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Probate Records Often Tell a Different Story

A Lost Generation and Family Line

Early on in my research I simply accepted census records as accurate. I made the assumption that all "families" listed consisted of spouses and their children, unless the census designated a different relationship to the head of the household. Many years later, I discovered that those assumptions can cause you to misinterpret a census record and in consequence a whole family. In this instance a generation was lost and the search for a family line.

This is the Story of Abel Lewis

In the early days of my research I did what I think most of us do when we are "newbies." We assume that the census is correct and that the family listed is a father, mother and children. And generally that is correct. But I have learned that we should always check other sources to be sure we know what we are talking about.

You know the excitement of finding a new generation in the census. How you rush to add this new set of ancestors to your charts and your family tree. I did that.

I knew my 2gr-grandmother was Martha Jane Lewis, wife of Jeremiah Castleberry. My grandmother and her cousins knew their grandparents. My grandmother grew up in the house with them and she related those stories. She was almost 15 when Martha died. But she never talked about Martha's family. She had Lewis cousins. She showed us pictures.

One of my early research efforts was to look for Martha's parents. I knew that she was from Coosa Co, Alabama. She and Jeremiah married there, so it was the logical place to look for her parents, as most young women married in the county they lived in.

Sure enough, I found her in the 1850 census with her parents Abel and Elizabeth Lewis. The family looked like this:

Abel Lewis, 35
Daniel Lewis, 14
John Lewis, 12
Martha Lewis, 10
William Lewis, 7
Columbus Lewis, 5
Andrew Lewis, 2

So I jumped right over to the 1860 census and there was the family again. By this time, Daniel, John and Martha had all married and had families of their own. Daniel had 2 children, John had no children and Martha had 2 children. Daniel, John Martha and Abel were on two consecutive pages of the census, so I was sure this was the family I was looking for.

Abel and Elizabeth's family looked like this in 1860:

Abel Lewis, 45
Elizabeth, 45
William, 16
Columbus W., 14
Andrew C., 11
Mary, 9
Amanda, 7
Lovedy, 5
William Knight, 21

1860 US Federal Census, Coosa Co, AL, pg. 75.

I dutifully recorded the additional children: Mary, Amanda & Lovedy. That was in the 1980s. I was happy with my results and moved on to other ancestors.

When I began my internet searches, I found that all researchers of Abel Lewis had the same information I had, so I felt that I was correct in my records and continued on with ancestors who were more challenging.

And Then the Probate Records Came Into Play

In 2005, I decided that I should verify all my Castleberry & related lines information. I ordered microfilm from my local family history center. In 2006, my sister & I took a trip to Coosa Co, Alabama and looked at court records. Since I knew I had access to the microfilm through the family history center, we only looked at criminal court records since they hadn't been microfilmed [That's another story.]. When I returned, I continued to order and review film. There was a lot to look at since my ancestors lived in Coosa Co from the 1830s to 1901.

As I looked at probate records I found Abel Lewis's probate. There were 47 pages of records covering the period from 1863 to 1872. As I was reading the pages, I was shocked to discover that for over 25 years, I had been wrong about the members of Abel and Elizabeth's family. And so was everyone else. I felt as though I might be the only descendant who had actually read Abel's probate.

Twice in the probate records, it stated that Lovedy Lewis was the granddaughter of Abel Lewis and the daughter of his son Daniel.

Following are excerpts from my transcriptions.

Coosa Co Probate, Vol 9, pg. 721:

...according to Law; and the said J.F. Hurst, Esqr heretofore appointed Guardian ad Liten ...[for] Loveda Lewis ... GrandDaughter of said decedant [sic] & daughter ... of Daniel Lewis deceased____ minor heirs...

Coosa Co Probate, Vol 10, pg 165:

...and the following minors Laveda Lewis daughter of Daniel Lewis decd...

Abel Lewis Probate, Coosa Co, Probate, Vol. 9, pg. 721 & Vol 10, pg. 165
Rockford, Coosa Co, Alabama

So I checked the 1860 census records again and Daniel's family was listed as this:

Daniel Lewis, 22
Martha E, 27
Mary J, 3
Minerva, 1

So the questions became:

1.    How did I make this error?

2.    Why did Lovedy not live with her father?

3.    What happened to Daniel?

I'll start with question # 3. It's the easiest. Daniel was one of the 600,000 casualties of the Civil War. He died of pneumonia.

Question # 2 continues to be a mystery. What is most likely true is that Martha E. was not Lovedy's mother or Lovedy would have been living in Daniel's home. Not the only scenario, but the most likely. For a quick synopsis on this issue:

®  There is no record of another marriage for Daniel.

®  I haven't determined if there was a paternity suit against Daniel, if it is assumed that Lovedy was born out of wedlock.

®  I have no clues, as yet, who Lovedy's mother was.

Question # 1 is the most distressing for me. I can plead "I was a newbie," but that is a pitiful excuse, since I never questioned the relationship even after I knew that census records can be misinterpreted.

I followed the logic of "what is normal." I never questioned that a 40 year old woman was still having children. After all, if you look at the age pattern of the children in Abel's household they are all 2-3 years apart in age, following the "norm" of one child every 2-3 years. Add to that the "norm" that a woman could have children after 40, especially if she has been consistently bearing children up to that age. And all of these children lived in Abel's household. So therefore, they should all be his children, right? And there was the flaw in my thinking. Not taking into account that while everything looked normal and right, it might not be and therefore, I should verify the relationships through other documents.

What I Learned

1. I learned that I should only read the data that is recorded in the census. The data in the census only states the answers to the questions that were asked at the time and in 1850 and 1860 censuses relationship to the head of the household was not one of the questions.

2. I learned that if I only have census information, I should not assume the relationships of the individuals in the household.

3. I learned that I should always look for corroborating evidence for any document I find.

4. I learned to always view census information with some skepticism knowing that I need to verify the information.

5. I learned that with only census data, I should state in my records that the relationships are unverified. The only true fact is that they live in that household.

6. I learned that just because other researchers all have the same information doesn't make it the correct information. I should always proceed as if there was information yet to be discovered.

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History Can Provide Your Answers


As a native Texan, I know what this means. I grew up hearing about it and it was part of my 7th grade Texas History class. But I had never seen it in a written record until I went to Coosa Co, Alabama to research my ancestor, Jeremiah Castleberry.

For those of you who may not know, "GTT" meant "Gone to Texas." I am familiar with this term, but decided to conduct a search on it anyway.
Randolph B. Campbell in his book Gone To Texas states:

"Gone to Texas." These three words--often abbreviated "GTT" on the doors of abandoned homesteads across the southeastern United States during the 1830s and 1840s--provide a key to the story of Texas from prehistoric times to the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Online Handbook of Texas says this about GTT:

GTT. The initials GTT ("Gone to Texas") came into use in the first half of the nineteenth century, when Texas had the reputation for producing and harboring outlaws. The letters were often chalked on the doors of houses in the Southern states to tell where the occupants had gone, but the exact date at which they came to be a synonym for "at outs with the law" is not known. Frederick Law Olmsted, in his Journey Through Texas (1857), says that residents of other states appended the initials to the name of every rascal who skipped out, and that in Texas many newcomers were suspected of having left home for some "discreditable reason." In 1884 Thomas Hughes, in the preface of his book G.T.T., observed, "When we want to say that it is all up with some fellow, we just say, `G.T.T.' as you'd say, `gone to the devil, or `gone to the dogs.'"

I knew that "GTT" was painted on the side of buildings and written in books and that it usually meant a hasty exit. What I didn't know was that it stemmed from two different sets of events.

The First "GTT" Migration

One was the Panic of 1819. This was the first serious economic downturn that the United States had ever experienced. In 1820 Congress passed the Land Act of 1820, changing the rules for acquiring land. About the same time, the Mexican government offered free land in Texas. The Spanish had been unsuccessful in getting large settlements in Texas for a variety of reasons, so free land was offered to "Anglo" settlers from Europe and the United States. It was a perfect match. Mexico needed settlers and US citizens needed new land and a place to start over during the economic recession in the US. So they migrated to Texas, leaving the letters "GTT" on their barns and houses so their friends and relatives would know where they had gone. From 1821 to 1830, approximately 10,000 settlers migrated into Texas.

The Second "GTT" Migration

The second set of events that created mass migration to Texas was the Civil War and the difficulties imposed on Southerners during Reconstruction. With culture and economy of the culture crushed at the end of the Civil War and during Reconstruction, many people from the Deep South, especially Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi left the South. Their primary points of destination were Texas and Arkansas.

Three things had happened to make Texas attractive to those needing a new start. The end of the Indian wars in Texas came in 1875, when the last of the Comanche's were captured and sent to reservations in Indian Territory. The railroad had expanded and it was easier to travel. Lastly, Texas still had vast areas of unclaimed land. Unlike the states east of the Mississippi, there were huge tracts of land as yet unclaimed, which could be had for free or for very little money.

It is estimated that over 100,000 whites migrated from the Deep South into Texas and large numbers of former slaves migrated into Texas for the free land. They had been promised free land in the Southern States, but that never happened, so the Freedman's Bureau encouraged them to go to Texas.

This was the era in which my Texas families came to this state. They came from Missouri, Arkansas, and Alabama during the years from 1870-1920. And Jeremiah Castleberry left a pension record in Alabama that indicates that he has "Gone to Texas."

Why Jeremiah and His Family Migrated

I have family stories that Jeremiah and his family moved because the land had been divided too many times and there was not enough left for he and his grown children to farm. Another family story suggested that Jeremiah left Alabama because he had committed murder and had to flee the state. That would fit with the story of individuals who left for Texas in a hurry. But I have researched the murder story and that wasn't why he left. And then there is the fact that his son-in-law, Henry Miller, had family near where they settled. And perhaps he came because of men he met during the Civil War. The cemetery he is buried in has a large number of former Confederate soldiers buried there.

The more logical explanations fit the historical events in post-reconstruction Alabama--the poor economy, the weariness of the land, the abundance of land in Texas, whose economy was burgeoning in 1904 when the family migrated to Erath Co. And while he didn't leave "GTT" emblazoned on his home (at least as far as we know), he did leave a record as being one of the 100,000 or so individuals who left the South and came to Texas.

What I Learned

I learned that when I combine the records I have collected with the stories I know and add the historical events associated with that time and place, I can find explanations for my ancestor's migrations.

I learned that even when I think I "know" the history I should still do some additional research to be sure all my facts are straight and that I have all the information that is available.

I learned that my memory is not as good as it used to be, so now I check all my facts before committing them to paper.

Click here learn systematic ways to find answers to your genealogy question.


Tracking Your Ancestors

A Family Chronology

William Lynch Couch Family ca. 1899
My Couch family line meets every couple of years so family researchers can share what we have learned. We know that most of us are cousins because some of the men have completed a DNA profile and they fall into the same Couch DNA group. The rest of us can track our ancestry through the records to the same ancestors as these men. Our challenge is to find records to prove who our immigrant ancestor was.

We have all collected a lot of data and need to see how it all fits together. So I decided to create a chronology or timeline of all the data that we have and see if any ideas or clues are generated from that data.

I want to do this because over the years I have found that a chronology provides me with a complete picture of everything I know about a particular ancestor and his family. I include in my chronology the source of each fact that I have.

A Chronology is a Tracking Tool

Now you might ask how this is considered "tracking." Generally tracking means that you can follow your ancestor's migrations from one location to another. With the chronology, I can track their movements as they move from one location to another and I can track their activities within each community they lived in. Therefore using a chronology helps me track several things about an ancestor and his family.

First, it helps me keep my facts straight--what happened, when it happened, who was a part of the event and where I got my information. I can also use a comments section for details and notes I want to make about the event or data.

Second, it provides me with a quick reference of all the information I have collected on a particular ancestor and his or her family.

Third, it tells me what data I have that is substantiated by records and what data is from a secondary source and will need verification. It also tells me what data I have that I may never be able to prove and what data may be totally bogus.

Fourth, it tells me what data I have that may conflict with other data that I have. Since I have attached an abbreviated version of my source, I can compare the quality of the sources and then may be able to decide which source is more likely to be correct.

Fifth, it tells me what data I have yet to collect. I leave rows blank for the basic information such as birth, marriage, census years and death. It is easy for me to see what I haven't filled in yet and what source information I need to collect.

A Chronology as an Analytical Tool

A chronology can also be used as an analytical tool. When you organize your data on a person you can see the conflicts in information that you may not have noticed before. It can help you pinpoint the discrepancies or missing information in your research.

You can collect a set of data about a particular issue that is unresolved and organize it chronologically. By doing this you can tell what information is in conflict, what information may not be valid and what additional information you may need to collect.

Using a chronology I have been able to demonstrate that one of my ancestors had to have had 3 wives rather than the 2 known wives. A 15 year gap in the birth of the children provided evidence that the first known wife was actually wife # 2. While it is possible that there was some very unusual circumstance that could account for a 15 year gap in the birth of children by the same mother, the more likely scenario is that there was a first wife who was the mother of the first set of children. When she died the husband remarried and had another set of children.

Using a chronology I was able to organize my facts to help settle a family dispute. Researchers were in disagreement over the first wife of a common ancestor. I made a quick chronology of his grandfather's and his parents' marriages--both substantiated and speculative to determine where to look for his marriage record. I included the data about his marriage to both women. I included my sources and evaluated the data. With this quick chart I was able to determine where the marriage most likely occurred. I found an index and ordered a copy of the marriage bond from the county. It told me that if anyone had ever looked for or found the marriage record they did not indicate so in their sourcing information. By the way, since I didn't want a certified copy, it only cost me $1.64 to get the copy of the marriage bond from the county, $1 for the copy, and two 32¢ stamps--one to send the request and one for the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope.)

I learned that a chronology helps me keep my data organized by providing a ready reference of everything I know about any particular ancestor.

I learned that I can add any information I have to the chronology. It doesn't matter if the source is questionable. I still have information available to me for evaluation and comparison to other information that I have found or will find without adding to my family tree.

I learned that using a chronology can help me analyze conflicting data.

I learned that a chronology can help me identify missing information about my ancestor and help me determine possible locations and types of records where that information might be found.

I learned that a chronology is an easy reference to show the migration of my ancestor from place to place.

I learned that a chronology provides me with a picture of what my ancestor's life was like by having all the events in their life arranged in the order in which they occurred. This gives me a feeling of knowing them.

Click here to learn more about developing and using a chronology.


Share your comments about this article or the ways in which you track your ancestors.

The Local Library is a Genealogist's Friend

The Local Library

After I learned to read I became a voracious reader. I was always at the Bookmobile (a mobile library, for those of you too young to remember them) or at the public library to check out several books. So it was natural for me to want to see what my local library had to help me with my genealogy research.

I was fortunate that the Amarillo Public Library had a good genealogy section. While it was not as large as others I would visit later, it had plenty of resources that helped me advance my research.

From the beginning, I have always gone to the local library to see what information they have. Some places I have been to have no local library (something I consider quite sad.) Others have had large genealogy collections.

What I can always count on is that the local library will have a information on the local history and frequently have other unique resources that you cannot find anywhere else.

Ft. Smith, Arkansas

On my first genealogy research trip, my mother & I went to Ft. Smith, Arkansas to research her mother's family. In addition, to the visit to the courthouses (most Arkansas counties have 2) and the cemeteries, we visited the local public library.

The genealogy collection was a large room with books, microfilm, maps--all the things that I, as a researcher, get excited about finding. I want to see everything!

As I cruised through the stacks, a set of books caught my eye. There were three volumes of records from a local funeral home. On the inside book cover was a note explaining how the library acquired the records. A family bought a house and while cleaning the attic, they came across these three books. Rather than toss them like so many would do, they donated them to the public library.

I don't know how much they have helped others who have looked through those pages, but for me they were a treasure.

Anna Katherine (Schleicher) Kaiser

My gr-grandmother came to the United States with her parents, Henri Kaiser and Anna Katherine Schleicher in 1876, when she was three years old. They were German and came to settle in Ft. Smith. I am still not sure why, but I know that they were poor, as my gr-grandmother was a maid in the home of her future husband.

The funeral books had the funeral record for both of her parents. It told me just how poor they were. Anna's funeral was paid for by a man whose relationship to the family is still unknown to me. Henri's funeral was paid for by the Lutheran church.

The records are simple with just a date, their name, age at death, where buried and items, services paid for, which were the minimum and the cemetery where they were buried. Anna's funeral cost $25 and Henri's was $32.50.

"Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get."

This line from the movie, Forrest Gump can be well applied to a local library. When you enter those doors, you have no idea what tidbits of information or clues you may find.

Here are just a few of the "tidbits" and clues I have found in my visits to local libraries:

®  The "other" occupation of one of my 3rd-gr-grandfathers.
®  A 2nd gr-grandfather filed for bankruptcy.
®  A 2nd gr-grandmother died as a result of pneumonia as a consequence of injuries suffered in a tornado.
®  A copy of a local history that is the only record of my ancestors in a county where the courthouse burned to ashes and there are no records left for the time they lived there.
®  The court record book for an apprentice assigned a 3rd-gr-grandfather, which stated my ancestor's occupation and residence at the time. (The county didn't have room to keep this first volume of records, so they gave it to a local, private library.)

What I Learned

I learned that a local library will have information on the community they serve.

I learned that I should be prepared to bring my own copying equipment, just in case the library doesn't have any. That actually happened to me in one county library.

I learned that I should always have change for copies.

I learned that while I may not find the answers to my questions, I will always find something that is useful or unexpected.

I learned that I should set aside one day of my research time for visiting the local library.

I learned that the size of the city is not necessarily an indicator of the size of their genealogy or local history collection.

Whether you are new to genealogy or experienced, check out these tutorials.


Share what you have found in local libraries that helped further your genealogy research.