We were talking about census records last time, and the time before, but this time I want to reconsider some of those easily-made mistakes which trip up our research. I have many examples from personal experience and all illustrate the need to consider the sources, know the lingo and PAY ATTENTION.
For example: I had a third great-grandmother whose birth name seemed to be CREWS. There appeared to be a marriage record which linked this woman to my known great-grandfather, Thomas SHERWOOD. I found two secondary sources which showed this, but could find no supporting evidence for her birth name.
Another puzzle prompted me to write to the local genealogical society and inquire about a possible relative named Jackson Evans. He was referred to in a letter to my grandmother as "your uncle," and I had no clue as to his actual relationship.
It turned out that he was the brother of great-grandmother Elizabeth, whose birth name was actually EVANS. Happily for me, there was a researcher in the society who had done much work on the family, and was able to send me much documentation. When I finally did get a copy of the marriage license, I found that EVANS, as it was written, could easily be misread as CREWS. The moral: go to the original, and try to find others doing research on the same line(s). [Secondary sources often repeat each other's mistakes, as you may well know.]
Another example: when I read in a probate record that assets were being left to "the estate" of three children (the mother and presumed heir having died), I thought it meant the children were also deceased. BUT, in fact, estates can be assets of any person who has a guardian – in this case, the children! This prompted me to continue searching for them. (Still working on this one.) A good guide to legal terms is Barbara J. Evans's A to Zax : a comprehensive dictionary for genealogists & historians.
I am so pleased to be able to use Ancestry.com at the local library, and over the last few weeks have found some tricks that might help you make the best use of your allotted time. I print up sheets with my research questions on them, but of course when seeking specific individuals in a list of marriage, birth, death or census records, it is inevitable that I come across others with the same surname, and have trouble deciding whether it is worth the effort to copy down their details. A state-wide marriage index for instance, may show people from near and far, when I think I only want to look at a handful of counties. BUT, how do I know those couples didn't marry across the border? If their names are in the form I recognize, that is no problem, but what if they are using nicknames, middle names, or initials I haven't seen before? Or the transcriber misread the original record?
And what of the many other CAINs I came across in unfamiliar counties? It was a fairly prolific family, so some of these could be in my line. I will be sure to carry state maps with county outlines, next time I look at these Ancestry files. People didn't pay much attention to nearby county – or even state - lines when they were going about their daily lives. I have many Cains in Vigo Co IN who are buried in Clark Co IL and who appeared in census records on either side of the state line. While familiar with the location of those two counties, I had not paid much attention to surrounding counties – until I found a Vigo Co couple who married in Clay Co IN even though they seem to have resided in Vigo Co most of their lives.
To the above suggestions: consider the sources, know the lingo and pay attention, I would add: know the territory.