Empty shelves? Few of us are lucky enough to have many physical records that are older than a generation or two. So we have to go hunting, and typically find after speaking with relatives we quickly hit that first wall which sends us to a genealogy site to help us. Soon there are new walls, or we are overwhelmed by the numerous potential people all sharing our ancestor’s name in the local area, and are unsure of how to isolate our ancestor.
This is a perfect time to look through information contained in records beyond what is available on searchable databases such as with Ancestry. Many of the following are able to read in part or in full, and sometimes for free. Unfortunately you will find that you can only access certain information by travelling and physically reading the items, or paying for a reproduction of the material – and its freight – so you can read it at home, but sometimes we’re lucky and for less than a plane ticket can pay to download it to our computers – wonderful!
Remember, even if a record does not reference your ancestor or his kinsman it can still be enlightening about what life was like in their immediate area. This can be as valuable as the names themselves. By understanding how their local area was broken up into named smaller pockets or villages that no longer exist, you can better begin the process of elimination. For example, a parish record noting Mr X was not simply buried, but was noted of a specific mill, farm or part of the village, you may be able to see via old maps and census information a clearer picture of whether whether Mr X, Y or Z was the patriarch of your great grandparent’s home.
- Early books about a town or area can be full of facts, perceptions, and illustrations which even if not about your ancestor can provide wonderful insight into the place and time they lived in. Some have pedigrees but be aware, that while many are correct you will find that there can be errors and omissions so it’s best to try to locate records from B.D.&M.’S or legal documents such as rolls (see below) to support information. If available in a text format, old books and documents are more easily searchable by using the “Find” option in your browser – key in the place or family name and the information is very quickly scanned for results. Be sure though to then read properly what exactly is being said – context is everything. Bookmark or save to ‘favourites’ the webpage so you can revisit and reference it if required.
- Old maps can be a goldmine of information showing former names of villages and regions, landmarks, old mansions, estate names, mines or mills since filled in or demolished where your ancestors may have worked. Some even show the names of woods, farmlets, springs and pockets of land which had names at that time but not anymore.
- Old newspapers can offer more than information in stories and the classifieds. Advertisements may refer the family’s workplace or own business, giving addresses and even some illustrations.
- Lists of benefactors, and those directly involved in building schools, churches – any other public works – and even sometimes the official gardener can be found mentioned in reproduced books online or websites about the history of the building or local area.
- If you’re looking in England also refer to Domesday, the Visitations, occupational directories, hearth tax records, reports after a disaster, plague outbreak etc. I found a very detailed account after an outbreak of disease that focused on the area within one km from some ancestors that gave valuable information about the living conditions and the area.
Legal records, from court cases to land transactions give more than context but sometimes name an ancestor or their kinsman as a witness, plaintiff or defendant. These may be more recent and readily accessible, but before newspapers there was still a wealth of information being recorded.
- Manorial Records include books, documents, maps, surveys, legal matters and court rolls within the administrative area governed by the manor. A manor was not simply a landed estate, mansion with the immediate surrounds, but the area and communities well outside it that its Lord ‘governed’. The boundaries could be very large and irregular so well worth finding out exactly what manor a village or town you’re interested in was in rather than assuming. You can determine from them names of men on juries and witnessing deeds that they were free men, what was regarded as an offence and responsibilities of various office bearers. Legal documents relating to changes in ownership or rent of land, or paying heriot – payment made on the death of a tenant, usually by an immediate family member – can give insight into relationships.
- Get to know some of the terminology, and keep a list of words with explanations handy as you continue to encounter them. The Bailiff for example oversaw the day-to-day running of a manor, and being a form of public office he had to be a free man, not a villein. A villein was a tenant who occupied land but conditional to their performing services for the lord of the manor – they had no rights and could not even marry or leave the manor without permission.
- Search online for Rolls that cover the area where your ancestors lived. There are several types, and they reference – grants of property which are witnessed (charter rolls), grants of land and wardship (patent rolls), grants of marriage and wardship (fine rolls) and close rolls which reference enrollments of private deeds and writs. While this may sound like difficult and tedious reading, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can decipher and discover many of the goings-on in the neighborhood directly effecting your ancestors, or even naming them.
- Countries other than England have no shortage of such records, and through historical and genealogy associations’ website can advise what they have and how you can access it. With Google Translate there is no excuse to say you can’t read the language!
- Many old books and documents (reproductions) can be purchased from specialist suppliers and sometimes through Amazon and Ebay. Choose carefully and with purpose to ensure you are not disappointed by buying the wrong volume and thus the wrong time frame, or that the very same book is already in your own State Library. I have nearly done both, realizing a potential error just in time!
A broad range of records is more likely to reveal specific names you’re seeking and enriches your understanding of your family’s passage through history.