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

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 Ancestry.com 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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