In Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned and Relying on One Source Type, we discussed the pitfalls that family historians can unknowingly fall into. Another very common mistake is rushing back too quickly in an imagined race to find direct ancestors. This more often that not creates research challenges. Below we share better principles to follow in discovering ancestors.
Create a Timeline
In the beginning stages of researching Presiding Elder and AME minister, Lafayette Franklin Vance (1861-1952) of Cokesbury, South Carolina, oral history was plentiful but the documented details about his life were very sketchy:
These are the details as shared by his granddaughter:
Lafayette Franklin Vance
- had a brother named Calvin, youngest sibling
- Lula Johnson, second wife, along with children’s names
- Sister of Lula, first wife, along with children’s names
- Martha Gage Vance, third wife, no children with Lafayette
- preached in Columbia and Eastover, South Carolina
- lived on farm in Gadsden
- children attended Allen University
- traveled to other states (TN)
- built and pastored churches in SC
- died in 1950’s
The first historical record discovered was his death certificate where his death date was confirmed (September 27, 1952). Much of the information that his granddaughter shared also matched the information provided by his son on the death certificate:
According to the death certificate, Lafayette was about 88 years old when he passed away which means he should appear on the 1880 Census. At the time this research was being conducted, the 1880 Census was the only census accessible online for free on FamilySearch.org.
A search of the 1880 Census revealed Lafayette for the first time living with his parents whose names had not been identified. He was in the household with most of his siblings. After tracing each person using census records, delayed birth records, oral history, and death certificates, a more complete timeline took shape:
Lafayette Franklin Vance
1863 Birth of sister, Charlotte Vance Marshall
1865 Birth of sister, Arie Anna Vance Johnson
1879 Birth of brother, Earl Calvin Vance
1883 Marriage to Nunia Johnson Vance
1884 Birth of son, Eugene Lafayette Vance
1886 Birth of son, John Waymon Vance
1887 Birth of daughter, Daisy A. Vance
1890 Birth of son, Andrew Lykes Vance
1892 Birth of son, Henry Vance
1893 Birth of daughter, Maime Vance
1895 Birth of son, Ernest Vance
1896 Birth of son, Frank Luther Vance
1897 Birth of daughter, Janie Vance
1899 Death of father, Beverl(e)y
1900 Death of first, wife Nunia
1900 Birth of daughter, Laura Nunia Vance
1900 Marriage to second wife, Lula Johnson Vance
1901 Birth of son, Emory Wallace Vance
1903 Birth of son, Ulysses S. Vance
1904 Birth of daughter, Virginia Vance
1927 Death of wife, Lula Johnson Vance
Abt 1930 Marriage to third wife, Martha Gage Vance
1930 Marriage of son, Emory Wallace Vance
The beauty of a timeline is that it helps you to know where an ancestor was when events took place. After your timeline takes shape, you can review it for spaces of time that are not documented looking for historical documentation that may have been generated in those empty spaces and the events may have prompted the creation of records.
Flesh Out the Whole Family
Not only is it important to create a timeline that you update with each find, but you will also have more success if you do not pass up researching siblings and other extended family members that you find. Historical records can have errors that will throw you off if you depend on the few that are available to document your ancestor. When you find siblings going back in time, for example, research them thoroughly too.
Many times family historians reach a standstill in documenting an ancestor’s parents. They want to find records to learn a parent’s name without having any more than the state in which they were born. Records most useful to genealogy are more are localized. You need to at least know the county or parish for the most part to find an ancestor’s parent in records.
Lafayette had several children on the timeline above. With so many children, the chances are high that a death record or delayed birth record will give the place a parent was born and even the maiden name of the mother. Exhaust all the records that are accessible for the most recent relatives before you jump back in time. You will avoid building the brick walls that so many family historians speak of, and you will generate additional avenues of research back to your end-of-the-line ancestor.