The Worth of An Ancestor
by Ruby Coleman
Finding dates, events and places in the lives of ancestors is not as satisfying as learning more about them. The further back you research the less likely family stories will have survived and there will be fewer personal documents that can be located.
To learn more about your ancestor's life style, look at the documents that were created during his or her life time. Old tax lists often provide limited information, but you may learn how many horses or cattle they had, or if they were taxed on a dwelling. If your ancestor disappears from a tax list, he may have died or moved. Another possibility is that he was no longer being taxed because of his advanced age.
When somebody is missing from a tax list, red flags go up for more research. Check the county land records to see if he sold land. Look at cemetery and probate records to determine if he died. Locate the county court records to see if he was dismissed from paying taxes.
In some cases people were given special privileges from not paying taxes if they were unemployed or disabled. These are usually shown in court minutes. Court minutes and tax registers also show the names of people who were insolvent and could not pay taxes.
What was happening in the county, state and country when your ancestor was alive? During hard times, land was mortgaged or sold. Be sure to check land records to see how your ancestor obtained the land and when he sold it or mortgaged it. Did he make money or loose money in the transaction?
Newspapers reveal information that cannot be found elsewhere. Don't just browse the paper looking for your ancestor's name. Read the paper! What was happening in the town or county? Look at the advertisements and drawings of old clothes. Compare the prices for commodities from year to year. This was "new news" while your ancestor was alive.
Thought limited to the specific enumeration visit, census reveals a good deal of information. Real estate values are shown on U.S. Census records for 1850 through 1870. Cash values of farms was reported on agriculture schedules from 1850 through 1880. The censuses of 1900 through 1920 asked if a person owned or rented their home or farm and whether it was mortgaged. Personal estate values were shown on census in 1860 and 1870. In 1860 the value of slaves was included in the personal estate column.
These will fluctuate from one census to another. However, a sudden increase in real estate may signal that your ancestor inherited land or property. The selling and buying of land will result in changes. These are more difficult to follow in ten year intervals, but they do provide information about how an ancestor was living. When looking at your ancestor's real estate and personal estate values, look at the other people in the area. How does he compare to them?
State censuses were taken by some states and often in the period of time between each U.S. decennial census. These are helpful in bridging that ten year gap. Some states also took agricultural censuses in conjunction with these enumerations. Your research is not complete unless you check all census records.
The census from 1850 to 1930 also provides occupational information. One of the most common occupations was farmer. That may not have been your ancestor's only occupation. Perhaps he was a preacher and farmer or a farmer and carpenter. Females were generally shown for many years as house keepers, meaning they kept house in their own homes. Gradually they took on other roles in the work force. Look at your ancestor's occupation on the 1930 US Census. Within a few years he or she may have registered for a Social Security number.
Probate files, both testate and intestate provide beneficial information and financial background clues. Don't stop with the last will and testament or even with the distribution of the estate. Look at the inventories and estate sale papers.
The inventory of the estate of John Zerung, dated November 1773, is filed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His land records and the location of his land in Pennsylvania suggest that he was a farmer. The estate inventory presents additional information. Along with the traditional farm equipment and household goods he owned, are listed among other things, 5 dozen lamps, one dozen spades, 200 flints, 7 pair of pistols, half dozen testaments, 2 dozen silk handkerchiefs, 3 books called the Wonders and Doctrine of Zion, 2 dozen Reformed hymn books, 2 dozen Lutheran hymn books and 300 whet stones. The abundance of items suggests that Zerung had a store or mercantile business.
It is important to locate as many records and documents as possible about your ancestors. Walk a mile or two with your ancestor and learn about their worth.
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