Sharon Leslie Howell | Feb 11, 2019

Search all Jurisdictions and Find More Records – Part 3

While searching all the jurisdictions in the life of an ancestor with missing or incomplete information, you are going to need a strategy for keeping track of where you’ve looked and where you next need to look as you do your research. Laurie Werner Castillo has some guidance to make that task easier. 

Castillo’s roadmap for following life events, locating where the records are, and who kept them, coupled with recording what you find in an intentional way as described in “Search all Jurisdictions and Find More Records,” will definitively tell you if you have searched everywhere and found everything there is to find.  

Master list of jurisdictions

Castillo first advises you to generate a master list of jurisdictions. That list might be more extensive than you at first begin with based on what you learn about jurisdictions impacting your ancestor. Starting with a list also breaks your research tasks down into manageable bites and becomes a tool to organize your findings.

Castillo says, for instance, “When a county was formed, the record keepers didn’t carve up the county record books,” so “You need to look for records under the county jurisdiction that was in effect at the time of the event being researched” and that might be in a neighboring jurisdiction.  She also adds, “Don’t be misled if an ancestor lists places according to later years.”

As you develop your roadmap, investigate the history of the areas where your ancestor lived and follow the boundary and name changes for the whole of your ancestor’s life. He may appear to have moved without really changing locations. If records appear to be missing for a town where an ancestor lived that no longer exists, you’ll need to check the district court records, state archives, or other jurisdictions to learn when records may have been transferred. 

Organize your findings

Castillo suggests using a spreadsheet format to keep track of your research.  She likes spreadsheets because “rows can expand to hold as much information you need,” and you can also have as many columns as you'd like to keep track of information. As an example, she uses “name, date, life event, location, and possible jurisdictions” as a header row. She also has a column to check when a search task is complete.

Under the events column, she enters, “birth, christening, 1850 Census, 1860 Census, Civil War, Marriage, 1870 Census, City Directory, Land records…” following a chronological order for what applies—acknowledging that for any life event, there may be multiple jurisdictions to look in based on the historical narrative.

Internet searches

Castillo also says that the Internet can be very helpful for specific places to search, and sometimes direct searches will deepen understanding of what happened to the records. You’ll want to add those to your plan. Castillo suggests you “Google_____ county courthouse,” or “Google _____ county boundary changes,” and see what results are returned. Castillo also suggests you “Google_______ state or county historical society,” or “Google____ regional, county, and local libraries” one by one. You’ll know who kept the records as you learn jurisdictional changes.

Mapping jurisdictional changes

For the United States, Castillo suggests using a “pedigree chart of a county” that maps “when it was formed and from what counties and territories, including when it lost land, when it acquired land, and what significant events caused locations to re-district or move governmental functions."

For mapping jurisdictional changes and learning about places, Castillo looks in historical gazetteers. They serve as a collection of place names and descriptions, with details not found on any map. Many are digitized and online ready to be searched. When you find one, put the county chronology alongside the timeline for your ancestor’s life and compare.

Helpful references

Castillo suggests two reference books for genealogists:

Everton's Handybook for Genealogists contains well-researched histories of each state, state capital, and the territories, with descriptions and addresses for each state's major record collections and protocols for requesting records; this reference is very important for family history research.  

Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources will give you a list of all counties, when they were formed, and how they came about. You will find rich resources of local information including vital records, census, probate, church, military records, and much more.  

Searching all jurisdictions in a planned and deliberate way will make a huge difference when looking for ancestors. According to Castillo, you’ll find many records waiting to be discovered that are “indexed, scanned, digitized, filmed, or published.” If you discard your assumptions and figure out “when” and “where,” and start looking in more jurisdictions, in all likelihood missing information will be found.

Sharon Leslie Howell

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