You Can’t Find What You Don’t Look For

Posted on: February 20th, 2015 by
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My recent revisit to some ten-year-old genealogy work resulted in a discovery that changed my understanding of the history of the family I was researching.

Ten years ago, I researched the family of John Clark and his wife Sarah (Neville) Shidler Clark, parents of my husband’s great-grandmother Sophia Mary (Clark) Kinney. The research on Sophia started in Mitchell County, Iowa, where Sophia died, and backtracked her to Buchanan County, Iowa, where she was born. The documents located corroborated the family history information I had obtained from the Kinney family historian in Buchanan County, who for many years coordinated Kinney family reunions in Winthrop. This woman devotedly collected family history information from reunion participants over many years and assembled it in huge binders, which she displayed at the reunions and shared with Kinney descendants between reunions.

In my early days of research, I used paper checklists of records to search for each individual, highlighting the sources that might apply to the research subject and checking them off after I searched them.1 I always started by searching census records to create a rough history of the research subject, and not too long after I started researching I learned to research whole families rather than individuals.

Fairly early in this research I connected with two other women researching the Clark and Neville families, who generously shared what they had learned.

Sarah Neville had eleven brothers and sisters, so I quickly accumulated lots of census records for the family. I was using a genealogy software program (Reunion for Mac) to record my information and sources, and storing the information on paper in large binders. This system worked well for managing facts, but I found that it didn’t make the family’s story very clear.

To solve that problem I developed timelines for the family. This approach works wonderfully for a nuclear family (husband, wife, and children) but less well for the families of twelve siblings–here again, the amount of detail obscured the outlines of the story.

Next I developed a census spreadsheet, with a row for each family member and a column for each federal and state census in date order. In each family member’s row I shaded out the census columns before the person was born and after they died, and filled in the columns representing their lifetime with the household and location where they lived in each census year. As research progressed and families grew, the spreadsheet became quite large. I started assigning color coding to the states–orange for Ohio, where the family originated; yellow for Iowa, where they migrated; green for Kansas and turquoise for Colorado, where some of the Nevilles settled after leaving Iowa.

The color coding made the locations and migration patterns stand out. It clearly showed which families led the migration and which families lagged.

Along with the census research, I researched other types of records–largely vital records and federal land records–using resources that were becoming available on the Internet. Buchanan County marriages (accessible then at the Buchanan County GenWeb site) and federal land purchase records (from the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records website) corroborated the pattern revealed in the census records, showing that almost all the Neville siblings arrived in Iowa about 1855.

Several visits to Buchanan County allowed me to visit the Buchanan County Genealogical Society, courthouse, and several cemeteries. BCGS has compiled a very useful card index integrating burial and other information with clippings from county newspapers. It also houses original county marriage records and newspapers. My Neville research friends had already shared copies of some cards from the card index. Visiting the society allowed me to complete my set of cards for the Clarks and Nevilles.

I was also able to visit Holmes County, Ohio, where the library’s fabulous genealogy/local history room provided cemetery information, vertical files with family group sheets contributed by other researchers, county newspapers, and microfilm of county records. The Holmes County Genealogical Society had the original probate files, deaccessioned from the courthouse. I also visited cemeteries and examined original cemetery records.

Fast forward ten years to my revisit of the research–during the intervening time, both FamilySearch and added Iowa and Ohio marriage records, with images of the Ohio records at FamilySearch. I already had Sarah Neville’s marriage record (from Family History Library microfilm), along with the Holmes County Genealogical Society’s publication of extracted marriage records. The new online collections enabled me to download images of the original records and access indexed Buchanan County marriage records for a longer time period than the USGenWeb index covered. The BLM GLO website had expanded its geographic coverage and added new features. State census collections had been expanded and included images of more censuses. Findagrave also expanded its coverage of burials.

In reviewing my research, I upgraded sources–substituting images of original records for published extracted records, for example. In this process I discovered that my initial research had not been entirely systematic–I didn’t have census information from the 1856 Iowa state census for some Neville siblings whose marriage records indicated that they should have been in Buchanan County when the census was taken, and my research records didn’t indicate that I had searched for land records for all the sibling couples using all the possible name variants.

My revisit of the land record research showed that it was more complete than I thought–I didn’t locate any additional land purchases. Revisiting the census research, however, confirmed that there were holes. Flaws in the Iowa census indexing at Ancestry resulted in my not finding Nevilles I knew were in the county. The siblings I had found had all settled in three townships, and the population was not extremely large, so I read the original census images for those townships. This reading enabled me to locate all but one of the “missing” siblings (indexed as “Mevill”) and revealed two surprises–one sibling that I thought never left Ohio was in Buchanan County, and so were the Neville parents.

In my initial research, I had worked under the assumption that Joseph Neville and Mary (Buckmaster) Neville never left Ohio because both died there, and both were over 50 when their children left for Iowa. As a result, I did not look for them in Iowa (and the index issues resulted in not stumbling upon them). My new research revealed that they were, in fact, in Buchanan County, albeit for a brief period–Joseph died in 1858 in Ohio, and Mary and her youngest daughters were enumerated in Ohio in the 1860 and 1870 censuses.

The two periods of research on the Neville family produced two conflicting stories.

  • The first story, revealed by the early research, was that the majority of Sarah’s generation of Nevilles moved from Ohio to Iowa about 1855, leaving their parents behind, with some family members subsequently migrating farther west to Kansas and Colorado. The original group of Iowa migrants were joined by other family members, with the last two families migrating after the death of Mary (Buckmaster) Neville.
  • The second story, produced by the second period of research, was more complex–Joseph and Mary Neville, along with all but one of their children, moved to Iowa about 1855. For some reason that we don’t know, Joseph and Mary returned to Ohio between 1856 and 1858, taking with them their youngest daughters, and one married son and his wife. The return from Iowa may have taken place after the marriage of Athalia in 1857 in Iowa. It certainly occurred before Joseph’s death in 1858 in Ohio. Mary and the youngest Neville girls continued to live in Ohio after Joseph died. The girls married in Ohio and later moved back to Iowa with their husbands. Mary was apparently cared for in her final years by her youngest daughter Amelia and her husband, who moved to Iowa after Mary died. Sophia (Neville) Uhl, whose family was not part of the earlier Buchanan County migration, apparently died in Ohio, and her husband and children moved to Iowa, settling in Warren County.

This research saga highlights two lessons: be careful of your assumptions, because you can’t find what you don’t look for.

  1. I no longer recall where I downloaded the form I used; it’s similar to this one from the Midwest Genealogy Center.
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Great Quotes from Vita Brevis

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by
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I’m a big fan of’s Vita Brevis blog. This morning’s post has tips for Jump Starting your Genealogical Research from the various bloggers, including David Allen Lambert, Andrew Krea, and others.

My favorites are the last two, from Penny Stratton and Scott C. Steward.

Penny works in book production for the New England Historic Genealogical Society. She presented the recent NEHGS webinar Sharing Your Family History: Ideas from NEHGS. Her tip starts with a quote from author Neil Gaiman “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard,” and concludes “But you do need to sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard and begin!” 1 Boy, is that ever true!

Scott is NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief, with numerous publications to his credit. Scott’s tip: “It seems worth repeating: Start with what you know, then prove it with documentation!… After all, many an article in the Register, the Record, or NGSQ began as a way to tie up loose research ends.” 2

Scott’s point has recently come home to me as I revisited genealogical conclusions that I arrived at in past years but never formally wrote down. It is, I suspect, why the fifth point of the Genealogical Proof Standard is “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.” 3 Somehow, explaining your genealogical problem and proposed solution for a hypothetical reader forces you to clarify what you think you know, raises questions you may not have posed before (inspiring you to revisit or repeat past research), and challenges you to articulate what you think in a way you may not have done previously.

  1. Scott C. Steward, “Jump Starting Your Genealogical Research,” Vita Brevis, 19 December 2014 ( : accessed 19 December 2014).
  2. Ibid.
  3. “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 19 December 2014).
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What’s in a Name?–John Adam or John Adams

Posted on: December 16th, 2014 by
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In my last post, about upgrading sources, I gave an example of accessing and citing a digitized copy of a book of biographies rather than a USGenWeb transcription from the book.

The subject of the biographical sketch I cited was John A. Whetstone. John was the son of Elias Whetstone of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania and Summit County, Colorado. Both John and Elias were early settlers and successful ranchers in the Breckenridge, Colorado, area. 1

I “always thought” that John’s name was John Adams Whetstone, and that he was named after President John Adams. After all, he had a brother named James Madison Whetstone, 2 so it’s not illogical that his family used a Presidential naming theme. And twelve member trees on call him John Adams Whetstone. 3

However, Progressive Men of Western Colorado lists him as “John Adam Whetstone.” 4 This discrepancy caused me to review digital source materials I had accumulated about John–census records, newspaper accounts, and death index and Findagrave entries. All give his name as either John or John A. Whetstone. Delving into paper files, I found a copy of an article from a California genealogical journal to which several granddaughters contributed materials. 5 The article give the same name as Progressive Men of Western Colorado–John Adam Whetstone.

Still, the evidence about John’s middle name was less than completely convincing. In favor of “Adams” was an apparent family naming pattern. In favor of “Adam” were two unsourced authored works. The information in Progressive Men of Western Colorado might have been provided by John, but might also have accumulated errors in the editing and publication process. The journal article contains information apparently provided by family members, but the family informants named in the article were under ten when John died, and a generation removed. 6 helpfully provided a more conclusive answer through its hints: four entries for John A. Whetstone in its “U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970″ database and application images. John’s SAR membership application dated 14 April 1925 is signed “John A. Whetstone,” but three supplemental applications dated 1 March 1929 are signed “John Adam Whetstone.” 7 They provide evidence that I accept as conclusive–original sources with primary information from the man himself.

John’s SAR applications also provide the maiden name of his wife and the names, birth dates, and residences of his children and grandchildren, along with more, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post.

  1. Progressive Men of Western Colorado Illustrated (Chicago: A. W. Bowen & Co., 1905), 444-445; digitized book, Internet Archive ( : accessed 16 December 2014).
  2. “J. M. Whetstone Passes Away,” Routt County Republican, 30 July 1926, copy supplied by Joyce Cusick, Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
  3. Hints for John Adam Whetstone, Lois Mackin’s Tree (private member tree), ( : accessed 16 December 2014).
  4. Progressive Men of Western Colorado, 444.
  5. Peggy O’Neill Solberg with Flora Labar, “The Whetstone Families,” Hidden Valley Journal, 21:9-13.
  6. “California Death Index, 1905-1939,” database,, entry for John A. Whitstone, 28 January 1934, citing original data from California Department of Health and Welfare. “California Birth Index, 1905-1995,” database,, entries for Flora Mae Schneckenber, 20 July 1931, and Virginia Sybil Whetstone, 14 August 1926.
  7. “U.S. Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970,” database and images,, entries and application images for John A. Whetstone, SAR member number 41397.
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