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Learning More About the Law

Law Library of the Library of Congress in the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress.

Law Library of the Library of Congress in the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress.

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

The first three modules of the course US: Probate Records covered a lot of historical information and background on probate records in the U.S.  It was fascinating to learn about why and how the laws concerning probate records evolved over time from Colonial to the modern era.  It was obviously just a scratch of the surface since each state and jurisdiction is different but now students in this course have a great foundation to build on.

Being originally an English colony, many of the U.S. laws are based on the English ones brought over with the colonists, particularly the idea of common law. Now, I grew up hearing this word bandied about frequently. Mainly it was in reference to  common law marriages, but still it is a term that many people are familiar with. Familiar, yes, but I would guess that not everyone knows exactly what it means.

According to the course “common law governed the land.”  It appears to have evolved here in the U.S. as a way that the land is divided (there are actually multiple ways covered in the course) after a person’s death. However, each colony, and now each state, had their own laws and ways they liked to conduct probate matters. Which is why we all know nothing is ever as simple as it seems. If we are going to do extensive research into probate records we, as good genealogists, will need to brush up on the laws and regulations of the state we are researching in!

Thankfully the first module included a glossary of terms for the students to use. While I think it could be a bit more comprehensive it was a good general list and I referred back to it frequently. I am considering making a copy of it and adding to it as I research. This is something I have done with other research areas and I find it handy and very helpful.

Also, check out this great resource from the FamilySearch website, Glossary of United States Probate Terms. A great addition to the terms and ideas covered in this course. Of course, these past few modules remind me that I really do need to get a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary for my bookshelf.  You can find it online, but I still like physical books for many things.

See you online!


My Favorite Course: Research: American World War II Ancestors

It’s difficult for me to choose just one course as my favorite. I have a unique position among those who will write about their favorite courses on this blog. I was a student of The National Institute for Genealogical Studies before I started my work here. Currently, I read through the courses as they are turned in by the instructors. This allows me to see the latest courses and resources before they are added to the website.

Because I am so familiar with the 200+ courses The National Institute offers, how can I choose just one? So I decided to write this post about a course that students may not be as familiar with. Research: American World War II Ancestors- Part 1 and Part 2.

Woman machinist, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif . Flickr the Commons. Library of Congress.

Woman machinist, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, Calif . Flickr the Commons. Library of Congress.

These courses, authored by World War II researcher and author  Jennifer Holik, provide students with a look at all facets of researching World War II and its effect on Americans, on the battlefield and the home front.

The description for these two courses are:

There are many records that were created during World War I that are similar in World War II. Learn what led to the start of World War II, how the U.S. became involved and the military records available. They did not all burn in the 1973 fire! This course will move from military records for the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines to civilian jobs including the USO, Merchant Marines and others. You will learn how to research the service of your military ancestors through numerous sources

In Research: American World War II Ancestors-Part 2 we begin with records from the Army, Army Air Corps, Marines and National Guard and explore military and other records that can assist you in conducting World War II era research. We explore life on the home front and the role of women in World War II including their service in the military. A case study gives ideas for piecing the life of you World War II soldier’s story together.

Do you have ancestors and family living in the United States of America during the World War II years? Then you owe it to yourself to learn more about their lives. Check out Research: American World War II Ancestors- Part 1 and Part 2 today.

Finishing Up US: Migration Patterns

A historic mile marker on the National Road, the first federal highway (now U.S. 40) across the United States, in Triadelphia, West Virginia. Library of Congress

A historic mile marker on the National Road, the first federal highway (now U.S. 40) across the United States, in Triadelphia, West Virginia. Library of Congress

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Well, US: Migration Patterns was an amazing course. I have enjoyed each course I’ve written about, but this one really made an impression on me. Lots of great information, charts, maps, tables, plus history. You can’t forget the history part. If you think you can as a genealogist, well, you are going to miss a lot of things.

Recently I was asked who should take a course like this. Frankly anyone with US ancestors, but particularly those who know they have roots that started in one area and then moved to another. Too vague? Let me explain a little bit.

Migration is a natural process and at times needed. Your ancestor may only have moved a few miles.  Maybe they moved a few states. Understanding the why, when, how or where-to is key when you are researching. While researching your family, you also get to see a bit about historical events that influenced their lives, social history too.  It all works together, you just have to take the pieces and collate them.

Those ideas were presented in easy to understand concepts and pieces throughout the modules. I know many of you will appreciate that. Sometimes courses can be so full of information that it is difficult to internalize and remember it all. Not in this case.

In fact, I have started looking over a few of my brick wall cases that I think will benefit from me taking this course.  It helps that most of my family were in place by 1870, but they still had to get there. Many of the possible record types they could have left a trace in I have not searched yet. No kidding, I have a three page list of things I think I should look at for one family alone.

Needless to say, I think I will also appreciate my cross country trips more. I even may stop a few more times (if the family will let me) and take pictures of these areas that were common for travelers over the centuries. Driving over the Cumberland Gap is an experience, and as a child the daunting task those pioneers undertook was lost on me. Not so much now that I have driven it myself.

Well, it is off to the next course US Probate Records.  See you online!!

20th Century Migrations

Getting ready to depart from home in Oklahoma for the trip to California. Near Muskogee, Oklahoma. Library of Congress.

Getting ready to depart from home in Oklahoma for the trip to California. Near Muskogee, Oklahoma. Library of Congress.

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Once again there was a lot of great information put forward in Module 5 and 6 of the US: Migration Patterns course. However, I found the information in Module  6 to be very enlightening. That module focused on migration patterns  for 1920 and forward. A subject that I have not really given my full attention to since most of my research is in the early 1800s and before. Bad on me!

Of course I remember the unit from US History class about the migration that occurred during the Great Depression; how the “dust bowl” effected farmers and they packed up their lives and moved west. I also remember reading The Grapes of Wrath in English class. However, through this course I learned quickly that there was more to movement and migration in the US during the 20th century than what took place during the 1930s.

Anyone who had taken extended road trips across the US knows that the federal highway system was slowly replaced by the interstates to get people where they were going quicker. What I didn’t internalize until now was how many of these highways followed the old migration routes. But it makes sense doesn’t it?  If the route is already there why not create a better road on top of it! It especially hit home that I was traveling the footsteps of my ancestors when I drove these roads (some of them I have driven frequently over the last few decades).

Most importantly I was thrilled to see our instructor included a timeline at the end of the last module. I am seriously contemplating laminating it and putting it on my desk for a quick sheet when I need to look up important historical facts for the US that influenced migration. She broke it into five sections which correspond to modules 2-6 in the course.  It was interesting to compare sections of the timelines that overlapped because it provides an idea of all the different possibilities that influenced people and their lives at those times.  Once again, our ancestors lived complex lives in evolving situations, much like many of us do today!

Well I am off to take the exam, wish me luck.  See you online!

Some Thoughts On Researching US Occupations

Railroad parts. Baldwin Locomotive Works. Blacksmith and helper forging and hammering tools, March 1937. National Archives and Records Administration. Flickr the Commons.

Railroad parts. Baldwin Locomotive Works. Blacksmith and helper forging and hammering tools, March 1937. National Archives and Records Administration. Flickr the Commons.

Each  individual  researcher’s  quest  to  understand  their  ancestor’s  “life’s work”  will  have  its  own  twists  and  turns. There  is not  one  record  or  one repository  that  will  give  you  all  the  answers. Before you begin your  research using a specific record, have a general idea what might be found in that record.

For  example:  If  you  are  working  in  county  land  records  what  type  of information  would  you  expect  to  find  about  a  person’s  occupation? Here are just a few examples:

  • their stated occupation (i.e: blacksmith, yeoman, trader, etc).
  • location   of   where   they   practiced   this   occupation   (where  they purchased or rented their land).
  • location  of  where  they  last  practiced  their  occupation  (statement  of  a location other than the current county of residence).
  • any partnerships or corporations.
  • where they learned their trade.
  • where they might have acquired their tools.
  • any business difficulties, bankruptcy, sheriff sales, etc.
  • did  they  buy  and  sell  land  repeatedly,  possibly  as  a  means  of  an income (land speculator).

A land record has more to tell than the description of the land, and names of   the  grantee/grantor. You  must  evaluate it  with  a critical eye.

Repositories  are  numerous  and  the following  is  a  short list  of  repositories that you should  be using:

And where are you going to find an occupation listed in these repositories?Just  about  anywhere.  The   following   is   a   list   of   record   types   that   may   be found   in   these repositories:

  • census records
  • vital records
  • land records
  • military records
  • pension records
  • naturalization records
  • directories
  • local histories
  • biographical sketches
  • church records
  • company records
  • social histories
  • correspondence
  • images

At  each  repository,  reference  book,  website  or  record  the  researcher  will often be directed to another repository, reference book, website or record, that  can  offer  more  and  different  information.  The clues,  if  not  stated directly,  are  often  found  in  the  footnotes  and  bibliographical  sections. These new sources can lead you deeper and deeper into a subject. As in all aspects  of  genealogical  research  it  is  important  not  to  overlook  a  clue, resource or opportunity for more information.

To learn more about researching occupations in the United States, please consult our course, US: Occupational Records.


Working for the Railroad: A Few Tips


Barclay Railroad, Locomotive 2 with Tender and Cars. SMU Central University Library. Flickr the Commons.

Barclay Railroad, Locomotive 2 with Tender and Cars. SMU Central University Library. Flickr the Commons.


Spending this Labor Day holiday weekend researching your family tree? Good! Consider learning more about  the occupations of your ancestors. For many, railroad jobs figure prominently in their  family’s story. Here’s a few tips for researching railroad employees from our course US: Occupational Records.

The development of the railroad system in the United States opened up new frontiers. It employed people in all aspects from surveying and construction to the porter, conductor and engineer. Some of these individuals worked directly for a specific rail line while others worked for companies that contracted with the rail lines.

The first place to begin research for a railroad employee that was employed after 1937 is the Railroad Retirement Board.

The Railroad Retirement Board was formed in the mid-1930s, under the Railroad Retirement Act of 1935  and began maintaining records in 1936. Until 1964, Railroad workers received a special Social Security number, numbers starting with 700 to 728, and a separate pension plan. The Board’s primary function is the administration and payment of railroad pension funds.

The Railroad Retirement Board maintains a genealogy web page with helpful information for researching railroad employees. They will perform a search of their records for a fee. For more information about what is available and how to request a search, see their website. Please note: the Railroad Retirement Act did not include street, interurban, or suburban electric railways.

If your family member worked for a railroad before 1936 the Board does not have those records. To locate a record before the inception of the Railroad Retirement Board you will need to know the name of the rail line and the current company name. This is necessary before the researcher can access the proper archived records. To find archival collections, use the online catalog ArchiveGrid.

The mobility of these employees makes placing the individual in a time and place more difficult. Railroad employees moved with the work. In addition, the records might indicate that they were changing companies, when in reality there was a company name change or merger.

There are several tools that will assist the researcher in locating rail lines that employed a specific individual before 1937.

First, you can search  directories of railroad employees. The directories, such as the Biographical Directory of Railway Officials of America  that was issued between 1885 and 1922, gave a listing of mid to senior employees in the railroad industry. This was followed by  Who’s Who in Railroading. These books include short biographical sketches.

Second, determine what rail lines were active in the area that the individual lived. This is easily done with the use of maps. Because of the continuous growth changes in the rail lines it is important that the map you use is of the same time period that you are researching. Many of these maps are available online, including a  large collection from the Library of Congress  based on Railroad Maps of the United States: A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Original  19th-century  Maps in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress.

Lastly,  search US Federal Census records which may list the person’s occupation  as “railroad” or possibly something more specific like, conductor . In  later years, the name of the railroad company may also appear in the occupation columns.


Go West!

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Through the next two modules in the course US: Migration Patterns  we continue to travel west across the US.  In Module 2 we were in Colonial America, Module 3 we expanded to the Mississippi River, and in Module 4 we saw the explosion of westward migration to the Pacific Ocean.  I remember reading about that last stage in American history during school.  For those Americans in the crowd, do you remember your US History classes?

Wagon train. Library of Congress.

Wagon train. Library of Congress.

Let’s admit it,  Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion may not have been the most interesting thing in our lives while we were in high school.  However, as genealogists, plotting our family’s trail across the US we should realize that those ideas were a driving force for many people to move from one coast to the other.  Of course, it is also sort of awesome to read about trails that you have actually traveled yourself.

For those of you who do not know what Manifest Destiny was, let me try to explain it briefly.  Trust me, there are volumes written about this way of thought, but I think it is crucial to understand why droves of people left their homes in the Eastern US and headed west.  In a nut shell those who believed in this concept felt that the United States should (and eventually would) possess all of the land from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.  Many believed it was their God-given right to control and civilize the whole continent.  You can read more about the philosophy of Manifest Destiny and the resulting Mexican American War on the National Park Service website from the Chamizal National Memorial.

I found it particularly interesting to learn about emigrant aid companies for the first time.  To be honest, I knew these groups of people existed since I had run into them before, but I had not stopped to really analyze what they were.  These organizations recruited from groups of people who could travel together and paid for them to move across the country.  These organizations could be companies looking for workers, government agencies, or religious intuitions.  The Harvey Girls were mentioned which made me go find the old movie to watch!

On to the next section.  I am excited to learn more about 20th century migration.  See you online!

Call for Proposals: Course on Researching New York Ancestors

Statue Of Liberty by Bill Longshaw/Courtesy of

Statue Of Liberty by Bill Longshaw/Courtesy of


The National Institute for Genealogical Studies is looking for a course author to write a 6-8 week curriculum on researching New York Ancestors. This course should include, but not be limited to, the following topics:

  • Generalized history of New York State with timeline.
  • General discussion of record groups available for researching family history (church records, land, probate, vital records, cemetery, census, directories, newspapers, immigration/emigration, etc.).
  • Repositories in New York, Canada and the United States for researching pertinent records.
  • Internet sources for research.

This course will be for family historians beginning a search for their New York ancestors. The course content will include 2 assignments per week and a final exam consisting of 25-30 questions. The course should  be completed and turned in no later than 6 months from date of contract.

The course author must have a comprehensive knowledge of the topic. All source citations for text and images must conform to the standards found in Evidence Explained. Course is to be submitted in Microsoft Word and be proofread. Formatting of the course will be done by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies.

To submit an outline for consideration or to inquire about this opportunity, please email The successful applicant will receive a retainer to write the course upon acceptance of course outline and then final payment within 30 days of completion and approval of the course.

The History Behind Migration

American progress. Library of Congress.

American progress. Library of Congress.

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

The first module of US: Migration Patterns was packed full of useful information.  Facts and tid-bits that I had not heard before, or at least not stopped to consider when looking at the bigger picture of US migration patterns.  I actually read this module several times through.  Each time I did I made a note in the margins about statements that related to my personal research, and I am sure you will too.

Of particular interest was the long list of records presented that might be left behind as our ancestors moved westward.  Some I am sure you can guess.  Of course there could be bible records, censuses, personal manuscripts, or vital records.  Some of the more unusual ones (that I will be checking on) were emigrant aid companies, fort records, occupation records, voting registers, plus many others.  Once again reminding me that our ancestors did not live in a vacuum.  They were people who lived full lives and left a paper trail if you know where, or how, to look.

If you have read any of my blog posts in the past you may remember me harping on how important it is to know all types of history and geography.  Which is why I was literally yelling “YES” as I read Module 1 and came to the section on history and geography.  Our instructor, Beverly Whitaker, does an excellent job driving home the point that you need to understand the history of the US, from colonial to current times, to understand the motivations our ancestors had to migrate.  Plus, the routes they took were dependent on geography.  Being able to look at a map and understand why settlements began where they did or why certain routes were taken will aid you in your searches.  In fact, the two influenced each other in ways that casual observers may not realize.

For example, in my family one of my lines migrated from Maryland to Kentucky and then onto Indiana.  Why?  Well, they were Catholic first off and after the Revolution there were Catholic settlements springing up in Washington County, Kentucky.  Single men moved first then later the larger family groups moved to join them.  In my family the main moves happened after the War of 1812. They moved to Kentucky, stayed for a few years, and then when bounty lands opened in Indiana they moved up there in large groups. Most of the family stayed there, but there were a few branches that had itchy feet. There is even a ‘49er in my family!

I have to say this first module was a great set-up for the rest of the course.  Each of the following five modules focus in on a specific time period for American migration.  Should be fun, and I will see you online!

My Next Course: US Migration Patterns

Coburg, Nebraska Terr. & vic., 1884-85. Library of Congress.

Coburg, Nebraska Terr. & vic., 1884-85. Library of Congress.

By Shannon Combs-Bennett, Student

Through my research I have learned that my ancestors never stayed in one place too long.  Some of you may be among the small few that had ancestors arrive on these shores and stay put, but for the majority of people, that didn’t happen.  There was always new places, new adventures, new land, and new opportunity just waiting over the horizon.

Understanding why people moved once they arrived in America can be critical to unlocking a few of those pesky brick walls.  I have studied a lot about why people immigrated to the US but not as much time on why they then kept moving west.

For those of you who have read my blog posts before you know that my family is mainly from the  state of Indiana.  They came there from Europe and from eastern United States.  While my direct line stayed in Indiana (for over 100 years until my parents left) many of their extended family kept moving west.  Some landed along the Mississippi.  Others made it all the way to California.  In this course I hope to learn more about why they moved, how they got there, and any other motivations that may have gone into that decision.

By looking at the introduction for the course US: Migration Patterns  I see that we will cover everything from Colonial American migration through the 20th century.  Then there are the mention of maps.  I love maps!  They really drive home what was physically done when combined with text and I think that will help me learn more about the routes and migration patterns we are learning.

It is never an easy decision to uproot your family.  Even today moving long distances is an arduous task that most people only do it if there is a job or family motivation.  We have trucks and pavement after all and if we think it is a massive undertaking imagine what our ancestors thought!

So wish me luck on my migration adventure and I will see you online!

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