Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I just have to vent - Illinois is not a fun state to work with!

I'm sorry. I really am. But I am going to have to use my blog to vent out some personal frustration I experienced today. At least it's genealogy-related. I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before, but I'm a volunteer for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness for my local Illinois county. If you're not familiar with the site, take a look here . It's basically a site where people who need lookups or research help can hook up with a someone who volunteers to help for free. It's based on geographic area so it makes it pretty easy to find someone where you need them.

I usually just get obit requests but I finally had to take that off my offerings because I was getting more than I could keep up with since I don't live in the town with the big newspaper microfilm collection. So my requests have gone down a bit but at least they tend to be a bit more interesting. This time though, I got flooded with marriage lookups and was anxious to see how things went. If you recall my experience with another IL county Courthouse while I was doing one of the NGS Home Study Course lessons, you may not be surprised to hear the answer.

Today was really just another reason why I can't stand doing work in Illinois. It literally makes me want to pull out my own, that's not exactly true. It makes me want to pull out the hair of the courthouse employees who are denying me access to records that are in an officially "open records" state. My goal today for all of the requests, was to make sure the records they wanted were actually there and to get a sense of what kind of info would be available to them if they decided to order the copies. Sounds reasonable right? I'm not asking for anything that anyone could deem private, especially since the most recent marriage lookup was for a marriage that occurred in the 1920s. Apparently the Clerk's Office employees didn't agree with me.

First, the security guards at the door to the Courthouse wouldn't let me bring in my camera. Ok, whatever. I'm down with security so if they feel like my Canon Powershot is a threat to someone fine. So I took it back to my car...which was parked back in the parking garage.

Then, when I get to the Clerk's Office, they have a receptionist that told me they had an index for the older records that I could look in. Yeah, that didn't happen. I know what she was talking about. The index to marriage records going up to about 1915 are supposed to be open public records, available to view. They even say so on the Clerk's website. Apparently nobody else knew the deal because they looked at me like I was sprouting marigolds out of my head. So that's strike two.

When I got to the employee with all the information that the receptionist made me write down, she took her time ending her conversation with the employee "working" in the next cubicle, then took the forms and started getting down to business. Until she saw that I had written N/A on the line asking how many copies of each record I needed. Again, she looked at me as if I was sprouting something out of the top of my head. I told her I was doing lookups for other people who just wanted to know if their records were actually there and whether there was additional information. Her concern was apparently that I wasn't planning on purchasing any of the records and made a look at the lady next to her and said "Can we do that? Just look up records if she doesn't even want to buy any of the copies?" When the lady finally said yes, she could, she just couldn't give me any of the information but they could at least check for them, she promptly turned her computer screen away from me so she would be sure I wouldn't see anything and then minimized her window as yet another preventative measure. Unbelievable!

One of my requests had a date range of about 10 years for the date of the marriage. She wouldn't give me a closer range to help my requester out with her own request for copies. But then, when I told her that most of the people I was trying to help out live out of state and may want me to come back and purchase the copies for them and asked what I would need so that they would release them to me, she actually said that "the records are open to the public so just come back, fill out the forms, and pay."

So yeah, all that cloak and dagger stuff to supposedly protect identities when in actuality, they just don't want to release information that brings them income. I cannot express how livid I was. And to make matters worse, this is not the only Illinois county that I've experienced this attitude with. To be fair, it may just be a greater Chicago-land area problem since I seem to encounter this issue more with counties here in North Eastern Illinois rather than further South. I had a much more successful visit a couple years ago when I visited a more rural county further away so maybe that's it; the closer you get to Chicago, the worse time you're going to have trying to access things.

Or maybe it's just me, maybe I am actually starting to grow a flower garden out of my head!

Monday, April 25, 2011

When shared information doesn't add up, Part 2

So up to this point, I'd been relaying the background on a Williamson family that I have been tracking in Parke County, Indiana. New evidence seems to be pointing to Greene County, Tennessee as their place of origin, or at least, where they lived before moving on to Indiana. To begin my search there, I started looking at the message boards looking for others who may have already dug up some useful info on Williamsons who may have been living there at the same time as Clement. All of his known children claimed Tennessee as their birthplaces and this group goes back to 1817 so I knew that I should be able to track them there at least that far, and thanks to, I was able to locate an exact marriage date for his presumed daughter, Elizabeth Williamson, and her husband, George Basinger, who were both mentioned in Clement's probate file in Parke County as heirs. With all of the information I collected, it set up an estimated birth date for Clement between 1780 and 1790. I didn't find anyone of that name mentioned in the Greene County, TN message board, however, there was another Williamson found of a comparable age. Thomas Williamson married a woman named Kezziah in Greene County and had several children. More importantly, he left a will which named several heirs. There were quite a few posts from people claiming to be descended from Thomas and considering the closeness in age, I thought that perhaps he could be a cousin or brother. So my first question to the message board was if anyone had done any work on Thomas' extended family, including siblings. I didn't get an answer to that, but I did get a response from someone who had some information to share, though none of it was sourced. What she told me points a big fat red flag at the current state of Williamson genealogy.

It appears that Thomas Williamson named a daughter in his 1836 will named Elizabeth. More importantly, Thomas' descendants are attributing that 1831 marriage between Elizabeth Williamson and George Basinger to the daughter of Thomas, not the daughter of Clement who they may or may not have known about in the first place. Now this creates a problem because either there were at least 2 Elizabeth Williamson's living in Greene Co, one a daughter of Thomas and one a daughter of Clement, or there was just one, the daughter of Thomas and upon his death, Clement adopted her or at least took her into his own family and from there, they left for Indiana where they continued to live in close proximity to one another.

So which one is it? Were there 1 or 2 Elizabeth Williamson's? And if there were two, which is which?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

When shared information doesn't add up, Part 1-the background

One of the projects I've been working on lately has been on rebuilding the family group of the Williamsons of Parke County, Indiana. On my most recent trip to Rockville, the county seat, I was fortunate enough to find a probate file for a previously unknown Williamson in the county which included a list of heirs which included both my ancestor and a man I suspected to be his brother, as well as others that I hadn't known of before. This gave me several new leads to follow so I've been keeping busy trying to figure out where each new piece fits.

I started working with this family about a year ago when I was able to take my line back to a William Williamson, born abt 1825 probably in TN, and died in Parke County, IN in 1858. William's file provided some indirect evidence of a relationship between a Conrad Williamson who was only about 2 years older than William and who petitioned the probate court on behalf of William's widow and called himself brother to the deceased (though I do know that that is not always to be taken literally in early legal jargon, it did point to a relationship of some kind). He too was seen in census enumerations with a Tennessee birth place and that, along with the closeness of age and the petition made a pretty good case for believing Conrad could have been William's brother. So since both had been born in Tennessee, the task was to find out when they came to Indiana and where they came from. I ran into a brick wall.

The probate file I found a couple weeks ago was for a Clement Williamson who died about 1843 (the early probate files rarely give the exact date of death so you usually have to go by the earliest document found in the file to get an estimate) which explains why he didn't show up when I had been seaching for other Williamsons in the county in the 1850 and 1860 censuses. The probate file names his widow as Mary, who is shown in the 1850 census still living in Parke County with her family, and cites William, Conrad, Henry, James and George and Betsey Basinger "formerly Williamson" as heirs.

Clement did show up in Parke County in the 1840 census, along with a household which included 1 male aged 15-20, 1 male aged 5-10, and 1 male 50 to 60. The male aged 15-20 fits the age William would have been at the time and also fits knowing that he didn't marry until 1843. This means the male 50-60 would be Clement himself giving him a birth date estimate of 1780-1790. Directly above Clement's household in the census is George Basinger including a female, aged 20-30 which fits in with "Betsey's" birth date range when tracking her to the 1850 census. Clement Williamson is not found in Indiana in the 1830 census, however, there is a Clement Williams found in Greene Co., Tennessee in that year with a family group fitting. Thanks to, I was able to see that a marriage took place in Greene Co., TN in 1831 between Elizabeth Williamson and George Basinger (which also tells me that the family was still in TN at the time of their marriage). Also found in 1850, living with the widowed Mary, was James Williamson, age 20, which fits in with the male living in Clement's household in the 1840 census and Henry Williamson, age 32.

So from this, so far I can pretty confidently set the family up as Clement and Mary as the married couple, with William, Conrad, Henry, James, and Elizabeth/"Betsey". To find out more about Clement, I figured I needed to start looking at records available in Greene County, Tennessee. So I headed over to's message boards and started searching for Williamsons in that area. I was fortunate to find several posts regarding a Thomas Williamson there who appeared to be of a comparable age to Clement. Here is where things start to get sticky...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Don't forget to check the backs of those documents

I just wanted to pass along a tip that I sometimes forget about. When you've got a loose document from whatever kind of file, be it a military pension, immigration/naturalization pages, or probate files, be sure to turn over those pages and check the backs for extra info. It may seem unnecessary or unlikely but things can turn up there. It's just like covering all your bases when you're on the trail of someone you're tracking in a family tree.

To show the point, a couple weeks ago in Indiana I had a probate file of someone I'd never heard of before, but he had the same surname the subjects of my research. The family was one that I was looking to rebuild before even attempting to go back another generation, and when I saw the name and date of death of this new person, I was assuming it was probably a sibling or possibly a cousin to my subject. When I started looking at the actual pages in the probate file though, I found a pretty complete family tree on the back of a random sheet of paper that in itself didn't tell me a thing about who this person was. Without looking at the back of that paper though, I wouldn't have been able to figure out that this person was actually the father of my subject! The sheet named his widow as well as my subject, along with his siblings. Some were known, others were not. I now have the name of my subject's parents as well as confirmation of the siblings for him that I did know and a whole slew of new ones to track around for more info. From these names, I've also been able to take the family group back to a county in Tennessee - information I didn't have before.

Check the backs of those documents! You never know what you're going to find!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Probates can help you, so use them!

I've been trying to get more work done on my Parke County, Indiana indexing project over the past couple of weeks, and came across a great example of the random kinds of information you can find in probate records. And not just those probate records of your ancestors, the probate records for your ancestor's extended family, neighbors and associates. I'm talking specifically about the those treasures known as probate packets in Indiana. I've found that not every state has maintained these and while things like probate order books and court order and estate books are pretty commonplace and can definitely help you when you're looking to verify a date or to confirm various time frames especially well, these ledgers do not include the actual sheets of paper that were shuffled around while the case while was open. That's where the packets come in and these little gems are probably my favorite part of working with Indiana genealogy.

I've posted before about the great luck of finding evidence of an ancestor's extended family on things like receipts found in the packets, but this new example that I found was one that you probably wouldn't normally find. In the probate packet for a decedent there is a letter from the administrator asking to resign his position. In doing so, he also requests that the editor of a local newspaper (which is named) stop printing that he is still in the position and taking care of the estate of the decedent. That's the first bit of great evidence found in this one sheet, because it tells the researcher where they can find printed evidence of the death and if there are still copies of that paper, they can get a copy of the ad. That's not all though. At the bottom of the sheet, the administrator also gives his reasoning for resigning his position by stating that his wife was very ill. Now this could have just been an excuse for him not wanting to deal with settling all of the debts of the deceased, but if you are, by chance, tracking the family of the administrator and find that his family has a woman of a certain age living with him in one census year and then that particular tickmark is missing from his household in the next enumeration, you may have just gotten a clue to the approximate date of death for this man's wife.

The problem with this kind of random information however, is that when people are looking through these packets, they are more than likely looking at only those packets for their subject. In the above example though, the information is pertaining to the administrator. If these packets had been indexed already, we could probably assume that they would be indexed only by the decedent and unless you knew previously of a relationship between the two parties you wouldn't think to check that packet if you were tracking the administrator. Fortunately, these packets have not been previously indexed and in the current format for the spreadsheet, we're including the date of the box where the packets are located, the name of the decedent, the approximate dates of the case, the name/s of the administrators/executors, and the names of heirs with their relationship to the decedent when given. Currently, the indexing is going into an Excel spreadsheet so when people go to search the spreadsheet, they will be able to search however they wish so if they are searching for info on a particular person and that person shows up as an administrator or heir, in addition to being the decedent himself at a later date, all of those entries will appear.

So the lucky researcher who is trying to find information about Cornelius Corkins, for instance, will find out a lot more than when he served as administrator for John Wilson, Sr. Maybe I'll get lucky and find some more great info like this as I wade through all of these packets.