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.
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
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
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
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,
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 Ancestry.com.
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
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.