Genealogy – Tools & Tricks of the Trade

Everyone has seen those warm & fuzzy advertisements on television singing the praises of and its ability to provide you with links to your long-forgotten ancestors and the roots of your family tree. Amazingly, the handsome young chap in their commercial is the spitting image of Uncle Oscar who emigrated to the United States from some tiny village in Hungary in 1897. If you have a computer and a credit card to pay for the first month’s subscription fee, you can begin your search for the rest of your clan and start planning a trip to the old country for next summer.

Wait! Not so fast!

This isn’t a journey for those not possessing the patience of Job. Finding your grandparents will more than likely be easy.  Providing of course they were born before 1940, the first year of the decennial United States Census that is currently available on ancestry. United States law prevents the release of the publicly identifiable information in census reports until 71 years after its initial collection.  Raw numbers are available before then, but not names, addresses, individual occupations, and the several other pieces of vital information that might confirm your grandparents’ identity.

Knowing your more recent ancestors’ approximate birth years, where they lived in at least one of the decennial census years during their life, the name of their spouse and at least one or two of their children will be crucial to getting it correct. Why? Because as unlikely as it may seem, there are usually dozens of people out there with the name Oscar Karoly who were born between 1880 and 1885 in some tiny village in Hungary and who ended up in the United States. If you are going to trace your way back to the right Uncle Oscar, you had better be sure you are starting with his correct descendants.

Ancestry has a wealth of information hidden within its millions of files. “Hidden” is the key word here because you will need to possess the detective prowess of either Hercules Perot or Jane Marple if you are to successfully navigate your way through the maze of clues to follow the right path back to your Uncle Oscar and not someone else’s.

The first pitfall to avoid is searching someone else’s Family Tree. Tempting as it is to rely on someone else’s hard work and results, the chances of the accuracy of the work you will be viewing are rather slim. If just one of the links you’ll be looking at is incorrect, it throws off the entire tree. In this case, it is kind of like rocket science – you enter one wrong number early in the equation and your spaceship explodes on the launching pad before lift-off. And do not rely upon the fact that ten other families have the exact same information in their trees – if they have copied the same data you are contemplating copying, remember, it could be just as wrong. Family Trees are a last resort, and even then, whatever information you find needs to be thoroughly vetted.

If at first, you don’t succeed –

Pour another beverage of your choice. Depending on the hour of the day, mine is either coffee, red wine, or a really good single malt Scotch.

Ancestry’s algorithms – and for that matter, every other widely used genealogy site’s algorithms – were obviously designed by members of a satanic cult. You can be just one letter off in typing in a name and come up blank. Or you can be 4 letters off and 1,107 choices will appear to choose from. The same goes with dates. The process takes patience – lot’s of patience.

Census reports: Census reports are really helpful in identifying people, spouses, children, sometimes relative wealth, occupations, and even neighborhoods where people lived. But all this comes with a caveat. A big caveat. The report must have been done by a competent enumerator. Yes, we are talking about a part-time government employee who is only needed once every ten years – so maybe getting someone who is really good at the job; someone who really cares that they get it right; someone who follows the instructions given in the 2-hour training session that proceeded their being issued a pencil and a pre-printed pad of forms – maybe we are not talking about the best of the best.

Typical single page of the 1930 United States Census Report for Easton

In addition to the normal census records, during several years of the mid to late 19th century, the United States government also gathered information in “Non-Population” Census Reports. These specifically detailed the operations of America’s farms. Since most folks living in Easton were farmers, these reports often provide a wealth of information, especially when it comes to learning about the number of acres your ancestor may have owned and what types of crops he or she raised and the number and species of his or her animals.

Typical Non-Population Census Report Page for farms in Easton. This is just one of two pages that list specific information for each farm in the list.

Possible shortcomings of relying too much on census reports:

Legibility of names recorded – if you think that doctors have lousy penmanship, you need to read some of the chicken scratches put down by census enumerators. Even Ancestry’s professional transcribers often type in the wrong names because they couldn’t make out the handwriting. If it wasn’t properly transcribed, it likely won’t appear in your search. Often, you need to read an entire town’s census report to find your ancestor. Thankfully, Easton’s census reports are generally only in the mid-twenty-page range!

Language barriers: Most enumerators were only proficient in English. Most recent Hungarian immigrants (remember, we are still using your Uncle Oscar as an example here) spoke little or no English. However, Uncle Oscar’s 6-year daughter, Lena, did. If she was giving the enumerator for the 1920 U.S. Census her parents’ and sibling’s ages, they might not have been correct. Same with their given names. Sister Betsey might have been Izabella – or worse yet, Yana Izabella, but everybody called her the more Americanized version – Betsey. Again, lot’s of patience needed to be certain you are looking at the correct family.

Family members you have never heard of before or who for some strange reason don’t appear in a particular census report: This is huge! United States Census Report forms were not numbered by pages! Gosh, a government document that wasn’t well-thought out before it was sent to the printer??? How could that have happened? Many pages were not always in the correct order when turned in by the enumerator or when they were microfilmed many years later. So, if Oscar Karoly’s family was missing Lena and Yana in the 1920 Census, you might assume you have the wrong Karoly family. Especially if the Oscar Karoly family is listed at the bottom of the page and the top of the following page lists Stephen, Alexander and Rose as the Karoly children. What needs to happen here is an examination the house number (not a street number, but a number assigned by the enumerator to the houses he or she visited in the order that he or she visited them). If the number of the house at the bottom left of the first page is 87 and the first number you see near the top left of the next page is 33 – then the pages are out of order and Stephen, Alexander and Rose are someone else’s children. You then need to find another page where the number nearest the top reads 88 and it will be a pretty good bet that just above that are two lines with the names of Lena and Yana.

The 1890 United States Census

A genealogist’s nightmare! The 1890 Census was mostly destroyed in a fire at the United States Commerce Department Building in 1921 and there were no copies. Only partial information is available for about ten states. Population-wise, a lot happened during the twenty-year gap between 1880 and 1900 that we will never know about.

And you thought this ancestry thing was going to be easy. And maybe even fun!

But, wait, there’s more!

Immigration and Naturalization Records: These are quite thorough and detailed from the mid-1890’s through the early 20th century when immigration quotas were enacted, and fewer people were allowed into the country. If your relative came to the United States with a name that was spelled substantially different than the surname you know today, searching these records may be rather time consuming. However, you can often find the exact town of your ancestor’s birth along with the precise birthdates and birth names of your ancient cousins. In addition, you can often identify the ship they arrived on and the exact date of their arrival.

1931 Petition for Naturalization for Easton resident Mary Valalik

Probate & Wills: Ancestry has probate files for most Connecticut towns that go back into the 18th century. Some are incredibly detailed right down to the number cups and saucers found in the deceased’s kitchen. But again, those darn algorithms don’t always deposit you to the page where you will find the information you are seeking. In many cases, you will be directed to the probate lists for certain time periods. From there you need to search the records to find the correct page where you will likely find an accounting of the probate court’s disposition of the case. These particular lists were hand-copied in the mid 20th century and are quite legible. However, these accountings are also usually rather sparse in content and often deal with people who died intestate.

The more detailed accounting of estates where wills existed are usually found in the probate records of the jurisdiction where the estate was settled. In Easton, this could be the probate court of Easton, Weston, Fairfield, Bridgeport, or even Hartford depending upon the year the person died. To make matters worse, some of the court documents consist of packets with as many as 30 or 40 pages – all hand-written with the left-hand of probate judges who were naturally right-handed. Some of these aren’t hard to decipher – they are impossible!

One of multiple pages of the 1901 probate records of Mahala Jennings of Easton. This one is actually legible!!!

Yearbooks: So, you really want to know what your first cousin, twice removed, Lena Karoly looked like. Having learned to be a mediocre detective by this point in your search, you have figured out the Lena would have graduated High School in 1932 and that children from Easton would have attended Bassick High in Bridgeport during those years. Ancestry has a great collection of old year books, all sorted by town, school, and year. Great! Let’s look at the 1932 Bassick High School yearbook for Cousin Lena. Oops, Ancestry’s collection of Bassick yearbooks begins in 1937.

Military Records: Ancestry has partnered with Fold3, another search engine that has access to millions of military records that go back as far as the American Revolution. One slight hitch – you’ll need to upgrade to a more expensive subscription to see them. One more slight hitch. In 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri destroyed 80% of the personnel files for all U.S. army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960 – that’s 80% of the records of everyone who served in that branch of the service during WWI, WWII, and Korea. And even though the government had lost the 1890 Census in much the same way fifty years earlier, it had not copied any of the files that were archived in St. Louis and then thought to store them elsewhere. Not one single item had been microfilmed and saved. So Fold3 has some very serious limitations.

Registration for the draft in 1942 by dairy owner Laurence Marsh of the Marsh Dairy confirming birth date and occupation

Newspapers: These are great sources of information. also has a tie-in with Ancestry. For an additional subscription fee of course. They have thousands of U.S. newspapers that cover a multitude of years. Just not all years. For instance, the Bridgeport Telegram and Bridgeport Post have a slight gap in coverage. As in the years between 1934 and 1947. So, while you were able to find out that Uncle Oscar bought a new Oldsmobile in 1923 – a new vehicle purchase was considered news back then – and that Cousins Lena and Betsey sang in the 1926 Christmas pageant at the Congregational Church, Uncle Oscar’s 1944 obituary wasn’t available.

All this newspaper searching only took eleven hours and fifteen different combinations of names and places to narrow down the possible searches to 678 possibilities. Again, it’s the algorithms. Type in Oscar Karoly and Easton and you get every page of every newspaper that has all three – even when they are not associated or in the same article. If Oscar Smith, William Karoly, and Easton, Pennsylvania are in three different articles on the same page of any newspaper, that article is added to the list of possibilities. So, on that initial attempt, you might have seen a list that included 12,709 possibilities.

Bridgeport newspaper article covering the 1923 slaying of Ruby Wells Edwards

Land Records: Searching these require a good deal of patience, sharp eyes, and the ability to decipher the various “skills” of penmanship possessed by the town clerks who recorded them. In Easton, some land records are found in the town halls of Fairfield (prior to 1787), some in Weston (1787-1845) and the ones post 1845 in Easton. Because so many of the early Easton lands were pieced together from multiple narrow Long Lots to make workable farms, some people have as many as 30 to 40 land transactions attributed to their names – often in multiple books. Sometimes in multiple towns. Tracing a single property that was passed down through several generations could require a visit to each of the towns listed above and then many hours spent looking at more than one land record book in each town.

1811 deed of Alja Bradley property in today’s Easton was located in the Weston Land Records

Maps: Maps produced in 1856, 1867, 1931, and 1942 for Easton all list the owners of the houses identified on the map. Pairing the information on the map with the closest Census Report can often pinpoint where your relative resided in town. The hitch here – only the home’s recorded owner is listed with the house. If your relative was a renter, he or she won’t show up on these maps.

Town Reports: Depending on the year, some of Easton’s official Town Reports list the names of students completing their 8th grade education, along with lists of names of residents who were born or died in that year. A couple of years in the 1930’s and early 1940’s even list landowners by name and the acreage they held.

Church Records: Great for births, baptisms, and marriages. Barbour has a great collection for Connecticut. All by town. Easton has names gathered from Weston land transactions and several, but not all, of the local churches. Just because you can’t find it in this collection doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In Easton, for example, all the records of the Episcopal Church prior to 1884 were lost before Barbour collected the data.  

Hopefully, none of this has discouraged you from searching for your ancestors. At the Historical Society of Easton, we handle a couple of requests for research assistance every week. While we don’t create family trees, we do sometimes fill in a few blanks. And while we don’t charge a fee for this service for individuals, we do appreciate it when folks are willing to donate to the cause. You can donate to the Historical Society of Easton by visiting us at: Donations and Patrons – Historical Society of Easton Connecticut (

If you need assistance with a genealogy question, we’re here to help. Inquiries can be directed to: