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August 2012 Newsletter

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Ask the Genealogist


I am stumped. I have my "Fernald" ancestor living in Kansas, but one census said that my ancestor was from New York and the other said he was born in Massachusetts. What do I do now?


Like any good mystery you need to gather the conflicting facts and clues, sort them out, and see which ones point you to the correct answer. Here's an approach that you can use in many of your searches.

First: Complete your search in GenealogyBank by looking for all "Fernald" obituaries, marriages, etc., for persons living in Kansas. What clues do you see? Do any of them mention your target ancestor? Do any of them mention a town in New York or Massachusetts?

Second: Do you have the marriage or death certificate for your ancestor? What clues do they give? Place of birth? Names of his parents? These basic documents can give you the critical clues you need to push back a generation to see where the parents were living, or give you an out-of-state location to begin your search.

Third: Have you checked the church records for the church they attended? Often when a new person or family is "admitted" into membership in a local congregation, the minister will note in the congregation's minute book where the person moved from or which congregation they previously attended. Often there is an entry showing that the minister examined the person's baptismal certificate, noting where it was performed—or a letter from the previous minister attesting to the person's character, etc. Since Protestant churches expected a person to be baptized to become a member of the congregation, the new person needed to show when/where they had been baptized. This can be a great way to chain a person's moves through their life. This information is usually recorded in a volume of "Admissions–Demissions" to the church membership, showing the move-ins and move-outs from a congregation.

Fourth: Examine the probate records of the county where they lived. Look for all "Fernald" probate case files, not just the one for your target ancestor. You are looking for any mention of your ancestor as well as documenting all "Fernald" families in the area. Since this is a less common surname, you should be able to map out every household so that you can see if there are any family connections between them. Important: be sure to ask for the "probate case file." Not everyone had a "will," so if you ask for a copy of the will the county clerk might respond by saying that the county does not have your ancestor's "will"—and you might miss the rest of the paperwork that is filed when a person's estate is probated. Probate cases generate a lot of paperwork, whether the person had a will (testate) or did not have a will (intestate). So, be sure not to limit your request to just the "will."

You want to move from the "known" facts—usually more recent information in Kansas—before going back in time. It will be tempting to start identifying all "Fernald" families in New York and Massachusetts, and that effort will not be wasted. But you want to begin by concentrating your search on the records in Kansas, looking for concrete facts and clues to help you focus your out-of-state searches on the correct location.

Start with these four areas of research and let me know what you find.