally, exercise gives me energy. So when my son goes down for his naps, instead of taking one too, I have the energy to work.

As you probably guessed by my aforementioned reference to the Boston Marathon, I love to run. Running provides a great opportunity to listen to those genealogy podcasts! It also just seems to spur creative thought. When I’m not listening to podcasts, I’m usually working out my genealogical brick walls or finding inspiration for blog posts.

3. I joined genealogical societies. In 2015, I joined the National Genealogical Society and the Chicago Genealogical Society. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from reading their publications, particularly those from NGS.

4. I took online courses. I currently stay home with my 2 year old. Consequently, I learn from home and I (mostly) work from home. Online learning provides classroom quality instruction without requiring me to actually be in a classroom. This year I completed several courses from the NGS and I am currently working my way through John Grenham’s Irish Ancestors course.

5. I read recommended books. There are so many genealogy books out there, sometimes it’s difficult to know which ones will most aid us in our efforts. I found there are a few books out there that come recommended time and again by top genealogists. Those are the books I’ve tried to acquire for my library and in each case, I have not been disappointed.

6. I started Almost Home. Few forms of learning are more effective than “learning by doing.” Client projects have stretched me and have also given me confidence in how much I have learned.

7. I joined the Association of Professional Genealogists. My membership in this organization has given Almost Home great exposure leading to some pretty exciting opportunities I hope to share more about in the future. The association’s email list provides another source of learning and an ever-present network of professionals to whom I can go for advice.

8. I admitted knowledge gaps. When I admit my knowledge gaps, I am more motivated to fill them. A few short months ago, I knew next to nothing about probate records, which I find almost embarrassing now that I know their value. Yet, just this week, I worked out a really difficult client problem relating to probate records, thanks to the steps I took to educate myself. I’m still no legal expert, but it was a proud moment.

9. I spent time significant time researching at the Family History Library. When we moved to Salt Lake, I knew we wouldn’t be here forever. I committed to getting the most out of living here while I could. That means I make at least weekly trips to the FHL, spending a minimum of 2 hours at a time. Even accounting for weeks that I traveled, or couldn’t make it for one reason or another, I spent at least 100 hours researching at this repository this year . . . and there’s still so much more to do there.

You may not have access to this library where you live, but you may live close to a Family History Center. If you aren’t already familiar with their holdings and the FHL’s loan program, I encourage you to check it out.

10. I diversified my repository research. Besides the FHL, I also spent time this year researching at the Chicago History Museum, Chicago’s Newberry Library, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Utah State Archives, and the Salt Lake City Recorders Office.

11. I interviewed family members. While I certainly interviewed family members in years past, in 2015, I took better care to record or take notes on those interviews.

12. I investigated “old shoeboxes.” This practice led to a number of new clues and helped solve a few mysteries too. Read more here.

13. I learned under some the best at the BCG lecture series. Read more here.

14. I buckled down on source citations. I still have a long way to go in terms of getting accurate source citations attached to all my records, but I am happy to say I am making progress.

15. I learned from more experienced genealogists. I don’t read as many blogs as I would like and I don’t interact with other genealogists as much as I would like, but when I am able to connect with others, whether electronically or in person, I want their advice. I want to know their stories and learn from their experiences. That includes you. In what ways did you become a better genealogist in 2015?

BCG Lecture Series at the Family History Library

padlockOn Friday, I was lucky enough to be able to hear some of the best in the business speak at the Board for Certification of Genealogists Lecture Series for the Family History Library here in Salt Lake. The BCG is one of two agencies which provide professional credentials to genealogists who meet rigorous standards of competency. It is certainly one of my ultimate professional goals to earn a BCG certification one day.

The BCG offers this free one-day event annually as a “thank you” to the Family History Library for its contributions to the genealogical community. It was a great pleasure to be able to learn from these master genealogists and meet other likeminded individuals who find this stuff as fascinating as I do.

This year’s lectures were:

What Is “Reasonably Exhaustive Research”? By Michael Hait

The Art of Negative Space Research: Women by Jeanne Larzalere Bloom

After the Courthouse Burns: Rekindling Family History Through DNA by Judy Russell

Forensic Genealogy Meets the Genealogical Proof Standard by Michael Ramage

Margaret’s Baby’s Father and the Lessons He Taught Me – about Illegitimacy, Footloose Males, Burned Counties & More by Elizabeth Shown Mills

When Does Newfound Evidence Overturn a Proved Conclusion by Thomas W. Jones

Though my husband had a meeting he could not miss that day and my child care options fell through, I was still able to make Michael Hait’s, Jeanne Lazarlere Bloom’s, most of Elizabeth Shown Mill’s and Tom Jone’s lectures. Each of these lectures expounded on elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard with one or more case studies showing how the principles of the GPS were applied in each.

I found the case studies fascinating. The lecturers would lay out the evidence. I would wonder where it was headed and maybe even start to make assumptions. And then. . . Boom! Trump card. Goose bumps. Crowd murmurings. It was great!!

I learned a great deal that would be difficult to summarize here, but I would like to highlight a few “take-aways:”

1. Good Genealogy understands historical context.

Michael Hait provided one case study where at least half a dozen pieces of evidence supported a specific conclusion. This conclusion was logical and most genealogists would have found more than enough reason to call it valid. Yet Hait wasn’t quite satisfied with that conclusion because a few pieces of indirect evidence were missing. The key to the case came after Hait began researching an archaic term he found in an unpublished biography. The term, which to modern readers seemed to simply describe the ancestor as pious, was actually a description of the ancestor’s specific sect of the Baptist faith. As he began to understand and research this historical religious context, Hait found the key document which set the record straight.

Jeanne Bloom likewise emphasized the importance of understanding the community in which your ancestor lived, particularly as it relates to female ancestors. Bloom called this “Negative Space” research, a term borrowed from the art world in which a subject is defined by the picture around it. In genealogy, this means not only researching the woman’s close male relatives, but also that woman’s neighborhood, church, occupation, etc. Bloom encouraged the audience to read about learn as much possible about your ancestor’s environment. “Be Curious.” She said, “Let that lead to other things.”

Finally, Tom Jones made a simple statement that really struck a chord with me. He had been laying out a case study where DNA evidence helped determine the correct ancestor out of 3 possibilities. Though the DNA results allowed Jones to identify his ancestor by name, Jones felt his research on this individual had only just begun. – “A name,” he said, “is not identifying an ancestor at all.” This is SO true. It is natural to want to take the pedigree chart back a generation, but genealogy is so much more than adding a name to a pedigree chart. I want to understand who my ancestors were and how they lived as much as I possibly can.

2. Good Genealogy never underestimates the importance of the FAN club.

The “F.A.N. Club” is a well-used genealogy acronym that stands for Family, Associates and Neighbors or Friends, Associates and Neighbors. It refers to the idea of not simply researching your ancestor, but also those around them. So, for example, if you find a Baptism record for your ancestor, you would also look at the sponsors named on the baptism to see if they left any documents or clues that will aid your research of your ancestor. If this sounds far-fetched, it’s actually not. Our ancestors were part of communities, neighborhoods, religious and ethnic groups. This is a great strategy for any genealogical problem, but especially for finding those difficult to find WOMEN in our family tree. In the case studies presented in this lecture series alone, the F.A.N. club strategy provided the missing piece to a number of genealogical puzzles.

3. Good Genealogy isn’t always convenient. It takes work!

It would be nice if all public records were online, but this is far from the case. It would be nice if every historical document that mentions our ancestors were indexed, but this is far from the case too. At one point, Michael Hait showed a picture he took of a box full of papers. He explained this was a box full of unindexed, unorganized marriage records sitting in a repository in Maryland. You aren’t going to find those records neatly digitized on Ancestry. Anyone who thinks those records might hold something of genealogical value to their research has to first take the time to learn they exist and then look at each record one by one.

Speaking of genealogical value, don’t overlook a record or repository because you think its chances of holding something of value are slim. You never know until you look. Yes, it takes time and effort, but it seems to me that a willingness to be inconvenienced is one characteristic which sets great genealogists apart from mediocre ones. For example, Elizabeth Shown Mills lectured on an extremely interesting genealogical mystery, sharing step by step how that mystery was solved. The initial researcher on the case actually failed to solve the mystery. A second, more-thorough team of researchers finally cracked the case, mostly because they were willing to be inconvenienced. First, they searched not only in the state archives, but also in the local court house. Second, they paid attention to seemingly insignificant details, such as the mileage charged by the sheriff when he served summons. Third, they searched for and read each page of court records not only for the primary individual in question, but also for his F.A.N.s. Finally, they were willing to search unindexed records for those individuals.

I do admit the thought crossed my mind more than once, “Where do these people find the time?” Not only do these leaders in the genealogy community do their own research, but they also teach, write, travel, volunteer and advocate. I’m not sure how they manage to do it all, but I admire it. I can pretty much bet they have that whole research log organization thing down, and I’m guessing they don’t waste hours spinning their wheels online. But those are topics for another post.

Thanks to the BCG and to the Family History Library for making this possible! If you would like to listen to the lectures for yourself, I understand they are available here for a nominal fee.

I Just Qualified for the Boston Marathon and I’d Like to Thank my Great-Great-Grandfather

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If you came to this post as a runner, and not as a genealogist, you can find out more about my Boston Qualifying journey here.

This past weekend was a pretty eventful one for our family. On Saturday, I ran the St. George Marathon in Southern Utah and qualified for the 2017 Boston Marathon. Qualifying for Boston has been a dream of mine for a long time and something I’ve earnestly and ceaselessly worked towards for the past 5 years. I began running marathons 10 years ago, but not until I broke the 4 hour mark in did I even let myself consider the possibility of running fast enough to BQ. Though constantly doubting whether it would ever happen, I nonetheless committed myself to getting as fast as I possible could. I have battled injury and come back from an unexpected c-section, but thanks to the opportunity to train and race in Utah, and the unending support of my husband, I am thrilled to have met this goal on my 21st marathon.

To me, the Boston Marathon symbolizes the marriage of two of my passions: running and history. Boston is the oldest consecutive marathon to date, in one of the United State’s most historic cities. It takes place on Patriot’s Day, a local holiday commemorating the beginning of the Revolutionary War.  From the screaming Wellesley students at mile 13 to “Heartbreak Hill” near mile 21, the race is steeped in tradition. It is difficult to comprehend that in 1967 — just 15 years before I was born — race officials tried to physical prevent Boston’s first female finisher Katherine Switzer from completing the race. And today, not just anyone can run the marathon. For all but the most gifted, it takes work to qualify for Boston [1].

photo take from

It’s funny. I used to hate running. I remember begging my high school volleyball coach to excuse us from running laps. Then, I left for college and wanted to join the fledgling women’s soccer program there. Not only was I the worst player at tryouts my freshman year, I was also the worst runner. Thankfully, running doesn’t require much coordination – just enough determination to get better at it. So that’s what I set out to do, and somewhere along the way I began to fall in love with it. Now, I am basically addicted. Running is as much a part of my life as anything.

I am not a genetically gifted runner. Most people who commit themselves to qualifying for Boston do so long before their 21st marathon. But who knows? Maybe there is something passed down from an ancestor that accounts for my tenacity at it. Thanks to genealogy, I have more than just an inkling that this might be the case.

In 2012, my husband and I traveled to Ireland and visited the ancestral homes of my Irish great-grandmother and great-grandfather. My great-grandmother emigrated from a tiny Island in Ireland’s Clew Bay, called Inishcuttle. When she left for Chicago in 1911 , Inishcuttle held 6 residences [2]. When we visited, there was only one oc04 01 12_5521cupied residence. Simply locating the exact Island in the Bay wasn’t easy. Few maps even include it, it is so small. Nevertheless, my husband somehow navigated our rental car across two low narrow causeways to the Island. A sheepdog stood between us and the only residence. I nervously got out of the car and found the dog friendly. My naturally introverted-self gathered enough courage to knock on the door of the house, and introduce myself to Mrs. Quinn who came to the door. She explained that her husband grew up on the Island and although he wasn’t home at the moment he would no doubt love to talk to me.04 01 12_5480

The Quinn’s came to our hotel to talk with us the following day. He ordered a whiskey and she ordered a weak coffee. He had trouble with my American accent. He told me about what it was like growing up on Inishcuttle. He remembered my great-grandmothe04 01 12_5502r, her siblings AND her parents. At one point, he was compelled to sing an Irish song for us. And then he told me this about my 2nd great-grandfather:

“He used to run for miles.”

“Wait. What?!” I replied.

“He was good runner. I remember one time he missed the trading ship to Sligo. So he ran there instead.”

I remember asking how far it was to Sligo. My notes and memory fail to recall the Quinn’s exact approximation of distance to Sligo via the cowpaths they told me he ran along, but along today’s roads, Google maps tells me this is some 60 miles [3].

Family lore is full of stories like this one — almost unbelievable, with no way to confirm or deny their veracity. But you know what? It doesn’t always matter whether the story is exactly true or not. I think I will always remember D. Joshua Taylor’s remarks on an episode of Ancestry Roadshow about (I’m paraphrasing) how all family stories, even those distorted by years of exaggeration, all started somewhere for some reason. Often there is at least a kernel of truth in them.

The fact is that someone who remembers my 2nd great-grandfather remembers him as a runner. The person who told me this had no idea that I had already completed somewhere around 15 marathons myself by that point. Of course, to me, this piece of information was priceless. Am I ever glad I knocked on that door!

On that note, I will close this post, but stay tuned for some upcoming topics I hope to write about:

1) More on sports genealogy – Besides my supposed ultra-marathoning 2nd great grandfather, I have some other sports leads I am looking into: Namely, that my great-grandfather played soccer in Chicago shortly after his immigration to the City. I am also hoping to investigate a couple photos I have of my great-grandmother in a baseball uniform. The whole 20th century sports and recreation urban reform movement was in full swing when my ancestors lived and worked in the city. I am currently working my way through a fascinating book on this topic called Windy City Wars by Gerald R. Gems. Also, let’s also not forget the CUBS are in PLAYOFFS!!!! I am happy to say I am multi-generation CUBS fan, rooting for the same team as my North Side Ancestors!!!

2) Today, I had the privilege to attend some of the lectures at the BCG Lecture Series at the Family History Library. I got to hear some of the best in the business for FREE! I love living in Salt Lake!!!


[2]1911 Census of Ireland, Mayo County, District Electoral Division (DED) Kilmeena, Inishcottle, Houses in Inishcottle, Census of Ireland 1901/1911 ( : accessed 9 Oct 2015); original manuscript not cited. For date of immigration see, “Passenger Record,” digital images, Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation ( : accessed 19 August 2015), manifest, SS Carmania, 12 April 1911, no page, line 22, Maria O Malley, age 20.

[3] Personal Knowledge of Author

Finding Out More about Probate Records Part II


A few weeks ago, I admitted to some considerable knowledge gaps when it comes to probate records. Ancestry’s recent mass digitization of probate records left me with a lot of questions. I decided to reinvest some income I received doing document retrievals and educate myself on this topic. I am happy to say I finally bought Greenwood’s book, The Researchers Guide to American Genealogy, which I am loving. I also rented the BCG webinar on probate records and have otherwise been reading what genealogists who specialize in this topic have to say. While I’m still no legal expert, I’ve already learned enough to answer most of my questions and then some. 516sJvhE1bL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Here’s a summary of the initial questions I posted along with my new-found knowledge:

1. Why can’t I find records for any of my Chicago ancestors? With very few exceptions, my ancestors were Chicagoans. Before Chicago, they lived in Europe. . . . Most of these people possessed very little in terms of material goods, so it is easy to assume this fact alone accounts for this lack of probate records. However, I am beginning to think that the assumption that poor families left no probate records is something of a misnomer. . . .

While it is true that you are much more likely to find record of probate for a wealthy ancestor than a poor one, the crux of the issue isn’t really economic status, but rather ownership of property. [1] If you are researching an ancestor who was poor, but also lived in an agrarian community or in a time and place where most people of similar socio-economic status owned land, you may just find a probate record for that individual. If however, you ancestors were like mine — poor, tenement urban dwellers – well, those individuals rarely had much in the way of property or material goods to be divided among their legal heirs. Hence, there is often no record of probate.

Nevertheless, even if your ancestor had no record of probate relating to his or her estate, that person could still be mentioned in another individual’s record of probate. I had not considered this possibility before. Probate records name witnesses, executors and heirs, to name a few – and your ancestor may be among these individuals. Even more interesting, probate records can be used to find record of enslaved people, who may have been listed as property on pre-civil war probate records. Greenwood estimates that about 50% of all “people in America, historically, have either left wills or have been mentioned in them. [2] So never assume probate records won’t be of much value to your genealogical search. Whether your ancestors had money or not, they may be found in probate records.

2. It appears that most of the available records on Ancestry date from early years of the 20th century or earlier. Is this a legitimate observation, or am I totally off? If I am correct, why is this the case?

I still haven’t found a great answer to this question, but I did learn that probate cases generally fall under county jurisdictions [3] , and their availability varies by each jurisdiction. Ancestry itself put it this way, “Knowing where your ancestor’s estate was processed is step one. Step two is determining whether or not Ancestry has records for that time and place. While the U.S. Wills and Probates collection does include records from all 50 states, it does not include all U.S. probate records. Over the years some records have been destroyed by fires, and in some places, they have not been microfilmed or digitized and still are only available offline in the
county courthouse or in a local repository.” [4]

It seems logical that early probate records are more readily available because those are the ones the local courthouses or repositories have already relinquished to the microfilm and digitization process. This might also help account for my negative searches for my Chicago family, who were all relative newcomers to the United States. The courthouse might still hold their records, if any exist; which brings me to my next question:

3. Where else should I be looking? Obviously, not every US probate record ever recorded is included in Ancestry’s database. I know the Circuit Court of Cook County has an index I’ve searched in the past with some promising results. I hope to do look ups there next time I am in town.

Ancestry itself tells us its record set is not exhaustive — not that we expected it to be. The fact that so many of these records are now digitized and searchable is something to appreciate. That said, fellow blogger Randy Seaver at Genea-musings, estimates that the Ancestry collection only includes some 5-10% of all probate records already microfilmed.[5] While I would be curious to know the source of this estimate, the point is clear: there are no doubt valuable probate records still out there to be found.

So first, I am going to look at the county level. As I already suspected, the Circuit Court of Cook County is a repository I need to investigate if I want to do more digging.[6]

Second, I am going to look over the FamilySearch probate holdings for Cook County again. While the FHL catalog is a logical place to search for probate records (For any genealogist, but for me especially since I am local), it is by no means the only archive containing microfilmed probate records. It seems worth your time to investigate these types of facilities for records pertaining to your ancestor’s local area. [7]

Finally, although I doubt whether I will find any useful to my personal family genealogy, in order to leave no stone unturned, I should check and see if there are any compilations or abstracts of probate records already published. Greenwood recommends using these when the originals cannot be obtained, which is sometimes the case for early records.[8]

Of course, between these various repositories and sources, there is bound to be some overlap. I don’t want to waste time searching for the same documents, but I want to make sure I cast my net as widely as possible. A detailed research log will be paramount here. Check out Seaver’s state by state research table strategy for keeping track of probate record searches.

4. What about privacy laws? Ancestry says they have records dated as recently as 2005. How is it I can easily access a 10 year old probate record, but I have to wait 72 years for the census?

The answer to this question is pretty simple, if somewhat illogical. Even though probate records give lot more information regarding matters some families might wish to keep private, the fact is they are simply classified as public record. Census records, on the other hand, are not designated as public record until 72 years after they were created.[9]

5. I’m really not familiar with law/legal terms. What does all this stuff mean and how did the process work?

I think the language and process of probate records can make them seem intimidating, when in reality, they are not that complicated. After just a few weeks of research, the process makes a lot more sense to me than it did initially. However, even though probate records need not intimidate genealogists, they still must be understood within their historical context. Greenwood wrote, “. . . the more you know about the legal processes which bring probate record into existence (within limits of course) the more value they will have for you. . . .” [10] Understanding the historical and legal context of a document will often necessitate further research. For example, in his lecture for the BCG, Hait gave an example where his understanding of a specific statute regarding the legal age of a probate witness helped him correctly identify an individual. Sometimes finding out exactly what the law said for the time period and jurisdiction you are researching will require extra effort. Hait recommended university law libraries and even Google Books as good starting places should your analysis require such research. [11]

In any case, my self-made crash course in probate records showed me there are a number of resources out there for those of us who lack a law background. Here are just a few resource I found along the way:

718TB3MSFTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.gif–Black’s Law Dictionary by Henry Campbell Black

–Estate Inventories and How to Use Them by Kenneth L. Smith

–Judy G. Russell’s blog, “The Legal Genealogist” – a quick search for “probate records” brought up so many interesting posts! If you are not familiar with Russell or her blog, be sure to check it out.

Well, I’m glad to say I’m no longer completely in the dark regarding probate records. Iam  excited to see what I can dig up next time I’m in Chicago. Of course, my probate record research revealed to me new, additional topics about which I want learn next. My reading list gets ever longer. Nothing wrong with that.

[1] Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Col, 2000), 310-311.

[2] Ibid., 310.

[3] Ibid., 312, 345.

[4] “5 Things You Should Know to Get the Most from the Probate Collection at Ancestry,” Article. ( : accessed 28 Sept 2015).

[5] Seaver, Randy, “Mining the Ancestry Probate Records Collection – Post 1: Pennsylvania,” Genea-musings, 8 Sept 2015 ( :accessed 30 Sept 2015.

[6] According to the state by state guide in Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d. ed., 345-349.

[7]Ibid., 349.

[8] Ibid., 349.

[9] For classification of probate records see Teo Spengler, “Does Probate Make a Will Public,” Legal Zoom Website, No date ( : accessed 30 Sept 2015). For classification of census records see Census Records, United States Census Bureau, No Date ( : accessed 30 Sept 2015).

[10] Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d. ed., 326.

[11] Michael Hait, “Of Sound Mind and Body: Using Probate Records in your Research” BCG Webinar, 17 Nov 2014, ( : Accessed 27 Sept 2015).

What is this Family History Library?


Unless you are new to genealogy, chances are you have looked for your ancestors on The website has thousands (if not millions) of digital images of records from around the world. What you may or may not know is that Family Search is the website attached to a physical, brick and mortar library dedicated to exclusively to Family History/Genealogy research. If you thought the website’s record collection was impressive . . . well, it represents just a fraction of all the records held at the Family History Library.

The Family History Library (FHL) is located in Salt Lake City and owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Family History Research is something of a tenet of the LDS faith. I am not the person to ask about the details regarding exactly how or why this is, but as a result of this tenet, the LDS community collects and shares its record sets freely. The resources at the FHL are available to the public at zero cost. I think I speak for genealogists everywhere when I say, for this, I am grateful.

So let’s talk about these records.

And before I begin, let me just say this is not meant to be an exhaustive essay on all the services and resources available through and the FHL. Today, we deal with the basics and save the rest for another post.

So you may have gone to at one time or another and typed in your ancestor’s name. Likely a bunch of records came up. Some were your ancestor, some weren’t. So those records represent the FHL records that are both ONLINE and INDEXED. But, did you know that there are a bunch of records at FamilySearch that are ONLINE but NOT indexed?

For example, I found a baptism record for one of my ancestors by searching the Chicago Catholic Church records on I went to the CATALOG, typed CHICAGO into the place field (click on the correct place option that automatically comes up), and then chose Church Records. I found the church where I thought my ancestors’ worshipped. Then I browsed the records for the correct year and approximate month, and there she was! That record was not INDEXED, so it never came up when I used the SEARCH option.

Now, the majority of the records at the FHL are not ONLINE and may or may not be INDEXEd. They are on microfilm (In addition, there are also books, maps, journals, etc. etc). You can find descriptions or abstracts of these records when you use the search feature or browse the card catalog, but you do not see the actual image(s).

For example, one day when searching the catalog at, I found a record set on microfilm titled, “World War I Service Records of Utahns.” I knew my Grandpa’s stepdad was a WWI Vet from Utah. I was able to retrieve the microfilm, search through it, and indeed, there was a record of my Great-Grandpa, with a PICTURE OF HIM WHEN HE WAS A BOY!!! Jackpot!!!!

So what do you do if you find a record you would like to see, but it’s not online?
You have a few options:

First, you could travel to the Family History Library and look it up yourself (and many genealogists do). A research trip to Salt Lake can be a very rewarding experience.

Second, you could see if your local Family History Center contains the record set for which you are looking. Family History Centers can be thought of as satellite Family History Libraries. Located around the world, these satellite centers often contain microfilms and records pertinent to the geographic area in which they are located.

Third, if your local Family History Center does not have what you need, but the FHL in Salt Lake does, you can usually have the microfilm sent to your local center for a nominal fee (similar idea to an interlibrary loan) and a varying amount of wait time. Once it arrives, you can view the record at the Center.

Your final option is to have someone local to the Salt Lake area look the record up for you and send it to you (usually electronically). This is where ALMOST HOME comes in. For $15 per document fee or $30 per hour, I am happy to find the specific document you seek at the FHL and email it to you.

So, again, those are the basics. I hope that explanation was clear and helpful. Feel free to comment or contact me if you have questions.