Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Finding Oscar; a Case Study

Genealogy 101, by Barbara Renick
I took so many notes when reading the library copy
that I ordered one of my own for reference
(Available as a paperback or in Nook and Kindle editions)

I've been reading genealogy books and studying about finding my family roots. Here are some of the things I've learned about the process of finding ancestors:

  • Organize and look over the material you already have 
  • Decide on what needs to be researched
  • Always be skeptical of published information
  • Use primary sources, especially those close in time to the event being described
  • Evaluate your results, then...
  • Go back to the beginning and follow these steps again (and again...)

All of these steps came into play when I looked for my great-grandfather, an ancestor previously known as Mr. "Unknown" Ellis. My family could tell me that my father's mother's mother was Ellen (maiden name unknown, according to my mother), and that she had married a Mr. Ellis, and that they had children named Eva (my grandmother), Oscar, Eddie, and Nellie.

That was it for Mr. Ellis--no birth date, no birthplace, and no parents. So I began learning about the people close to him in order to find out more about him, an approach called cluster genealogy. Here is what I found.

First, I discovered that Mr. Ellis' wife, Ellen, was born Ellen Healey. I found this information through some very fun detective work involving an inheritance, funeral home records, and probate files. That's a tale for another time.

By searching for Ellen Healey Ellis in census records, I found the entire household in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1900. Included were names (Mr. Ellis was actually Oscar J.Ellis!), ages (Oscar was 47), and birthplaces (Oscar was born somewhere in Maine, as were both of his unnamed parents). The census record also included Oscar's occupation ("Livery stable"), years married (15), children born/children still living (9/4), and Ellen's birthplace (England) and the birthplaces of her unnamed parents (father in Ireland, mother in England). It was a gold mine! Because of the numbers given, I could now estimate Oscar's year of birth (around 1853), as well as birth dates for everyone else in the family and an approximate date of marriage for Oscar and Ellen. I was really starting to be able to picture this family, and I had lots of leads for researching about them.

By using an estimated birth date from the census record, I found the birth record for Oscar's daughter, [another] Ellen M. Ellis. It gave Oscar's birthplace as Smithfield, Maine. So now I knew enough to do some good searching for a birth record for Oscar.

I looked and looked for an Oscar [J.] Ellis, born in Smithfield, Maine around 1853, plus or minus several years. No luck. Then I discovered that there was a problem with Maine vital records. According to the Maine State Archives:

Before 1892, records of births, marriages, and deaths were kept by the towns and cities of Maine. When, in the 1920's, the State requested copies of pre-1892 vital records from the towns, only about 20 percent responded.... During the 1950's, representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints microfilmed town vital records in Maine, although not all towns were covered.

So, I resigned myself to having to order either the LDS microfilm of the records, or another microfilm I found containing town reports, which contained vital records. BUT FIRST (as we like to say in our family)...

Having evaluated the research I had done, I thought I should go back to the beginning of the
process and look at my own file for Oscar again. And there it was--a single sheet of computer printout from 1999. Way back then, I must have looked for "Ellis" with a birthplace in Maine with some wildly estimated year (I can't say, because I didn't take very good notes back then) and found a record for an Oscar Ellis, born in Smithfield, Maine, in 1853, son of Robert W. Ellis and Eleanor Rankins. There were birth dates, birthplaces, and parent's names for both of Oscar's parents (my great great great grandparents)! At the time I originally printed out the page, it was only mildly interesting, because I had no idea this man was anyone I was looking for. However, armed with the new information I had about his date and place of birth, not to mention his first name, I could see that this was probably my Oscar.

My problem was now that I couldn't replicate the results of that search, and my piece of paper had no source or URL (another lesson learned!). It did, however, say that these were "IGI Records." I looked that up and found that the International Genealogical Index was a user-submitted family history database that came from personal family information submitted to the LDS Church, and vital and church records from the early 1500s to 1885. The Index was discontinued in 2008, but was still searchable online. My Oscar came right up when I searched for him in the IGI Archives online, along with a couple of generations of ancestors! Perfect. However, the source given for all this information was a rather unsatisfying and inexact phrase: "Parish Records." Whose? Where? When? Can I access them?

Well, I'm an amateur genealogist now, like it or not. I'll have to see the records myself so I can properly cite the sources and documentation for all these "new" potential family members. I'll still need to search census records and town reports and will probably end up borrowing some microfilm at a Family History Center. However, I just found out another way to access early Maine vital records. Stay tuned...


  1. But first... you're going to leave us hanging? Cruel.

  2. Well, Oscar isn't going anywhere!

    1. You never know he might. Boy does that become a search when that happens.


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