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  • Thinking Genealogically #1: Follow the Money

    Lora Pallatto

    When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were chasing down Watergate information, “Deep Throat” suggested that they “follow the money.” Turns out that’s very good advice for digging up information about your ancestors, too.

    When money changes hands, a record of the transaction is made. When someone owes money, there’s a bill. Whether you have money or you don’t, there are usually records to show it.

    Our ancestors bought insurance. They paid taxes. They went to court to obtain judgments against people who owed them money. They staked claims for land or mineral or water rights. They stayed in hotels and used transportation. They invested in companies. They joined groups like the Masons or the Grange or the Elks or the Oddfellows. They donated to charities and helped to build hospitals and libraries. They bought cemetery plots and tombstones. They gave money to religious organizations. And as often as not, somebody made a record of these events as soon as a payment was made. If they didn’t pay money they owed, there’s a record of that, too!

    A Reflection of Daily Life

    Financial records paint a vivid picture of a person’s way of life. They can give an indication of what was meaningful and important to your ancestor. They can also reflect the tenor of the time and place your ancestor lived.

    After you have discovered where your ancestors lived, their vital statistics, and the names of their children, you may gain a clearer understanding of their lives and experiences by discovering how they spent their money. If you are having trouble finding out the basics, then maybe financial records will help you pinpoint an ancestor who was missed or erroneously recorded on the census.

    As family history researchers search for evidence of their ancestors living in a particular place at a particular time, it can be helpful to “think genealogically” about who was interested in keeping track of financial transactions that affected your ancestor.

    Government Records

    • Taxes: Government – whether it is federal, state, county, or local – lives by the taxes it takes in. Businesses and individuals pay taxes and are listed in public documents. When the census fails you, be sure not to overlook all the tax records in the area where you think your ancestor was living. The government office that has taxing jurisdiction (often a town hall, occasionally a county records office) has public records of all taxed individuals. Check in with the tax assessor or town or county clerk to find out where the records are kept.

    • Town Meetings: If your ancestor was active in local government, litigious, a colorful character, or wealthy and philanthropic, you just might find a mention in the minutes of a town meeting, especially if they paid a fine or donated money to build a library or a new firehouse. These public records are usually found in town halls under the watchful eye of the town clerk.

      When doing deed research in a Connecticut town hall I came across records of town meetings, one of which included the local list of members of a Committee of Safety formed before the Revolutionary War. Also included was the letter written by them in solidarity and support of the citizens of Boston who were protesting the British Stamp Tax.

    • Deeds: The grantor-grantee books in your town hall or county courthouse may hold the name of your ancestor for the purchase of land, a mortgage, or a quitclaim, which can release property from encumbrance, a mortgage or division of property. Combined with probate records, these books may hold clues to family disputes, inheritances, and familial relationships.

      A trip to Ohio brought me the answer to a question I have asked for more than thirty years. Where did my ancestor Hugh Gallagher come from? Family stories were vague and mysterious. One relative said he was English. Another said he was Scottish. It turns out a deed shows that Mr. Gallagher, who died in 1849, “mistakenly believed that as a native of Ireland he did not have the right hold title to land in the United States,” and therefore had asked another man to keep the deed. Upon his death that man put the property back into the hands of the Gallagher family, and the reason for the confusion was written there in black and white in the deed, telling me for certain that Hugh was born in Ireland.

    • Court Records: Probate records often include an inventory of belongings, which often can give a glimpse of the everyday life of your ancestor, and names of heirs. Guardianship records can indicate relationships between neighbors who turn out to be in-laws. Other court records may show lawsuits, contracts, or agreements that involve monetary considerations, the parties involved, and the amount of the final judgment or settlement.

      I discovered what appeared to be a divorce record in the 1890s between a Roman Catholic husband and wife who divided all their assets according to a contract that was recorded in the town hall. The contract spelled out the relationship between the wife and her grandchildren, and the fact that they were not heirs of her husband, their step-grandfather. Aclause in the contract stated that it could not be challenged at the probate of the estate of either spouse, and that was upheld by the probate court when the husband and one daughter did try to do so shortly after the wife died. The couple remained married in the eyes of the church, but their finances were totally divided in the eyes of the law.

    Business Records

    • Cemetery Associations: Cemetery records, besides indicating who is buried where, often identify who bought the plot, when it was purchased, and how much was paid, and possibly even a copy of the obituary from the local newspaper.

    • Insurance Companies: Was your dearly departed ancestor’s life insured? If so, there is likely a record of the policy, which will include whether it was ever paid out, if it was paid, to whom it was paid, and when. It may be difficult to discover the name of the company, and even if you find that, you may have to do some gymnastics to find out who has the files if the company no longer is in business.

      According to the 1997 revised edition of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, insurance companies may not do the research for you, but they are known to allow you to research their archived records if you are able to show proof of descent from the individual in question. Once you discover these records, you may be in for a treat – beneficiary information may indicate a familial relationship.

    • Banks and Savings & Loan Institutions: Immigrants may have found established banks intimidating. They may have felt their “own kind” would be more trustworthy. Groups of people who shared a common heritage created savings associations that catered primarily to people from particular neighborhoods, often in large cities. In any event, savings institutions have lists of contributors that can connect a family with a time and a place.

      The National Archives has microfilmed records of the "Freedman's Savings and Trust Company" (series M816) along with an index (series M817). This company was chartered in 1865 by Congress to benefit former slaves. The information from these records includes (depending on the branch) name, age, birthplace, residence, name of former master and of parents, spouse, children, and siblings (p. 345, 1997 revised edition of The Source A Guidebook of American Genealogy).

    • Public Utilities: Even if your ancestors didn’t own the property they lived in, the family was taking baths, turning on the lights, and paying for the privilege. If your ancestor was living in a city or large town in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you may be able to find a name and street address among the customers of the local utility companies (water, sewer, electricity, telephone), especially for the years around the missing 1890 census. Call the corporate headquarters for the utility in question to find out who handles archived records and what records might be available. Some archivists will permit you to do research yourself on-site.

    • Pension Funds: Do you know where your ancestor worked? Did he or she have a pension? If the census shows your ancestor was a railroad worker, chances are there is a record of a railroad pension. Check the Railroad Retirement Board, 844 N. Rush Street, Chicago, IL 60611-2092. You will need to provide the person's name, position, and the railroad where they worked, as well as the time period.

      Military pension files are available from the National Archives Records Administration.

      Company files are often kept in the private archives of the company itself, or in those of the plan's administrator. A letter of request for documents, particularly the application, should include the name of the person, date of birth and death, and time period when they were working for the company. Unions may also have pension archives. A good resource is A Guide to the Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs by Warner Pflug (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1974).

    • Travel Records: Did your ancestor have wanderlust and the money to fund it? If you remember hearing stories about Uncle Will, who stayed in the Dorchester Hotel in London in 1884, see if you can check it out. You might find Uncle Will’s name in the hotel register or on a London-bound ship’s list of passengers for that year. Although this may seem like a far-fetched record to go after, you may make a connection with other relatives when you discover who else made up the traveling party.

    • Periodical Subscriptions:

      If your ancestor purchased a subscription to a magazine, records will show how much was paid, where your ancestor lived, and how long they were interested in a particular subject. Searchable databases with subscriber information from the 1700s and 1800s are available on

    Other Institutions

    • Charitable Institutions: Donors are thanked in a big way, particularly when they contribute to the building of a church, library, hospital, museum, or other civic building. Every donation is meaningful, whether large or small – and everyone’s name appears on the organization’s master list. Was your ancestor an fan of the arts? Longtime local philharmonics often have historic archives of their programs, in which donors’ names will appear. Newspapers may also list the donors for particular civic philanthropies.

    • Schools: If money was paid for an education, your ancestor’s name is still in the school’s files, even if they didn’t graduate. Schools are in the business of verifying information about their students, alive or dead. You need only to write or call them for the information. There may be a fee if you need a certified copy of the person's transcript.

    • Newspapers: The business section of a local newspaper describes business achievements, financial transactions, awards for salesmanship, investors in new business ventures, and donors to charitable causes.

    Thinking Genealogically

    When you are working to document the events in the lives of your ancestors, you may need to expand your list of resources beyond census and vital records. One way to do that is to stop and think about who might have wanted to make a record about your ancestor, and why. Money is the most common reason for making and keeping records. Use that knowledge to your advantage to build a rich picture of the life and times of the people who inhabit your family tree.

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