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Volume 4, Number 11 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 July 11, 2012
Author's Notes In this article we discuss trying to find someone that we think should be listed in the records, but we can't find them. I always try to cross reference the Census, Tax Records and Deeds from around the same time to verify whether someone lived in a particular area or not. Many times the names can be spelled several different ways and may be leading you in the wrong direction.
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James L. Douthat
My Person Isn't There!
We have all had the experience of looking for our ancestor and being unable to find them in the record we are searching. We know they were there at the time, so why aren’t they listed? They say the best way to hide something is in plain sight. Many times our ancestor is hiding in plain sight and we just have to discover their hiding place.
The first thing to do is to verify our records and make sure they should be in this place at this particular time. Nearly all of our ancestors left many different records that can be searched. In most normal cases, we should be able to generate several records in place and time so that we know they should be there.
After we verify they should be present, now study as many possible spellings of the name as we can. DO NOT get hung up on just one spelling for any name. There are multiple ways to spell every name, whether it is correct with your spelling or not. There is no standardization for the spelling of names. We all know that Smith can be spelled Smith/Smyth/Smythe, etc. I just completed a set of Militia Records for over thirty five years for a county and some names appeared each year in that listing. In many cases, they were spelled differently every year. Sounding a name out loud will frequently clear up the mystery.
If you are dealing with tax records, the likelihood of a person missing is less likely than if you are looking in the census. The census frequently did miss persons and even some of the most important persons in the county at the time. As these collectors of information traveled around the county seeking the persons from whom to gather the information, they could easily miss them at their home. The census taker sometimes would go to the nearest neighbor to gather what they needed. If they happen to get a child, they might get the correct information or they might not.
When I have to start with the census, I always hold that information at bay until I can verify it with other records. This is when I like to go to the Tax Records taken about the same as the census. If you are lucky enough to find a tax listing for the same year as the census, take a few minutes and tabulate one against the other. This is a quick way to verify the workmanship of the census taker. The tax collector is normally more accurate as many of the early collectors were paid per head in their records. Generally they will not miss someone, but it can happen.
The Deed Records are fairly good for this purpose as well, especially if it is indexed to every name in the book. Remember that not everyone owned property, but everyone is somewhere in the county at the time. These non-owners are frequently referred to in the text of deed as living next to so and so.
Now where are your missing ancestors? My first guess is in a mistaken name spelling. Many of the earlier clerks and assistants spoke different languages and heard words pronounced in different ways, therefore, they will write down a different form of the name. Case in point was my ancestor named Matthias Painter. He signed a deed in Rockbridge County, Virginia as written. However, the clerk writes in the margin of the deed, “he signs in English Matthias Painter, but in German it is Mathias Bender.” Probably the clerk was German in background and he knew the correct spelling of the name, but not in English. This happens very frequently when you are dealing with German to English names.
In all likelihood, your ancestor may not have known how to read and write, so they left it all up to the clerk of the court to write things down as they would hear them. It is our job now to decipher what the clerk meant from many years ago.
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