Genealogy: Using Primary Records

It’s fun to plug your ancestor’s name into a search engine and find a census record or border crossing record. These documents can list where a person’s parents were born, so that you know what country to look in next, or they can give a spouse’s name, or sometime’s they can tell you an ancestor’s occupation.  There is another way to do research, however, that takes advantage of the collections held by the many historical libraries, societies, archives and memory preserving organizations in this country. I have been trying to discover more about my ancestors’ personal lives by using primary sources and I thought I would share some of my experiences.

I start by doing a simple Internet search to find history organizations that make their collections available to patron research. My Dad’s family came from Nova Scotia and Quebec to Maine to work in the paper mills. So, I can search on “Maine history” or “Rumford history” to discover that there is a Maine Historical Society and an online group called the Maine Memory Network; both with online catalogs. Your ancestors don’t have to be famous to be represented in an archives. From these “hits” a researcher can discover what is available online, inquire as to what can be scanned, plan a research visit, or try to locate some of the published sources through interlibrary loan.

I have Mormon Pioneer relatives on my Mom’s side so I can search the Church History Library (CHL) online catalog by typing in last names and the names of towns that they may have settled. I discovered the CHL had meeting minutes from the women’s church organization (Relief Society) that my great-grandmother belonged to in Samaria, Idaho. I was able to correct the account published by a local historian that Elizabeth Williams Mansfield was the president of that organization. Instead, the minutes showed that she served as a counselor within the presidency for over eight years.

The CHL also had a ledger from the cooperative store where my great-grandfather, Elizabeth’s husband, had an account. I love that in January of 1886 he exchanged eggs and butter for candy. Proof that I come by my sweet tooth honestly. I have been told that Brigham hauled freight by wagon and these accounts show that story to be true. I was also told that his wife raised chickens and traded and sold the eggs. The ledger certainly proves this to be true. When I was asking permission of the CHL librarian to make scans of certain pages, he asked me if these were financial records. “Financial?” He said that financial records could be confidential depending on what year they were from. “I don’t know if they are financial,” I said, “but there were a lot of eggs involved!”
Keep your genealogy software and/or charts open while you are reading microfilm or searching online catalogs. You may find some names that surprise you. For instance, in the store ledger, I discovered that my great-grandmother’s sister Sarah Jane Williams had her own account as early as 1885, which would have made her only 14-years old. Why would she have her own account when her father, Samuel Williams, had one in his name?
She didn’t marry until 1892 so the account was in her maiden name. Was she shopping for her mother? Was she working outside the home for another family? Intriguing, but I am glad to have the record.

Lastly, primary sources are an excellent way to verify and correct the oral histories and written family narratives that have been handed down to you. For example, my great-great-grandfather Gervis George Mansfield, sailed from England to America in 1863 with only his wife and youngest son. It was long assumed that the older sons died in their youth. However, by reading the youngest son Brigham’s journal, we learn that he travelled back to England as an adult in 1903 and visited with his oldest brother Frank. Obviously, Francis Mansfield did not die in his youth, but at the age of twenty he simply chose not to accompany his father and stepmother to the United States.

"we visited Frank and is wife today and we had a very good time..."

“we visited Frank and is wife today and we had a very good time…”


"i went to see my brother this afternoon but did not get to see..."

“i went to see my brother this afternoon but did not get to see…”

Here are some ideas for other great ways to search for your ancestors using primary sources other than vital records.
College Yearbooks Thanks to Sunny McClellan Morton at
Cemeteries Thanks to fellow indexer and blogger extraordinaire Heather Rojo
Feature Image above: Thanks to the Historic Rumford Maine Flickr set of Maine Transplant

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