The 1939 Register for England & Wales debuted on FindMyPast last evening (my time). For those that don’t know, the 1939 Register was the UK government’s work to take a census of everyone living in the country in September 1939, through which they issued national ID cards. And from what I understand, it was quite precisely everyone living in the country at the time – anyone who wasn’t in the country wasn’t enumerated. There was no 1941 census because of the war, so the Register is also a substitute for a would-be record set that wasn’t created, and since the 1931 census was destroyed during the bombing of London, the 1939 Register is also akin to the 1900 US census – a document to try to  fill in gaps from 18 or 20 years of no censuses. Last week FindMyPast announced that the Register would be going live on Monday, November 2nd, which turned out to mean midnight GMT. They got a lot of flack for high pricing on the Register entries, with each scanned page costing 60 credits, and the Register not being included in what subscribers can view for no additional fee.

As a subscriber to both FindMyPast and the Lost Cousins newsletter, I got a coupon from each site for buying what they called five-household packages, which was technically a bundle of 300 credits per coupon. So I decided that I would use the coupons to find ten households to view. Many fellow Americans have said they will wait till the price (eventually) drops, but having booked a trip to visit the UK next year (yay!), I’m on a deadline to see if there are any more cousins there to find to be able to meet in person. Research takes time, and sometimes there’s the additional wait time for ordering specific records, and then doing legwork to try to locate anyone still alive also takes time.

Because 20th century England has often felt to me like people fell into a black hole in the early part of the century, I was not sure how easy it would be for me to find people, nor how many of them were living within England in 1939. The debut last year of the governmental site allowing people to order probates of England & Wales online up to a few weeks ago has made a significant dent in my 20th century research, as long-distance researchers can now order online (at £10 each, they cost more than viewing a 1939 Register household; however, ordering them online costs less than the way I had to do it before, which included paying a researcher for her time in going to the Probate Office on my behalf, ordering the copies, and mailing them to me). (For more information on the probate site, see my posts Finding probates 1858-1995 in England & Wales and Receiving copies of probates 1858-1995 in England and Wales.) Anyone who was born less than 100 years ago and which hadn’t been proven to be dead before a certain date (I don’t remember the exact date offhand) is redacted from the household entries in the Register, though you can send FindMyPast a scan of a death certificate to try to get a redacted entry opened.

Before I discuss in detail my foray so far, let me give you some general tips I have gleaned:

  • Don’t get stuck upon a certain birthday, even if you know what the person’s birthday should be. As with any record, sometimes there are errors and/or conflicting evidence.
  • Don’t get stuck upon someone definitely living with someone else, even if you are pretty sure they should be living together.
  • Start with as little information as possible. (This is how I do almost all my searching for research)
  • Adding in an estimated birth year (I would recommend starting with +/- 2 years and continuing to narrow if you still get too many hits) and/or a given name of a person that you think will be living with the main search target is a great way to narrow down an overwhelming number of results for a common name. But again – don’t assume that the record will reflect what you think it will or that the transcription will necessarily be correct.
  • For those like me that are searching for cousins rather than our own ancestors, use other records in conjunction with this to narrow down results. I have personally found probate records and electoral rolls particularly helpful in helping to give an idea of where someone might have been living in 1939.
  • In these early days, if you get an error message try reloading. (Last night I got error messages about 50% of the time.) If you get several error messages, take a break with some tea/coffee or a walk outside and try again later. The records will still be there.

I started out with relatives I’d recently traced, choosing first to search for my cousin’s husband with the unusual name of Studley Gerry. I can’t say as I was too surprised to find there was only one Studley Gerry living in all of England & Wales in 1939. Clicking through to preview the transcription showed that there were three people included in the record and three who were redacted, for a household total of seven people. I purchased the household and learned immediately that I had the correct household, as my cousin Winifred Audrey Gerry (Studley’s wife) was listed. I discovered that the other two people included were a son by her first marriage whom I had not known existed, and her little brother. The scan shows you what precise lines are redacted, and through this I believe that I have two to three more unknown-to-me children of Winifred to find, depending on whether the redacted line just above her brother is a child of Winifred or one of her siblings.

It was interesting to note that Winifred’s birth year was several years off, particularly since some people have recommended searching by exact birth dates (as birth dates are included in the entries). Her birth year had been written as the same year as a younger person in the household, and then crossed out by a different pen, with the last two numbers reversed by that other pen. So while it is tempting to say that Winifred was probably lying about her age after having married a younger man (something I have seen both men and women do), I wonder if it was instead a clerical error either on the household’s part or on the part of the person who copied their form into the register. However, this was not the only time I would see a birthday that wasn’t the one I have in my files – a cautionary tale for those exact-match searchers. The other time in the entries I have viewed so far, the birthday was exactly one year different than the birthday I had in my file, leaving me unsure if the error was in the register or in the documents I had previously viewed. The transcription of the household (after you pay you view the full transcription) also had an indexing error, with Winifred’s son and brother mistakenly listed as the same occupation that she had, “Unpaid household duties.”

I next tried to find Winifred’s father, who had the much more common name of John Turner. It took a lot more winnowing on my part, including inputting a year of birth. I had recently ordered his will, which he had never changed after writing it in 1924, and that had given me a location for him post-1911-census. Luckily for me, he was still living in the same town in 1939. The preview contained a shock – it listed only him in the household. Skeptical that there had been an error, I bought it – but it was correct. Even though the woman I had known as his wife would still be alive for quite a while, and he had several children who could have been living with him, he was living by himself. Now I understood better why Winifred’s youngest brother was living with her. I tried to find his wife because I was curious, but with such a common surname as Turner, and my not even being sure that she hadn’t divorced him and married someone else by 1939, I quickly gave up the search.

I moved on to one of Winifred’s other siblings, with the very unusual (married) name of Sadrene Petherbridge. I had found through FreeBMD that Sadrene had married a William Petherbridge, but I had literally nothing about him in my files – I didn’t even know yet how old he was, much less where he had been born or anything, as the surname Petherbridge had turned out to not be as unique as I had expected when I found the marriage. (Like almost all researchers, I would buy every certificate possible if I could but have to pick and choose which ones I spend the money on. And I hadn’t bought William and Sadrene’s marriage certificate from the GRO yet.) Sadrene Petherbridge, like Studley Gerry before her, turned out to be the only one in the country in 1939. Clicking through to view their entry gave me William’s birthday, and information on a child I had not known about, with a redacted line below their son probably being another child. Through inputting William’s exact birthday I was able to find his death date, and used that to locate him in the Probate Calendar, then ordering his probate file from the governmental probate site. The child whose entry wasn’t redacted turned out to have died before his parents, but I’m hoping that William’s probate file might provide me the names of other relatives who could potentially still be alive.

Next I tried to search for Sadrene and Winifred’s brother Herbert, but Herbert Turner turned out to be a common name and I did not have an idea of where he was living in 1939, so after a few attempts to narrow down my results, I quickly moved on to a different branch of my tree. Finding the wonderfully-named Victor John Edward Crowley was another easy task from the unusual name combination, and through his household’s register entry, I found a wife I had not known about, including her exact date of birth. There is also a redacted entry that I am guessing is a child from one of his marriages.  Every entry gives another piece of the puzzle – another angle to pursue or person to try to give a name.

Through electoral rolls I knew that the husband of a cousin on a different line was living in Surrey in the 1940’s, so I next tried to find Charles Davey. As one might expect, I got a lot of results. This time I input a second name, my cousin Grace, just inputting her first name. Immediately the results changed and the top hit was the place where he had been listed on the electoral rolls, so I bought the household. It did indeed turn out to be the correct family. Like with Sadrene and William, I had Charles’s name and their marriage year but nothing else about him, so again the 1939 Register gave me an exact birth date. In this case so far it has not led to further records about him, but at least it is more information than I had.

This completed my first five-household package, but since I was still alert despite the growing late hour, I decided to try a couple more unusual searches. I tried a search for the surname Sadrene’s same-named niece married, as I have not been able to find any biographical information on him. His surname produced no results at all, which could be because he was not living in England at the time (his name sounds Continental European to me, and they did not marry until after the war), or could be because he would be less than 100 years old now. (I am not including his surname because I have yet to determine whether he is living or deceased, though I am sure both Sadrenes have died.) For my final search I chose an easier target, the Redcliffes, the last of whom died in 1982. I found them in Hereford as I expected, but was surprised to find the entire family still living together, though their three surviving children were in their late 30’s to early 40’s. It was a pleasant surprise that will save me further searches for the family, and nice too to see the daughters listed with paid jobs, an early sign of what was to come with the war.

Six households into my 1939 Register research, I reflected on my findings so far. It is of course important to get confirmation of what you expect to find or to add , but for me the most immediately satisfying finds were the unexpected – the brother living with his married sister’s family, the nuclear family all still living together after over 40 years. For some people I had no birth dates before last night, and for others (as well as them) I had no occupations before last night. Most people were in the location I expected them to be, but there were a couple households where I had no idea where they were living in 1939 until last night. And it has led me to new records, especially to the Petherbridge probate that I hope will lead to living cousins. If I had a lot of research in 1939 England, I think I would have been much more likely to just take the transcription at its word that John Turner was living alone despite what I’d expected and move on to a household that had more proverbial bang for the buck than his one-person household. Any time when money is an issue, researchers make decisions like this by necessity – which person(s), which records, to prioritize. For many of my fellow Americans, this choice has included not searching the 1939 Register at all at this point. I can’t say what is the right choice for others, but I am glad I have found the information that I have, and I look forward to downloading four more households in the future.

Today marks the 250th anniversary of Boston’s first Stamp Act Riot, or as one of the blog posts I’ve read today more delicately phrases it, “the 250th anniversary of the Liberty Tree protests in Boston.” Here in what were then colonies, this is considered one of the major events in the lead-up to the American Revolution. At HistoryCamp 2014, I attended a talk on the Boston bankruptcies of 1765 by J. L. Bell of the blog Boston 1775, wherein he said that in his opinion, the bankruptcy crisis occurring in Boston at the time the Stamp Act was passed probably contributed towards local hostility towards the Stamp Act, since it included court fees and so many people here in Boston were interacting with local courts at the time. I found this helpful in understanding why events occurred as they did, and as those of us with the benefit of hindsight know, it was part of a string of events that would lead to rebellion.

While some members of my own family had been early colonists in the Boston area, they had moved away by the time of the Stamp Act Riots and my folks still in New England at the time formed a crescent-moon shape around eastern Massachusetts, with families in western Connecticut and central and western Massachusetts, shortly to be joined by folks who moved up to western Vermont in the time between the Stamp Act Riots and the beginning of fighting in the Revolution. There weren’t too many newspapers yet, and some of these New Englanders likely read Boston papers, on a time delay that is probably unimaginable to many today. Perhaps they bought the papers themselves; perhaps their neighbors passed it on at one of their homes or in the local tavern. It is hard to imagine that the reactions flamed by many newspapers, such as this reprint of the New-York Gazette in the Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser, went unremarked in these locations. With New England’s literacy rate so much higher at the time than in most of the American colonies, a large percentage of people could read and many of those could also write. But only with specific records can a researcher know for sure whether any particular person was literate, much less whether they read a newspaper article or what they thought of the contents or of the events that were occurring around them.

This, I think, has been one of the key differences historically between practicing historians and practicing genealogists – historians, by the nature of their work, have tended to focus on larger trends and on people for whom a decent number of records are known to be extant and available to view, while genealogists, by the nature of their work, have tended to focus on individual people, families, social networks, and communities, regardless of how many records there are for these smaller units. This has understandably led to historians sometimes expressing the opinion that genealogists are missing the forest for the trees and genealogists sometimes expressing the opinion that by focusing on the forest, an historian who wrote an overview work may have missed important information to be found by studying the individual trees. In my own opinion, anyone who wants to practice solid genealogical research will reach the point where they realize they need to look at more than the individual or the family – hence my including social networks and communities in the above list – and will look at the location in general and at scholarly works about that location and about topics that influenced the location and the lives of the people in it. However, the perception still persists amongst many outside of the genealogical community that American genealogists are all retirees from the ‘upper crust’ who are ‘just’ dabbling in their family’s history, and are probably doing so in the hopes of finding a famous relative or noble ancestor.

Earlier this year I attended the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s 2015 Annual Seminar, which was on “The Who, What, and Why of Early New England.” In one of the lectures, Robert Charles Anderson, director of the Great Migration Study Project, mentioned that he had come to decide on his master’s thesis topic over 30 years ago because he had noticed in his research that people in western Vermont tended to side with the revolutionaries while people in eastern Vermont tended to side with the Crown, and he wondered why. Having personally researched in western Vermont of that era but not eastern Vermont, I had not realized there was a strong geographical predictor of one’s likely overt sympathies until he mentioned it. I had used historical records to construct much of the lives and Revolution activities of my folks who were living in western Vermont at the time, and knew that according to surviving records, they were ardent supporters of the Revolution, including many of the men fighting in it. How much their geographic location influenced their actions, or whether it influenced them at all, is not clear from these records. As John Colletta said in his 2015 National Genealogical Society Conference lecture on researching the reasons why people did things, historians’ works are a great place to learn the reasons why a person, family, or small group may have done something, but any researcher of specific individuals, whether the research’s main focus is genealogical or historical, needs to utilize specific records to try to determine the reason(s) why people actually did something. This is how writing about any kind of research into the past moves from qualifiers like “may have” or “possibly” to qualifiers like “almost certainly” or “according to X’s diary, they…”

One of my posts on this blog, over four years ago now, was on using records to investigate a Revolution-era local history story on my own ancestor Gideon Ormsby of Manchester, Vermont. A few years before Boston’s Stamp Act Riots, Gideon and his family had moved from the disputed part of the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border to Amenia, Dutchess County, New York, as had Gideon’s relative Jonathan Ormsby and Jonathan’s family. I find it almost impossible to imagine that they did not hear about, and probably discuss, the Stamp Act Riots in Boston and in Newport, Rhode Island. But I do not know whether the Stamp Act Riots influenced their behavior, beliefs, or decisions.

Speculators had become proprietors of the area of land in Vermont that later became Manchester, but colonists had not yet moved there. The two Ormsby families’ move to Amenia would prove fortuitous for the family, as a group of travelers from Amenia were exploring this area of Vermont in 1761, saw the land, and expressed interest in it, leading them to become the new proprietors. Gideon and Jonathan were two of these new proprietors, and Jonathan was chosen proprietor’s clerk at their first meeting in Amenia in February 1764. At the same meeting, Samuel Rose was chosen moderator. The proprietors started laying out the lots shortly thereafter, and Gideon was one of the people appointed to lay out the highway. While local histories state that it is not clear whether families spent the first winter in Vermont, the births of Gideon and his wife Mercy’s children indicate that at least some of the families stayed in Amenia or returned to it over the first couple of winters.

The ripples sent out by events like the Stamp Act Riots would reverberate down the years and eventually tear apart cohesive groups like the proprietors of Manchester. That local history story I investigated in records was about the Rose family. The Roses had been the first white family to settle permanently in Manchester, but – bucking the geographic trend – Samuel Rose was believed to side with the Crown in the Revolution, and as part of Gideon Orsmby’s responsibilities as one of the higher-up Revolution-era militiamen in the area, Gideon was tasked with capturing Samuel and coordinating the guarding of him. Samuel was arrested and taken to Northampton’s gaol (jail), and his lands were confiscated by the Vermont government. Whatever Gideon and the other early colonists of the area may have thought, they showed no visible sentiment in this capture and confiscation, and some of them went on to buy Samuel’s lands at auction. When I first discovered this, it seemed like a conflict of interest; I have since discovered that this was rather common in many areas where land was confiscated, though it still seems like a rather dubious chain of events to me. When I wrote my previous post, I had not yet realized that Samuel Rose had been instrumental in the founding of Manchester, and to me it adds depth to the story. It is possible to write a local history without the details of this Revolution-era conflict – and indeed, many have already been written – and genealogical research that doesn’t include this level of detail could certainly be considered adequate. But to me, both historical and genealogical works really come to life when they go in depth about both the area and the people in it.

Over the time I have been doing research, I have come to believe that there is likely no such thing as an ‘average person’ or ‘ordinary person’ in any time period or place, and that conclusions to that effect are probably due more to a lack of extant records that flesh them out as people than because of any one person themselves. However, one’s loved ones, one’s social network, and one’s community at large greatly shaped one’s choices and the personas that one presented to others, and news events of a nearby town or a distant one often influenced people then as well as today, although of course news typically took much longer then to spread very far. Wherever your research subjects were living – whether they be your own families or your biographical subjects as an historian or biographer – it is interesting to contemplate what effect news of the Stamp Act Riots may have had on them, and perhaps to read newspaper coverage of how it was presented in the colony or country you are researching, if it was covered at all.

For those that live in this area today, there are several events this weekend commemorating the 250th anniversary of Boston’s first Stamp Act Riot. If you are interested in history, please consider attending one or more of them, regardless of whether you had any family in Boston (or in the colonies at all) at the time, to help keep alive the collective memory of these events that were (literally and figuratively) so formative to this country.

Almost any time a website that’s used by a lot of people gets a major overhaul, there are likely to be unhappy people. Ancestry has been rolling out its latest website redesign; so far it’s available to people who log in to the “.com” version, and so far users can choose to switch back, though Ancestry warns when you do so that the version you are leaving will become the only version in the future. I don’t really care for the new profile style for people you’ve saved to your family tree, which seems designed primarily for people without much experience, to try to help them see what sources they have and realize maybe they should add some more. But what particularly concerns me is their new “LifeStory” view, which you can view from any profile in your family tree. This seems to be trying too hard to shoehorn people into more events that Ancestry has estimated will matter to them. Following are a couple of specific examples from my own tree.

My ancestor’s sister Jane (Evans) Brimacombe died on 29 June 1900 in Bideford, Devon, England. Ancestry apparently really, really wants to make English women’s suffrage relevant to Jane’s LifeStory. The result is an added event that (erroneously) implies that English women won the right to vote in 1900:

Jane Evans LifeStory view screenshot

Screenshot of LifeStory view implying that English women won the right to vote in 1900.

I know enough about British history to know right away that this implication was incorrect. But what of others who also live outside the UK and perhaps don’t? Or what if an event is more obscure and people take Ancestry’s word for it that the event happened when and where Ancestry says it did?

There is a second problem with their implication. Maybe suffrage was a part of Jane’s life though she died before women won the right to vote, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe she was against it; maybe she had no opinion. Maybe if she had lived till women won the right to vote, she wouldn’t have registered anyway. Without specific records, there’s no way to know what Jane’s opinion and/or actions was/were, or whether she voiced any opinion on it at all.

The other issue I have discovered so far is a more personal one for people. Anyone who has been doing genealogical research for a decent length of time has probably discovered that the things uncovered can be touchy subjects and that people have always been as complicated and multilayered as they are today. Ancestry’s “LifeStory” view inserts events from a person’s family into their tree with no understanding of the nuances involved, because it is a program, not a person. Here is a specific example from my own tree:

Screenshot of Ancestry StoryView of William Buse Evans

Screenshot of William Buse Evans’s LifeStory view on Ancestry, implying that he was living with his daughter and cared that she had died.

This implies that my ancestor’s brother William Buse Evans actually cared when his daughter Ursula died, but as the different locations of each of them at around the same time might indicate, he probably didn’t even know of her death. His daughter died in a Union Workhouse, where she and her sister had been placed while William had moved to another city and married again. I tested this in my tree and could find no way to remove an event that’s related to a person’s family member, nor even to edit it, though I wanted to at least add something like “…and William very likely didn’t even know.” If this is mildly irritating to me as someone who never even met these people, I can’t imagine how upsetting or irritating it could potentially be to someone who had information inserted about people whom they knew or whom living family members had known.

I understand what Ancestry is trying to do with LifeStory view. But what it’s shown to me instead is that no computer software or algorithm can replace the thinking and processing of real people with real knowledge of the people, events, and records.

In the span of one and a half weeks this month, I attended the Massachusetts Historical Society’s conference “So Sudden an Alteration”: The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution in Boston and the New England Regional Genealogical Consortium’s biennial conference (NERGC 2015), run by a consortium of regional societies, held this year in Providence, Rhode Island. I have never done two conferences nearly back-to-back before (for me, there was a three-day break between them) and while it was a bit overwhelming to do, both events were fantastic. Since past experience has taught me that it will take me at least a little bit of time to turn my detailed drafts into blog posts, this post is my initial wrap-up of them.

For those that have never been to one of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s seminars, the basic format is that attendees read the paper in advance, the author talks a little bit, a commenter responds to the paper (and, if they wish, to what the author just said), the author is given the opportunity to respond to the commentary, and then the floor is opened to comments, questions, and suggestions from the attendees. Most of the MHS conference was in a similar format, except that there were two or three authors on each panel instead of just one, and the commenter responded to all papers before opening the floor to the audience. During most of the time slots, the entire conference was a single track, but there were two time slots when we got to choose which panel we wanted to attend.

Not surprising given the format and the mostly-single-track, some of the papers were of more interest and relevance to me than others, but I enjoyed every panel I attended. It was also great to see some familiar faces and meet some new people. The people in attendance seemed to me to be a mix of history professors and other historians, grad students, archivists/librarians, and interested third parties like me. I had prior exposure to the work of two of the panelists (Gloria Whiting and Serena Zabin) through MHS’s seminar series, and their papers were two of my favorites in the conference. I also got to hear Barry Levy speak for the first time; I cited his book Town Born: The Political Economy of New England from Its Founding to the Revolution in one of my articles.

In two and a half days, I got to learn about things as varied as the African-American community in colonial Boston, British soldiers renting from Bostonians, how Pennsylvanian society grappled with reintegrating Loyalists who stayed after the American Revolution, and Americans’ early efforts at trade in China alongside the behemoth that was the British East India Company. Much more to come.

As longtime readers of my blog know, NERGC 2013 (my first one) fell under the long shadow of the Boston Marathon bombing, which had been that Monday, and the hunt for the living bomber, which was occurring while I was at the conference. I’m pretty sure that not having the stress of, for example, so many of us spending our breaks on Friday standing around a hotel lobby’s TV for updates on the hunt for the bomber at least partially colored my different response to 2013 vs. 2015. But it’s not just that. NERGC’s speakers, attendees, and talk subjects were more diverse than they had been in 2013; there were more attendees, period (a record-breaking number for NERGC); and I know so many more people in the genealogical community than I did then, and met even more over the span of the four days I attended, including several people I’d known online for a while but had never met in person before.

I also was pleasantly surprised that nearly all the talks I chose to attend were excellent, as that had not been the case with the previous NERGC (though I had still had better luck in 2013 than many others I knew). For Tech Day (which 148 of us attended the day before the main conference started), we had to commit fully to one of two tracks so had no options for what talks we attended, but for the three days of the main conference, we had the option of eight talks in each time slot, with each day having eight thematic tracks. The schedule was so well-done that there was only one time slot for the entire three-day main conference wherein nothing seemed particularly of interest to me, so I volunteered at a booth in the Exposition Hall at that time.

This was also my first time volunteering at the New England Chapter of the Association for Professional Genealogists (NEAPG) luncheon of special-interest tables; volunteers from NEAPG moderate the tables. I did a table on “Researching in England’s Records” because I thought it was something that was likely to be of interest to enough attendees to more or less fill a table (and indeed, only one seat was empty at mine). For a while I’ve been slowly working my way up to speaking in public in front of total strangers, and I thought this would be a good next stepping stone, which it was. Handouts were optional but I chose to create one with a timeline I created myself and a bibliography of some of my suggested books. (I like handouts.) I thought that including a bibliography of websites would probably be superfluous, but I turned out to be wrong as a number of my questions were about websites.

In four days I learned about things as varied as how to turn my iPad from an expensive email checker into something I actually regularly use, that there were at least 45 different groups in the Hudson River Valley of New York before 1800, much of what’s in the amazing U. S. Sanitary Commission collection at the New York Public Library, the African-American community in pre-Civil-War Vermont, and speculation about where genetic genealogy will be in five or ten years. Again, much more to come.

Edited to add: If I’m calculating correctly, I attended 26 presentations and 9 panels within 11 days (including attending a presentation the day before the first conference and another during the three days between the two conferences).

On Friday I discovered that the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) Library had recently subscribed to the site HistoryGeo.com, which I subsequently discovered is a relatively new subscription site. The site has two major collections so far, the “First Landowners Project” (by which they appear to mean the first person/organization/etc. to own land under the American system of landownership) and the “Antique Maps Collection.” I spent a while exploring the First Landowners Project. Their aim is to have all the first public-land-state landowners in their database, though they do not yet include all public-land states.

As longtime readers are likely aware, I like to use test cases where I already know the answer when I am first testing a research tool that is new to me. So I first tried to find my great-great-grandparents, who were homesteaders in the part of Dakota Territory that is now South Dakota, but immediately discovered that neither Dakota is included yet. Most of the homesteaders I am personally researching lived in Dakota Territory. So I moved on to Iowa, and some people where I did not know the answer for sure – I knew they lived in Iowa but did not know if they would return results. The database allows you to input the surname and be as vague as searching all the included public-land states to as specific as only searching a single county in a single state.

I first looked for Richardsons in Lee County, Iowa, but did not find the family I was seeking. Then I tried Hills in Johnson County, Iowa, and was pleasantly surprised to get relevant results for my cousin and her husband, who had moved from New Hampshire to Iowa circa 1850. The results come up as little circled numbers if there are multiple hits in one area, and as little green people if there is only one result. The more you zoom in, the more the circled numbers turn into individual green people. I zoomed in far enough to see that my cousin and her husband bought adjacent land patents in Johnson County. The map lists owners’ names and the date each patent was awarded. My cousin and her husband each bought one-fourth of a parcel in 1850, and my cousin bought an adjacent parcel in 1852, so that together the couple owned three-quarters of the quadrant. If you click on the individual parcel HistoryGeo’s system tells you more information, including under which law the person(s) purchased the land. Seeing through this system that they were awarded cash-entry land patents, I went over to the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office (BLM GLO) site and found their patents on it. I was also able to print the current screen view of the HistoryGeo map showing my cousin and her husband, and because the system uses current view to print, I was even able to print two maps – a wider shot showing a good number of their neighbors, and a more zoomed view better showing the shape of their individual parcels.

I then tried to find my Breese family in Greenwood County, Kansas, who had relocated there from New York. I’m sure they were homesteaders, but they did not come up in the search results. The name is spelled a wide variety of ways in records, and I didn’t take the time to search all the variants I know, so I cannot say for sure that they are not included. I do know that they are not on the BLM GLO site even though they were homesteaders, which is probably because they bought their homestead via the Osage Trust lands (created as the Osages were removed to Indian Territory by the US government), so I am not sure if that is also why I did not find them in the HistoryGeo database. Though I was not able to locate the family, when I searched HistoryGeo it still brought up a map of the Greenwood County area (as you should find any time you place an unsuccessful search of a specific area), and I noted with interest that a Massachusetts college and an Indiana college were listed as the landowners of several parcels in the county. Out of curiosity I tried test searches for the colleges’ property in Greenwood County, but neither the state name nor a few other keywords in their names brought them up as results, so the database search engine seems to only be keyed to peoples’ names.

After this I did a few general searches for unusual surnames to see where they were distributed around the included public-land states. As a fairly visual learner, I found the way the numbers for multiple hits pop up around the map of the United States to be helpful in quickly gauging their distribution. It was fast and easy to zoom in on a couple several-hits states for each surname to get a better sense of distribution within the state. It seems like a tool that would be very helpful for anyone doing a one-name study. I found that in areas of counties where the land was broken down into small lots, instead of showing names and years on the map, the square on the map would say something like ‘Individual Lot Owners – Click for a List of Names.’ These lot owners’ names did turn up in the search, so that you knew to click through to the list if someone with the surname was on it. I also found that the database included warrantees who sold their land as well as the people who bought it from the warrantee, and that if multiple people with different surnames bought a patent together, the database included all of them.

After I returned home on Friday, I discovered that Sunny had posted a brief blog post about HistoryGeo at Lisa Louise Cooke’s site the same day: “Land Ownership Maps: New Online Property Map Tools for U.S. Genealogy Research.” While Sunny’s post and HistoryGeo’s own site both take the angle of using the site for genealogy, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t also be useful for people doing historical research in the same time frame.

In my last post, I discussed Finding probates 1858-1995 in England and Wales, including that I had ordered some wills through the UK government’s new online ordering system. Now that I have received the wills, I wanted to post again to discuss the process. The system estimated that the wills would be ready to download on January 7th, and as I blogged, I wasn’t sure whether the system took holidays into account. I’m still not sure if they do, but the wills were ready to download on January 9th, which is comparable to the estimated time vs. actual time that someone tweeted to me that they had experienced while I was waiting to receive mine. However, the system did not notify me by email until the evening of January 13th my time. At first I thought maybe the email had been temporarily lost in transit, but I checked the full email header and nope, it said that the email was sent shortly after midnight on January 14th GMT. So if you are waiting for a will, I would strongly suggest logging into your account yourself once a day starting on the day the system has estimated it should be ready rather than relying on a timely email notification.

When I did log in I discovered that if there was a problem retrieving the will, the download page itself won’t tell you; you’ll download what you think is a will, and instead you’ll open a form letter notifying you that they haven’t been able to locate the file you ordered and giving you some ideas as to what might have gone wrong. It is through this letter, not the website, that I discovered for sure what the handwritten numbers by some entries in the Probate Calendar are – they’re folio numbers, and if there’s a handwritten one by your Calendar entry, you have to include it in your order. If the probate service doesn’t find the will you request, they keep the search fee (which is a common policy) and you will have to pay a new search fee if you want to try again.

I also had a mysterious problem – the system showed that each of my wills should be ready to download, but the final one listed didn’t have any file to download. After spending about 20 or 30 minutes looking around the website for who to contact, I finally contacted the email address that’s listed for “feedback” and said that if that wasn’t the right address, to please forward my problem to whomever was appropriate. I immediately got an automated response that showed that it is the address to email with problems and questions as well as with feedback, which at least to me, the site doesn’t really make clear. They responded quickly; their email said there was a technical error with displaying that file and somewhat implied that there should have been one of those form-letter files saying that my will hadn’t been found, but since their email was not completely clear on the latter point, I wrote again saying I wasn’t sure if that was what they meant and asking them to verify whether it was. I’m really glad that I did, as it turned out that was not the real problem. After four more days, they emailed me an apology for the confusion and attached a copy of the will I’d requested.

The scans of the wills themselves are good. They come as PDFs and include the probate proceedings page(s) as well as the actual will. You can also order administrations; since those had no will (or a will that had been ruled inadmissible), those files are only probate proceedings. The administrations don’t have very much detail, so whether it’s worth ordering one would probably depend on your reasons for wanting it. In my case, I ordered one administration as well as some wills, and the administration provided me with some information that I hadn’t found elsewhere and got me closer to finding a living relative on that line. Wills themselves are also always a gamble – you never know until you view it how much detail it will have or how much it will (or won’t) help you. In my small sampling of wills, I received everything from a brief will where the person left everything to their spouse, who was also their executor, and a several-page will where someone died without living descendants and left a variety of items and money to their siblings, their grand-nieces and grand-nephews (including specifying which were the children of deceased siblings), and their long-time housekeeper (with the qualifier that she was still in their employ at their death), and they included exact addresses in other countries for their relatives who had emigrated from the UK. And thanks to the new ordering system, all of that information was downloaded to my computer for a fee of just ten pounds.

The UK government recently debuted their own free site for their Probate Calendar, previously only readily accessible online on pay site Ancestry. It has been up for a bit, but made waves yesterday (December 27th) because the UK government issued a press release about it. I hadn’t explored the site until the new waves because I already use the Probate Calendar on Ancestry and had read reviews from some other researchers that the search engine on the UK government’s site was less practical if you were searching for someone with a common name, as it only allowed you to search for the surname for probates from 1858 to 1995, not the given name, location, or other limiting parameters. But after it made so much fresh news I decided to explore the site, partly because based on the press release and the buzz around it, I wasn’t completely clear that it was still the same site that had recently gone up, with capabilities just to search the Probate Calendar, until I searched myself and discovered this. The first thing I want to stress, because in my opinion the press release didn’t make this clear unless you read the “Notes to editors” bullet points at the end, and some people/sites who have shared it may have unintentionally added to the confusion, is that it’s still the Probate Calendar that’s free to view on the site, not original wills themselves. You use the site to find entries for wills/probates and then use the information you have found to order copies for a fee through the site’s ordering system.

In my test searches I wanted to start with people I already knew how to find, so I began with a 1919 death and probate whose probate I have yet to order. I plugged in the surname and the year he died (the only parameters allowed by the 1858-1995 search engine) and up popped the first page of the surname in the 1919 Probate Calendar. The site told me that there were 9 relevant pages total in 1919 and allowed me a few options – next page, next year, and zoom. I paged through until I found the right person in the Probate Calendar. It was surprisingly fast and easy for the surname Davis (perhaps the surname is more common here in the States by this point than it is in England), though since I already knew I would find what I was seeking, that may have influenced my opinion. In my searching I discovered something that I hadn’t personally seen anyone mention in their pre-press-release reviews – the Probate Calendar scanned on the UK government’s site includes notes, presumably made by staff into the copy that was scanned. It was particularly glaring on the first page that came up in my first test search because underneath a 1919 Probate Calendar entry, a handwritten note added, “Further probate granted 19 January 1934.” However, most of the notes are just numbers written beside entries, including beside the person for whom I searched in my first test search. I am not personally completely clear on what the numbers mean.

My first search had raised a question that I wanted to try to answer with my next test search. While the search engine says to plug in the year the person died, since the pages returned were that year in the Probate Calendar, I had a feeling that what you really needed to input was the year the person’s probate went through, and that any delayed probate wouldn’t show up if you inputted the year the person died rather than the year their estate was probated. This is particularly large an issue in cases like some I have had where a probate went through many years after the person died, sometimes after their surviving spouse finally died. But it could be a problem in smaller ways, too – say, for example, if someone dies in December and their probate isn’t processed till early January. So for my next test of this site, I decided to try one of the crazier cases in my tree, someone who died in 1903 and whose estate was probated a whopping 45 years later. As I suspected, plugging the year of probate (1948) into the search engine for “Year of death” turned up the relevant page. I then tried the actual year of death in the search engine, and was told that there were two pages for the unusual surname for that year, but when I went to the pages, they were only for other surnames that started with RED-.

I next searched for a Davis who died in December 1961 and their estate was probated in January 1962. Again, plugging in 1962 as the death date, even though the Probate Calendar entry was explicit that it was when the estate was probated rather than when he died, was what brought up the entry. This time there were 32 pages to wade through, and I was glad it was someone with a given name early in the alphabet.

These test searches were ones where I already knew the answer, so next I decided to try some searches where I didn’t know what the results would be. This is possible because the Probate Calendar on the UK government’s site goes to 1995 (with a separate search engine going from 1996 to a few weeks before the current date), whereas Ancestry’s Probate Calendar only goes to 1966. I first searched for another of the Redcliffe clan; she and her sister had never married, and her sister had died in 1965 with enough money to have a will. Alma died in 1978 and a search for Redcliffes with a probate in 1978 did not turn up Alma’s probate. With the unusual surname and the way the viewing is set up, it was easy to quickly click through the coming years to check to see if Alma’s probate was belatedly processed. I made it to 1982, when their brother William’s probate turned out to have been processed, before giving up on Alma. I had found their brother’s probate, which had been my next planned search, and I still can’t say for sure that Alma’s probate wasn’t belatedly processed, only that it isn’t on the Probate Calendar as far forward as I searched in this test. After this I searched for another woman who was born with an unusual surname but in this case died with a more common one. Finding Grace (Brimacombe) Davey’s probate was easy – she died in 1973 and her estate turned out to have been probated in 1973, and it only took a few pages of Daveys before I found her entry.

The way the system is set up, as far as I have been able to determine, you can only order 1858-1995 wills through the dialogue boxes that show up in the right sidebar after you perform a search. However, through my testing, I determined that once the ordering sidebar comes up, you can fill in anyone’s information to place an order, not just the person for whom you searched. So if you already have found folks in the Probate Calendar on Ancestry but haven’t obtained their wills yet, you can do a search for anyone and then plug in the information you already have to order the will(s) you want. While a calendar pops up when you go into the sidebar’s “Death Date” and “Probate Date” dialogue boxes, I determined that you can type in the date in the English style (day/month/year) rather than having to toggle through the calendar. Each will costs ten pounds and you can pay by a few different types of credit cards. If you don’t already have an account you will need to create one before you can place your order, but the process is fast and I found it easy to do. Once you place the order you are told an estimated digital delivery date; mine was listed as January 7th for every will I ordered, and the system isn’t clear as to whether it takes governmental holidays into account. The site warns, “You will have 31 days to download your copy of each will, starting from the first day that you log in to see it.”

If you don’t have an idea of the death date and/or are researching a common surname and/or think the person died by 1966, Ancestry’s Probate Calendar is a lot more effective to search since their index includes the given name(s), the death date, the theoretical death place, and the probate registry used. I say “theoretical death place” because in my experience, what they index is almost always where the person typically lived, regardless of whether the Probate Calendar is very specific about them dying somewhere else. If you know where the person’s usual residence was at the time they died, this is probably better since you may not know where they died; but either way, this difference is something to keep in mind while you search Ancestry’s Probate Calendar. But the UK government’s Probate Calendar is great if you do have an idea of the death date, are researching a less common surname or willing to search through many pages of results, and/or believe that the person died after 1966. Plus the UK government’s Probate Calendar is free for anyone with an internet connection, whereas for Ancestry you need to either have a subscription to their UK records collection or access Ancestry Library Edition somewhere that does. And most importantly, non-local researchers now have a way to order wills online, thanks to the new ordering system.


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