To help guide beginning genealogists through the wealth of information, below is a list of questions to consider when sifting through primary resources.
What is the Person’s Name? Write down all possible names. Did the person go by a nickname, by initials, by a middle name? Some people are listed by different names on each document! If female, what was her maiden name? Of special note, some American Indian ethnicities chose new names to reflect a life changing experience. Likewise, ex-slaves sometimes chose surnames other than their most recent owner, and some changed their first name to indicate their new status. These name changes became solidified by 1870. Immigrants sometimes changed names as well.
What are the Person’s Birth and Death Dates? This helps clarify which John Smith you’re looking for. Compare the birth dates to her/his parents’ marriage dates to ensure you have listed the correct parents.
What was the Cause of Death? May indicate a family-linked disease or allude to a historical or life event [war, logging accident, etc.]
What are the Person’s Birthplace and Death Place? This may provide information about the family’s migration patterns.
Where was the Person Buried? People are usually buried near their relatives and in places with special meanings, like a church, religious cemetery, or the family land.
When was the Person Married? Make sure you locate all marriage dates. Compare to dates of children’s births. You may find another marriage or an illegitimate birth.
Was the Person Divorced? Divorce has been around for centuries. North Carolina divorce records are available at the State Archives and they list reasons for divorce and include spouses’ testimony.
What are the Names of the Person’s Children? Record children’s names and birth dates. Since people tend to name their children after family members, this may clue you into past generations. Some families use a special ancestor’s name repetitively.
Where was the Person Educated? Elite mountaineers sometimes attended college or finishing school. Public and private high schools dotted the Appalachians too.
What was the Person’s Religion? Which denomination they attended tells you a lot: church records and tombstone can be a source for information, and their denomination may also indicate something about their social status. Church records usually contain baptism date and lists of elders. Some denominations also record birth dates, parents’ names, marriage dates, death dates, etc.
What was the Person’s Occupation? Most mountain men were farmers but some held a public position such as preacher, teacher or merchant. Women usually ‘kept house’ but a few had occupations, such as farmer or laundress.
Who were the Person’s Siblings? See “Children”
What was the Person’s Race? Some Caucasians are surprised to learn they have African or American Indian ancestry while blacks usually realize they probably have Caucasian and American Indian blood. Prior to 1850, the census choices were listed as white, free person of color [which included mixed Indian-Caucasian people], and slave. After 1850, the Free Census choices were white, black and mulatto. The slave census choices were black and mulatto. Tribal Indians were not considered U.S. citizens and, therefore, were often not listed on the U.S. Federal Census. Mulatto is defined as the child of a Caucasian and an African descendant; however, anyone of dark skin color, such as Indian-Caucasian mixes, assimilated American Indians and Mediterranean descendants, were sometimes recorded as mulattos.
What were the Names of the Person’s Parents? This gets you to a new generation. Now, start all over!