D. Joshua Taylor, host of “Genealogy Roadshow” on PBS, has found some interesting ways to track his ancestors through history. One ancestor of his was in the circus, and the constant traveling made the man difficult to track, Taylor said during a panel at the RootsTech family history and technology conference on Feb. 10.
Taylor dispelled the myths and filled in the blanks in his circus ancestor’s life story by finding records for this ancestor's co-workers and travel records of every single stop the circus made during his ancestor’s career.
Taylor and panelists Barry Kline, a researcher who specializes in Civil War and DNA records, and Rich Venezia, who researches Italian-American immigration in genealogy, shared their collective secrets to finding and utilizing unusual records to trace family history.
Unusual records fall into two categories, they shared in their presentation: unique information that crops up in the usual places and information in those records that researchers never think to look into.
No matter which category, all three panelists said that unusual records can be the missing link in overcoming research stalemates.
“Just read absolutely everything. Look into everything you know about that person to try to find their information: Think about their age, their occupation, their location, anything,” Kline said. “Look beyond the name.”
This means looking in places beyond the usual ones, he said.
“We often think of local genealogical societies as the first place to go, but historical societies also have excellent resources," Kline said. "Records from fraternal organizations, trade organizations like unions and other documents can help you glean little facts that you otherwise wouldn’t have found.”
Newspapers are also a common place that genealogists look at, Kline said. “But trade publications, like sports journals, can often give you much more detailed information about your ancestor’s life.”
Venezia also said that knowing the period history is critical, because that can point to census substitutes, or area-specific documentations that can verify family stories, and other useful information.
When tracking his American-born ancestor, for example, Venezia said he was having a hard time finding her marriage date. However, after studying the history of the period, he discovered that women who married immigrants were required to re-request citizenship, because between 1907-1922, women took on their husband's nationality. He found the information he needed by locating her nationalization request, he said.
Venezia also shared a time when it was a property deed that gave him an army of previously unknown dates because the deed was a part of an inheritance document after a father passed away. Because of the specificity needed in the inheritance records, the deed included birth dates of all members of the family, as well as the marriage documents for the husband and wife, Venezia said.
He also advised that researchers utilize foreign censuses to get around roadblocks.
“If you can pinpoint exactly what town your ancestors immigrated from, you can add a lot of meat to the bones of your research,” Venezia said. “Ship manifests, alien registration forms and naturalization requests can all point you in the right direction.”
If an immigrant ancestor seems to have disappeared, it is very likely that they went back to their home country, Venezia said. In knowing exactly their origins, a researcher will be able to track them much easier.
"Look on all levels of government for records," said Kline. "Many areas in the U.S. have changed from civil law to common law practices, thus shifting around the responsibilities of record keeping."
Civil law focused on residents and common law was administered by judges, Kline said.
"If the records were written during a period of civil law, then notaries in the society would have legalized them," he said. "Otherwise, they are likely at the county or the state level."
Also, Taylor said to look at what other genealogists may have found and cross reference them.
“If you can see their theories and dead ends, it will help you not to repeat those same false trails," he said.