St. Clair County (Illinois) Genealogical Society (SCCGS)
Tips for Researching Your Ancestor
We learned how to evaluate documents and the information provided within them on the Tips for Researching Your Ancestor page. Now apply those lessons. Read the challenge questions below to
1. Two people died in 1880. Person A's death certificate shows the death date, information was written in by the physician, dated within hours of the deceased's demise, and filed the next day at the courthouse. Person B's death certificate shows the physician filled in the information a couple months after the death, then filed it at the courthouse in Spring some three months after the event. In each case, is the death date primary or secondary information? Direct or indirect evidence? Which document is more reliable?
2. A tombstone displays a death date for a person who died back in 1880. Is the death date direct or indirect evidence, primary or secondary information? How does your analysis of the date change if the stone is weathered? If the monument is from a modern era?
3. Your have two source documents for a person, 1. a death certificate which shows his death and birth dates, each provided by the deceased's older sibling, and 2. a typed transcription of his baptism as an infant which shows his birth and baptism dates. For each source document, classify it as original or derivative. Determine if the birth date is primary or secondary information. Decide which document provides direct evidence of the birth date. For the baptismal document, classify the baptism date as direct or indirect evidence, and primary or secondary information. Do you have different answers for the dates provided in the baptism document?
4. A man appeared on the 1880 census with his wife and his children under age 10. He does not appear with his wife in the 1900 census - you suspect the man died between 1880 and 1900. There is no published tombstone inscription or cemetery record of his death in the entire county. No obituary or death notice appeared in local newspapers. No death certificate was issued.
Based on information provided, classify the probate index and the Memoirs documents as original or derivative. What primary information does each source provide? Which source provides direct evidence of a death year?
Most would conclude the 1889 probate index to be more accurate since it was created closer to the time of the event. If you must stop here, you might write he probably died in 1889, citing the probate case file index for the fact (year). But wait! Good genealogical research requires we perform a reasonably exhaustive search before arriving at a conclusion.
Indexes are pointers to documents, and poor substitutes for the real thing. A missing probate case file does not let us off the hook. So, when time allows, we go beyond the index. Find out if the probate court recorded important case file documents in a record book. If so, search these. Read about the probate process and learn how soon a 1880 - 1890 probate case could be opened after a death.
We try to determine if an 1889 probate case index date could be the year the man died. We ask other researchers very familiar with probate cases from the era, or experienced office personnel, how accurate the 1889 date might be. Lacking either, we study three other probate cases indexed as 1889 and find evidence these men died in 1885, 1888 and 1889, but in each case the final settlement was in 1889. We conclude by this small sampling that the probate office then indexed case files by date settled, not year of death. Our man's case was probably settled in 1889, but he still may have died earlier.
We look at land records to see if our man bought or sold land during the 1886 to 1890 period and discover his name does not appear as grantor or grantee. A city directory shows only the wife for 1891. We determine how many other men by the same name lived in the area, and try to account for their whereabouts after 1889. We are lucky enough to eliminate the possibility a different man by the same name appeared in the probate case file index for 1889. We even check chancery records to see if our man divorced his wife after 1880 - no record.
Now that we've examined a wider variety of sources, we confidently write a more compelling conclusion based on our findings. In the end, you might write the ancestor died in 1887 rather than 1889 while summarizing the evidence that led to this conclusion, all the while attaching a citation to each fact so your conclusion may be reexamined by others should that missing probate case file miraculously reappear.
The St. Clair County (Ill.) Genealogical Society (SCCGS) has many helpful indexes, addresses, and transcriptions online. Church register transcriptions and its Research and Resources... Guide are just a few of the many publications offered by the Society.
SCCGS invites you to join in their efforts to preserve ancestral records for educational and historical purposes, promote genealogical publication of this information, promote the preservation and safeguarding of genealogical data, and encourage the study of family history and teach methods of genealogical research. See links below to learn more about SCCGS, its projects, goals, and accomplishments. Enjoy!
Information may be linked to but not copied. Authorized by SCCGS Board of Directors. Updated 16 June 2012.