Creating a Genealogic Biography to Overcome Stumbling Stones


Take an inventory of what you do know about the person.


5 Name

5 Age ____ DOB (if known) __________________

Date of Death (if known) __________________




 Military service. Have you contacted the Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of the War of 1812, Daughters of the Confederacy, VFW or Military Records section of the National Archives in St. Louis MO? Have you looked for land bounties issued by various states for wars fought early in our country’s history? Have you researched their unit(s) to find out the type of battles they might have been involved in and where recruits came from (New York’s militia actually ran out of men and recruited men in Michigan to fight in the Civil War…check out military records with great interest and consult military historians whenever you can)

 What have you found about their previous home(s)? Did they move often or was this the first move in their lives? Have you been able to track their migration, or are there unexplained gaps? Did they move on after settling in Bay City for a time? Where did they go? And why did they leave? Were there other relatives who traveled with them, or were they setting out on their own? Did the economy or employment play a role in their migration? Was there a famine, fire or a plague in the area before they left? Was the area threatened by war, terror groups (like the KKK) or was the town not friendly to "people like them"?

 Did your ancestor buy property here? If so, have you pulled land records from the Recorder of Deeds office or a copy of his/her will from the Clerk of the Court? Who were his neighbors and who owned the property next?



Consider the source(s) of your knowledge.


  1. Are you working from credible, independent sources….or are these family tales that have been passed down from older relatives? Ask around, especially to neighbors and long-time family friends to see what others know about your family. Family members do mean well, but I can’t tell you how many families have been telling the tale that their ancestors were from "Alsace-Lorraine", while they were actually French-Canadians with Norman roots. Find out what others know and see which doors you can open through new channels.
  2. Are you working from census records? Spellings of the names of foreign-born residents are so unreliable. Census takers did not care if they got the spelling right. They cared that they got the count right. Later census records were more detailed than early census records; but the state censuses were great at tracking migrations and giving a fuller understanding of your ancestors and their culture.
  3. Does the name sound too "American" for a non-English immigrant? Check linguistic guides to see what the name would translate back to in their native tongue. If the name you are looking for seems to come completely out of the blue, take a good look at it and try a phonetic pronunciation. Work from there to find alternative names/spellings.
  4. Does the record show a nationality you are unfamiliar with? German Poles were actually "Prussian" as opposed to Galician (Austrian Poles) or East Prussian (Russian Poles). Belgian Dutch is actually "Flemish". Holland wasn’t a country anymore than Friesland or Utrecht. All of these are provinces of the Netherlands.


When you run out of "official" sources, get into the head of your ancestor and figure out what their weekly routine would have been. Did they go to church every Sunday? In most of the Christian world, the church was the center of the community. In traditionally Catholic countries, the Catholic Church was the official keeper of records.


When there is no birth certificate in the county, a baptismal certificate will be the next best thing. When a person died, a minister or priest usually presided at the funeral. Unlike their lives in Europe, a clergyman rather than a civil registrar married most Americans.


Check with the churches and parishes in the area to see what records are available. In Bay County, the earliest churches were Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Catholic. Some have better records than others. But they are the best records we will be able to find on the pioneer families.


Are you considering your ancestor’s religion based on your own or that of other relatives? If so, you may be taking yourself down a difficult road. When the religious choices were slim, those who were devout would find an alternative to their own faith. There were no Independent Southern Baptist churches in Bay City in 1858. Could your ancestor have tried one of the Mainline Protestant churches that did exist? Is it possible that he married a Catholic and the children were baptized at St. Joe’s and not at Trinity Lutheran?


What were the ethnic traditions of this person’s time?

Bay City was one of the most ethnically segregated towns for most of its history. The Polish settled in the South end and Beaver township. The Dutch lived in Hampton, Portsmouth and Monitor townships. French Canadians lived on The Banks, in Hampton township, and throughout the first and second wards. Germans lived in the Salzburg, Bangor, Merritt and Portsmouth areas. Germans who did not speak Polish were not quick to warm to Germans who did speak Polish.


Was your ancestor from a country with more than one language?

Belgium has two official languages, Flemish and Walloon…say what? Oh…that’s Dutch and French dressed up in official terms.

Switzerland has French, German, and Italian-speaking regions.

Poland was partitioned for most of the years of emigration to America. Galicians were different than Prussians, who were different than Lithuanians or Byelorussians. But all would be considered "Polish" in records The difference is whether they spoke German, Hungarian, Croatian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, or Russian. It is also a difference on when they were allowed to immigrate and where they sailed from on their trip to America.


Look at not only names as you pronounce them today, but also look at them from a phonetic standpoint.

 Just as Americans have interesting accents, so did our ancestors. The ability to join the "melting pot" depended on your ability to "sound American". Maybe our ancestors were not quick to shed accents, but they were quick to adapt their birth names to fit the linguistic abilities of their neighbors.


Create a biography of the person you’re researching based on the details you know for certain…

…Then pass it around.

Put it in writing. Take your time and pull out all of the details you have been carrying around in your head and commit them to paper. Don’t include guesses or folklore. Just include the facts. Then hand that biography to a critical-thinking friend who will ask question after question to help you flesh it out. If that’s hard to find, ask an English or Social Studies teacher to read it for you and make comments, ask questions, and question the accuracy of your information.


Clean up your records and make sure you have the right records attributed to the right person.

Yes, it seems obvious, but accidents can happen. If you’re not a "paper person" see if you can find a friend to work with you who will help keep you organized and keep you honest.


Contact the town historian where your ancestor came from and see if there is any information on the family or if anyone has done a local migration project.

You are not asking the historian to do research for you, but rather to point you in a new direction. They know their town, their county and their state. They know who lived there and when. They know changes in the local economy and the level of education or skill that local residents had at various points in time. Most importantly, they know who has done good research on local history and can help you find the books, manuscripts and scholars who can shed light on your ancestor(s) for you.

© 2006 Jan Nearing, LaMere Consulting, Midland, Michigan. All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2012 all rights reserved Jan Nearing
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