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Posts Tagged ‘historical research’

“Virtually all New Englanders” were anti-slavery by the 1820’s-1830’s, the speaker said, providing background information on John Quincy Adams’s anti-slavery petitions on the House of Representatives floor, eventually culminating in his stand against the Gag Rule. Widespread access to video and sound via the internet has allowed much more access to events than had been possible previously, and I had the talk on in the background on Thursday as I worked in my home office. This assertion made me stop in surprise. I think often of how successful the North was in its campaign to present itself as the all-abolitionist, always-slavery-free region during and after the Civil War, and to me this claim is a good example. Not only is it inaccurate, but it recasts actions like John Quincy Adams’s, and those of many much less famous Northerners, as being ho-hum: Of course John Quincy Adams presented anti-slavery petitions because everybody where he was from was anti-slavery; of course other individuals took stands against slavery because everyone was doing it. I thought, for example, of the mob that attacked and could have killed William Lloyd Garrison in Boston and the mob that burned down Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia after it had been open for just three days because anti-slavery speeches were being given at it by Angelina Grimké Weld and others. (Here is Angelina’s speech, given as a mob gathered outside, heckling her through the walls.) I thought, also, of the petitions from small groups of women to the Massachusetts legislature asking to secede in the lead-up to the Civil War, hoping that by removing their anti-slavery selves from the United States they could help stave off the war.

The night before I listened to that talk, I had attended Harvard Law School’s historian Daniel Coquillette’s talk on the first hundred years of the Law School at Royall House. The administration of Harvard Law School had actively recruited from the South, and because of this, they had a much higher percentage of Southerners than other Northern law schools before the Civil War, leading to many of their alumni being officers in the Confederacy, with West Point being the only other Northern school that graduated about the same amount of future Confederate leaders. Coquillette estimated in his talk that in the 1840’s 35% of the students at the school were from the Deep South. He explained that there were three main groups at the school:

  • Deep Southerners who were “very pro-slavery”
  • Cotton Whig Northerners, who were sympathetic to the Deep Southerners
  • Conscience Whig Northerners, who weren’t really pro-slavery but saw the best strategy as trying to contain slavery to its current locations (leading to such events as Bloody Kansas)

To put it mildly, this paints a different picture of Northerners than an assertion that all of them were anti-slavery. And while of course people at a law school are a tiny portion of the overall populace, many of them went on to become leaders who had regional or national influence. According to Coquillette, Charles Sumner had originally been considered the top person at the school to replace its head, but was told that his abolition wasn’t welcome there, and rerouted himself into politics instead.

In 1859 a newspaper editor, Charles B. Flood, and a US Marshal, Matthew Johnson, were using the Cleveland newspaper Daily National Democrat as their own bully pulpit to level political accusations outside of courtrooms. When John Brown was captured after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, a letter addressed to Cleveland resident Mrs. Isaac Sturtevant was found on him, and the Daily National Democrat published the claim that she had known about and helped to fund the raid. Mrs. Sturtevant wrote a lengthy letter to the Democrat‘s competitor the Plain Dealer in response, which I reproduce partially below (my own transcription of a printed letter, including a few quirks of printing):

… In reply to the charge against me of having incendiary letters sent to my care, I would say if the editor of the Democrat knows any such letters to be incendiary, he knows more about their contents than I do. … As to the charge of being a working woman I acknowledge myself such, especially in the cause of human-freedom, and while my strength remains I shall aid it by such means as I may command. …

While I have thus deigned to notice these charges against me, and this shameful and unjust attempt on the part of a public officer and a hireling editor, to bring reproach upon myself and husband, I wish to utter my protest against any and every effort of the kind. I deny the right of Marshal Johnson or editor Flood to pry into and bring before the public, the private doings of any of our citizens. If we have violated the laws of the land, the Government has pointed out a way and established tribunals whose especial business it is to investigate such violation. No honorable man would seek to prejudice the public against the accused. And it has guaranteed to every citizen, even to negroes and women, the privilege of a fair trial. But pray what chance has any one for an impartial investigation when the public mind is filled with false rumors and statements, as it has been of late by those two most unworthy officials, who have thus departed from their legitimate functions and have arrogated to themselves duties which in no manner belong to them. …

Am I amenable for such acts to the government at Washington and its petty officials stationed here? Or to the laws of Virginia, or its crazy executive, or its blood thirsty judiciary? who in their zeal to convict a person, as in the case of Mr. Brown make him guilty of twice murdering the same man ! Or to either of the political parties who in their strife for power ignore all the rights of individuals and seem to forget and wholly repudiate the plainest and dearest immunities which belong to us as private citizens, the right of private judgment and the liberty to act in harmony therewith. There is a system of espionage being established here which exceeds in servility the worst days of Democratic France. Slavery and the darkest features of the infamous system have obtained such a foothold here, that it would seem that we are not standing erect in the dignity of free men and women of Ohio but are cowering at the feet of the insolent slave power.

Men seem to forget to inquire what are the laws of Ohio–what does her Constitution guarantee to her citizens; but, what says the slave power? What does the Fugitive Bill demand? What of liberty is left us by the Dred Scott decision?

Now, for one, I utterly repudiate and abhor the requisitions of those laws. I would add, if indeed they are laws, I would disregard them. Any law, enactment, or custom which forbids me to aid suffering humanity wherever found, I utterly reject and despise. And I would thus publicly give notice to all the friends of oppression in every form, that I shall treat all such laws as a nullity, and if a grand jury can be found who will indict me for such disobedience, they are perfectly welcome so to do. I shall neither “flee to Canada” nor cease to do all that lies in my power to break down this unrighteous system of oppression, which is even here at the North, stifling every noble feeling or impulse of the human heart. …

[Plain Dealer issue of Saturday, 5 November 1859, page 2]

I can’t imagine anyone reading the above letter and still thinking that all Northerners were unified on the subject. But to say that there was unity is to erase the bravery of acts such as the publication of this letter.

I understand that generalizations are to some degree necessary when discussing wider history. However, I plead for people to be careful that generalizations do not wipe out the complexity of history nor the individual stories of individual people leading individual lives, be it in this era or any other.

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Those of you that live in places where you bring individual trash cans to the curb have probably been in this situation before: One of your neighbors has taken their trash can(s) to the curb, and then another sees the curbside can(s) and does the same, and soon most of them have. You’re pretty sure that there was a holiday this week and that trash pickup has been delayed by one day. But the more people who bring their cans up, the more you start to wonder whether you’re correctly remembering. Perhaps you even double-check the calendar to make sure you are right. But in historical and genealogical research, there is no calendar to check. When the majority choose a different argument or interpretation from yours, you may find yourself looking for a signpost in the scholarly wilderness. People may write a piece disputing your research or contact you directly to express that your conclusions are inaccurate.

In researching historical events and people, none of us will ever know for sure what actually happened. The best we can do is come as close to accuracy as we can with the records and other resources available to us, reach our own interpretations and conclusions, and then always be willing to reexamine them if new records and/or research come to light. This makes research especially contentious, since even something as simple-seeming as an historical birth date can be up for debate.

“Truth is not a democracy”

The subheading is from a seminar I attended several years ago, and was the initial response when an audience member asked a question about when the majority disagrees with your conclusions. It’s a quip that has always stuck with me, because I have found over and over again that just because most people agree on something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best interpretation of the evidence, nor that the others have necessarily reviewed all the records and other evidence that you have reviewed. When I’m contacted by someone who disagrees with my conclusions, my own starting point is usually: Can you please tell me your evidence for your position?

Take the case of the two Simeon Lymans as an example. Simeon Lyman the father was born circa 1718, probably in Northampton, Massachusetts, as his family was living there at the time. Simeon moved to Salisbury, Connecticut, around 1744, as he bought 85 acres on the “highway to Sheffield” from Joel Harvey in that year. In 1747, Simeon was officially admitted as a “resident” of the town of Salisbury according to the town meeting minutes, which included the ability to vote at town meetings. In January 1748/9 he followed these steps with the common next step of marriage. Like most New England families of this era, Simeon and his wife Elizabeth (Beebe) Lyman proceeded to have a lot of children; in their particular case, I have identified nine, including children named after each parent, again as was typical. Their nuclear family was shattered when Elizabeth died in 1773, on the eve of the Revolution. A little over a year later, a Simeon Lyman married an Abigail Chipman in Salisbury.

And this is where the controversy begins.

I had been as thorough as I could, and had also found that a Simeon Lyman had married a Joanna Palmer in 1780. Simeon Lyman the younger was born on 7 January 1754, meaning that he would have been 20 if he had married Abigail Chipman in 1774, and 26 if he married Joanna Palmer in 1780. Is it possible that Simeon the younger married Abigail and Simeon the elder (or some other Simeon) married Joanna? Of course. But it makes a heck of a lot more sense for the widower who still has children at home to remarry quickly and for the young man to wait until he’s a bit more established to marry. And that’s not even getting into the question of ages and how much more sense it generally makes for an older man to marry a woman relatively close in age to him (Abigail was born circa 1730) and a younger man to do the same, and indeed, the Simeon-Joanna pair proceeded to have children of their own. My initial theory was greatly bolstered by reviewing Joanna’s Revolutionary War widow’s pension file, in which affidavits clearly state that she married the younger Simeon.

This has been an extremely basic overview of time-consuming research that I feel is solid. Having noted that most posted research conflated Simeon’s two wives into a single wife (squashing the maiden name of his first wife and the given name of his second wife into a single wife, probably copied uncited from a compiled genealogy that had made the same error), I decided to put a basic sketch of my research on Simeon the elder online, not realizing at the time that it might be controversial beyond the conflated Abigail-Elizabeth question. And that’s when the emails began.

You’ve made a mistake, they said: Simeon the younger married Abigail.

The first time I got one, my initial response was (as usual) to go back over my research to see if I had made an error that was obvious to me. I was relieved when my review confirmed that my conclusions were, to me, solid conclusions based on extensive research and what I considered a preponderance of evidence. However, as I have mentioned, the nature of historical research means conclusions can always change depending on what evidence and research an individual researcher has viewed.

Consequently, I would respond, Can you please tell me your evidence?

They would usually respond, Ancestry. Could you please be more specific? And then I would usually get, U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900. This is an index-only database that is described by Ancestry thusly: “This database contains marriage record information for approximately 1,400,000 individuals from across all 50 United States and 32 different countries around the world between 1560 and 1900. These records, which include information on over 500 years of marriages, were extracted from family group sheets, electronic databases, biographies, wills, and other sources.” None of the entries specify what the exact source is for a marriage, but given that the entry for Simeon and Abigail claims that Simeon was born in 1755 and that Abigail was born in 1757, neither of which is true, I don’t think it is an unfair educated guess to speculate that a family group sheet created by a rather bad researcher is probably the source.

So then I was left trying to explain that I had done hundreds of hours of research on the family and popping a name into an Ancestry search box and coming back with an index-only result is not a substitute for that. Finally I added a note to my posted research that if anyone wanted to contact me disputing what I posted, to please present me with evidence from records, and that I don’t count an unsourced index-only database entry as a record. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but nobody has emailed me since I added that note.

As a final aside on the Lymans in case anyone reached this post through searching on the family, Simeon Lyman the younger carved the powder horn that J. L. Bell blogged about over on Boston 1775 in 2012.

Discovering a new path in the scholarly wilderness

Sometimes something very different happens and you find something that it appears no one else has previously found. Sometimes everyone is immediately accepting of and excited about it. But sometimes not.

Late last year Susan Moore was going through a 16th century record set in England on my behalf and sent me a report about it. I found something in it that I had never seen mentioned anywhere before and was initially taken aback. I first wrote to ask if Susan thought I was correctly interpreting it. Then I checked through published scholarship to see if I had missed its being mentioned, and I could not find a mention of it anywhere.

I am lucky enough to live in a location where I often interact in person with well-established scholars, and I happened to be somewhere with someone who has researched this shortly thereafter, and mentioned it with excitement. It went over like a lead balloon; the response was deep skepticism. After going back and forth about it in my mind a good deal, I decided to try talking to a second scholar before giving up, and their initial response was the same as mine had been – to check published scholarship to see if anyone had mentioned it previously. They could not find anything either. They then congratulated me on making what appeared to be a new find and suggested Susan and I keep plugging away at the research to see what else we could find. (I’m not really sure how I constrained myself from doing a little dance until I was alone.) I readily admit that if the second scholar had similarly reacted with skepticism, I probably would have stopped trying to talk to people about it, although I wouldn’t have given up on the research altogether. Make no mistake that it can be a little scary and/or somewhat intimidating to posit something different than what has been publicly posited before you. Since this experience, I have even more respect for people who have published pieces correcting or disputing previous published research.

I apologize for my vagueness in this part; I hope to be able to publish something about this after having completed further research, and don’t want to spill the beans publicly as a result.

Alone with the research trees

It can be hard to be the one person who doesn’t take your trash cans to the curb on the wrong day, even if you’ve checked the calendar and know that your neighbors have forgotten about a holiday. Similarly, it can be difficult to know that people vehemently disagree with your research, even if you know that your research is as good as it can be and have faith in your own interpretations. In my opinion, part of being a good researcher is being open to being wrong or to discovering new information, and also reviewing your research from time to time to see if your greater knowledge now leads you to question one of your earlier conclusions or realize perhaps there is something you missed reviewing because you did not know it existed at the time. It’s important to read the research of others and to collaborate with others, but it’s also important to remember that others are not necessarily going to agree with you and that this in and of itself doesn’t speak badly of either of you.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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