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You Family Tree #3: Let's Start Researching !

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Linda Roorda


Okay, let’s start researching.  As you ponder a few names in your ancestral tree, the burning question may be, “How do I start looking for ancestors I don’t even know about?”  Actually, the best way is to begin working backward from what you do know.  Start with your birth certificate to prove your parents.  Obtain copies of birth, baptism and marriage records, newspaper death notices or obituaries, and cemetery records of your near relatives.

Research can be an expensive endeavor and I will admit I’ve not done all I’d like to simply for that reason.  I’m able to join the DAR with about ten ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War; and, though I have a good deal of documentation, I’ve not been able to afford all that which is necessary for the DAR forms.  I know that I have DAR status with the evidence in my hand, and don’t need to prove that fact to an association.  Yet, even on a limited budget, you can accomplish a great deal like I did with the resources available – particularly as my initial online research of records for several years was done using the painfully slow dial-up internet service!

Make a list of your known and extended relatives.  Talk to the older folks and write down their memories and stories.  They are a wealth of information, and will be honored to have you ask.  But, again, research helps validate the truth from “stories” which might have snippets of reality amongst exaggerated stories passed down as family history.  Check out Cyndi’s List for a great listing of various types of charts and forms which can be printed off to help you keep records.

I also wish I had had an interest in knowing my family history when I was younger and my grandparents were still alive.  With my mom born as child 11 of 12 in a large farming family, her parents were long gone by the time I finally developed an interest.  And, since both her parents were only children, there’s a paucity of extended “rellies” for me to speak with. Yet, I’ve met other extended cousins and have enjoyed getting to know them while we compare our family lineage notes.

With her own family history interest, my mom recalled bits and pieces, but that’s why the original family tree mentioned in my first article was vital.  Working through the known three generations to prove their accuracy, my empty-nest project evolved into a 600-plus page manuscript.  I documented historical family backgrounds and descendants from church and cemetery records, historical records, census records, and books, etc. for every known surname branch.  Don’t research just the male lineage as some folks prefer; the women are equally as important to your heritage!  I even included research on the extended families as a record of their historical times and how families became intertwined.

If you are fortunate enough to have access to them, search old diaries and letters which may reference family members.  Old family Bibles often list family births, marriages and deaths, but not all do.  For example, an old Bible found in the brick McNeill house in Carlisle, NY by the current owners (with whom I became friends) held no data other than three McNeill obituaries, two of whom were known to be related.  Yet, the obits became key evidence in my search as one obit was for a Martha McNeill Tillapaugh Seber of Decatur, New York.  That little piece of paper gave credence to my theory that she is related!  She is the presumed daughter of Samuel McNeill as she fits the age of a female born 1814 on his census records, the only McNeill family in Decatur at that time.  This gave a descendant, who I was assisting, substantial probability for Martha’s birth family since his family papers noted Martha McNeill was born about 1814 in Decatur, thus lending credence to our being distant cousins.

The following also shares how one clue leads to another in research.  Based on a gut feeling, I purchased Robert McNeill’s War of 1812 pension application file after finding him on the 1820 Carlisle, New York census.  He lived very near my ancestor, John C. McNeill (typical of the old generations), and was listed on the War of 1812 muster rolls.

In pension application affidavits, Robert noted service at Watertown and Sackett’s Harbor, New York and as a guard of prisoners on a march to Albany.  He made no mention of service on any ship.  Sadly, I had to break the news to a descendant friend and cousin that Robert’s claim to be in a famous battle on Lake Erie during the War of 1812 was not backed up by documentation in any of his records.

Also, unfortunately, he served only 53 days of the required 60, making him ineligible for a pension.  However, additional key data found in his affidavits note Robert served in place of his brother, Samuel McNeill, of Decatur, Otsego County, New York, and that he, Robert, lived first at Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York.  Thus, he was born about 1794, after his parents removed from New Hampshire to New York.  Bingo!!  I now had two more presumed brothers of my known Jesse McNeill!  When Robert enlisted in September 1813, it appears he was about 18, unmarried, willing and able to serve for his brother, Samuel, who had a young family per the 1810 Decatur census and who presumably had farm crops to harvest.

By census records, we track Robert and family on the 1820 census in Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York, the 1830 census in Conesus, Livingston County, New York near his wife’s relatives, and the 1840 census in Dundee, Monroe County, Michigan.  After his first wife died, he lived near his sister’s family in Wayne County, New York where he remarried, moving his family back to Michigan per 1860 census.  I like to think of them as “frequent flyers” on the bustling Erie Canal, sailing Lake Erie from western New York to the frontier in southeast Monroe County, Michigan.  Curiously, his second wife is later found without Robert on census and cemetery records with their children in Wayne County, New York.  As Robert is listed on census records in the homes of his first wife’s children, dies and is buried in Michigan, his descendant and I have concluded that he and his second wife separated, but never divorced, as she died and is buried in Wayne County, New York.

There is so much to be gleaned by searching for and finding actual records.

Coming next:  Document everything, every step of the way!

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