How to Pull All the Clues from a Genealogy Source

If you have a habit of looking at a genealogy source, pulling out the fact that you were looking for, and then moving on, you might be leaving a lot behind. Here’s how to pull all of the clues from the genealogy sources you’re using.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 62

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 15 minutes.


Genealogy sources are a lot like ducks on a lake. Ducks look so calm and serene above the water, but there’s really a lot going on below the surface. With our sources, something as seemingly straightforward as an obituary or a census record has a lot that’s just right there on the surface, but there can be a lot going on if you look a little bit deeper. When we take that closer look, we might find the answers that we’ve been looking for. Even when we don’t find those answers, this deeper look can help us brainstorm for more places that we can go look for those answers.

How Can We Get More From Our Genealogy Sources?

First think about what you’re using. Are you using the actual record or are you using just an index? I see a lot of people on social media asking about what a record means when all they’re looking at is the results page on Ancestry or FamilySearch rather than clicking through to the image of the actual record. The same holds true for databases. Are you looking at just a database of marriage records that’s been compiled by a local genealogy society or are you looking at the actual marriage record? There’s a big difference between those two things.

Understand the Source and How It Works

Looking at the actual record is just one part of getting more from your sources. We need to understand that source and what it’s telling us. Why was it created? How does it work with other records?

Think about naturalization records. In the U.S., the process of becoming a naturalized citizen is a two-part process. First, the immigrant would a declaration that they intended to become naturalized. Then after a period of years—usually five depends on the time period and the law in place— they could make their petition to become naturalized. Then that petition would either be approved or denied.

The information on these various papers varies, especially before 1906, when naturalization forms became standardized under what was then called the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. I’m not intending for this episode to be a primer on using naturalization records, but it’s an example of how knowing more about the source that you’re using can lead you to other records. If you find your ancestor’s declaration of intent, there could be a petition to naturalize later on. And vice versa: If you have found that petition, there should be an earlier declaration at some point.

Another type of source that has a lot going on is probate. If you’ve used the probate collections on Ancestry or FamilySearch, you might have come across a record in something called a docket. It will have the person’s name and a reference to another volume and page number. You could just attach that docket to your ancestor’s profile and move on, but that docket isn’t intended to be a standalone record.

A court docket is essentially a table of contents for a particular court case. It will reference all of the volumes where a part of the proceedings for that particular case happened. In the case of probate, it might reference the will book, where the inventory was recorded, the final distribution of the estate, or perhaps when guardians are appointed to the minor heirs. That’s the stuff that you really want to get into. That’s where the meat of the record is happening. Stopping with just the docket would be the same as looking at the table of contents of a book, but then never turning to any of the things listed in that table of contents. Understanding what a docket is—and isn’t—will help you use that record more fully.

It doesn’t have to be something complex like naturalizations or probate records where we can use a better understanding of the source. Even something as seemingly straightforward as the census often has more than meets the eye. (Here’s where that analogy of ducks on a lake really applies!) Think about the federal census: a list of names and some information about the people in the household. There’s a lot of information there, but it might not be everything.

For example, in the 1850 through 1880 censuses, the Census Bureau asked other questions that aren’t on the “regular” part of the census. That part of the census that we use all the time is technically just one schedule of the census, called the population schedule. Those other questions in the 1850 through 1880 censuses are on separate schedules. For those years there are schedules for agriculture, industry/manufacturers, even mortality. (Yes. There are census schedules that record information about dead people.) In 1880, there’s a special schedule for those who are noted in the population census, the population schedule as being blind, deaf, or infirm, and that schedule can have tons of useful information.

Pulling More Clues From a Specific Record

Once you have a good understanding about a source, what about that particular record that you’re using? Have you identified all of the people and places mentioned in the record?  Who are they? how do they fit in to your ancestor’s FAN club (the friends, the associates, the neighbors)? How do those places fit into your ancestor’s timeline?

Something that’s usually overlooked when trying to pull more clues from a record are the verbs. Verbs are words that indicate your ancestor doing something or being something. Spotting the verbs in a record can help you brainstorm other records to go look at. When a person does something or is something, that’s when records can be created.

Think about something as mundane as the 1850 federal census. My ancestor Henry Kingery was enumerated with his family in Windsor Township, Lawrence County, Ohio, in 1850.

1850 census showing Henry Kingery and family in Lawrence County, Ohio
1850 census, Henry Kingery and family, Windsor Township, Lawrence County, Ohio. Image courtesy FamilySearch. (Yes, it says “Ringers.” It really is Kingery. Yes, it was fun trying to find this family.)

Pulling out the verbs in Henry’s record:

  • He was 44 years old.
  • He was a farmer.
  • He owned $600 worth of real estate.
  • He was born in Virginia.

All very nice pieces of information, but let’s look at it more closely. He was 44 years old. Was is a verb. Put that together with the statement, “He was born in Virginia.” Now we could restate that as, “He was born in Virginia around 1806.” That’s too early for civil birth records in Virginia, but it’s something to keep in mind for later. His age also tells us he’s old enough to be on voter lists and he’s likely paying personal property tax. So there are a couple of other records that we could look at for Henry.

He was a farmer. There’s the 1850 agricultural schedule, which details livestock and crops that farmers were raising. I could investigate finding that schedule and learn more about what Henry was doing as a farmer. What did he raise? I could also try to find newspapers and see if they ever report the price for crops.

There’s also that statement on the 1850 census that he owned $600 worth of real estate. Bingo! Land records. He owns that land. How did he get it? How did he get rid of it later? He should also be showing up on the real property tax lists. The statement that he owned $600 worth of real estate opens up all kinds of research opportunities.

When we take the time to get to know the sources we’re using—understanding their purpose and how they fit in with other records—taking look at the people and places that are mentioned, and really pondering the facts that are presented (with the help of the verbs), that’s when we can get the most out of the sources that we’re using.

Want to get more out of your Ancestry subscription? Check out my upcoming “All About Ancestry” Workshop!


Posted: April 11, 2021.

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  • I am grateful to have found your site and to learn from you. I cannot buy the $27 a month membership, though certainly it is worth it, but still want to thank you for what I can learn without payment. I have been struggling to learn how to do genealogy for a few years now, slowly it’s making some sense here n’ there.