Location, Location, Location: Putting Your Ancestors in Their Place
Do you have a difficult ancestor? One that just won’t stay put in one place? Are records difficult to find in the location you finally have him pinpointed? Have you been more interested in finding names and dates than discovering the what, where, and why of your family? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, maybe it’s time to take a step back from searching for specific records and put your ancestors in their place. Below are three research tips to get you started. To learn more about the genealogy research process and the importance of understanding their location, check out my book, Research Like a Pro: A Genealogist’s Guide.
I’ve recently returned to some of my earliest research, taking a trip back in time to Indian Territory in the early 1900’s. All four of my paternal great grandparents are listed on the 1900 census in the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory, as well as six of my eight great, great grandparents. With ten direct line ancestors living in the region that would become part of the state of Oklahoma in 1907, you’d think I would have learned a bit more about Indian Territory. But I didn’t. Nicole and I were just beginning our genealogical adventure and anxious to push the tree back as far as possible. We found the 1900 census and some marriage records and moved on. Now I want to know what was happening in the 1890’s that brought my ancestors to Indian Territory.
- Ask yourself “What’s Happening?”
Step one: review what you already know about your ancestor’s family. Get a sense of what is going on. Are children being born? Anyone getting married? Look carefully at the records. What clues have you overlooked? Do you know anything about the minister on the marriage record? How about the neighbors on the census? Familiarize yourself with the family enough to start asking some questions.
For example, I have two records for my great grandparents, William Huston Shults and Dora Algie Royston in Indian Territory, about 1900: their marriage license and the 1900 census. Both documents raise questions when I look at the details carefully.
In the marriage license below, no location is mentioned for the actual marriage. In her personal history, their daughter Lorain writes that they were married in Paul Valley, Oklahoma in 1898, but I’m still confused. What does Indian Territory, Southern District mean? I’m assuming this is the jurisdiction – the government body responsible for issuing and recording marriages, but I don’t completely understand what was happening in this part of the United States in 1898.
With information readily available on the web, my first step to understand this marriage record is to Google: Indian Territory Marriage Records. The first hit is the Oklahoma Historical Society Research Center. This is a new website since I last researched and it is a gold mine! Notice the Marriage Records Research Guide link.
When I open up the PDF, I learn that the Southern District included the following Chickasaw Nation Court Seats: Ardmore, Purcell, Paul’s Valley, Ryan and Chickasha. It appears that the Paul’s Valley location of the marriage could be accurate since it was part of the Southern District.
The second record I have for William Huston Shults and Dora is the 1900 census of Chickasaw Nation. Notice their location: Township 2 South Range 5 West. What does this mean? Turning to Wade Hone’s “Land and Property Research in the United States,” I learn that Oklahoma was a federal land state, meaning the U.S. government controlled the distribution of land. The land was divided up based on a grid system involving meridians, tracts, townships, and sections. I should be able to pinpoint my family using the right map!
I have some locations, now I need to visualize where everything is happening.
2. Ask “Where is it Happening?”
The internet is an amazing resource for maps. The online David Rumsey Map Collection contains thousands of United States Maps. My search comes up with this beautiful map dated 1901. I can zoom in and see all of the townships in the Chickasaw Nation. Right below the”I” in “Chickasaw” is Elmore, which WH Shults and Dora Royston both list as their home on the marriage license above. I also see Paul’s Valley, just to the right. The two locations are fairly close and seem plausible. Looking at the map starts to give me a sense of place.
Map of Oklahoma and Indian Territory 1901
Next I need to figure out that location from the 1900 census. When I do a Google search for “Indian Territory map 1900” and click on images, I see snapshots of several maps that might help. Scrolling through them, I come upon this gem from the Library of Congress. With the specific township and range from the census, I can see approximately where they were living.
Green highlighted area: Township 2 South Range 5 West; Location of Shults family on 1900 census
3. Ask “Why is it Happening?”
Although I’ve located my family on various maps, I still don’t really understand the whole concept of Indian Territory and why my family all moved there. I decide I need to learn more. When I do a general Google search for “Indian Territory Oklahoma,” Wikipedia gives me a general overview but doesn’t drill down to my specific area and answer my question, why were my ancestors living in Indian Territory? I try the FamilySearch wiki which is generally very helpful, but in this case it asked if I wanted to create a page for Chickasaw Nation Indian Territory. The OHS website above offered lots of useful research information, but no article that answered my question. I Google “indian territory chickasaw nation white settlers” and still don’t get an answer.
Time to check the online catalog of the Family History Library, on FamilySearch.org, under the “Search” tab. I try using the place search, but Chickasaw Nation doesn’t come up, so I try a keyword search and I’m rewarded with 98 results! One book looks really interesting, “Pioneers of Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory,” by Nova A. Lemons. I decide I need to take a research trip to Family History Library and check out this book. While at the FHL, I also look at county histories for the area after it became a state in 1907. County histories are one of the best resources for learning about your family. I locate Ms. Lemon’s book and two county histories that finally answer my questions! Not only do I learn the history of the specific area where William and Dora Shults lived, I get clear information about how to research and where the records were kept.
I learn that the land was owned by the Chickasaw Nation and as non-citizens, the white settlers could lease the land from tribal members. The land was rich and farmers could grow anything. On the 1900 census, my ancestors are all farmers. I suppose the lure of good land drew them north from Texas. Now I know that I won’t find any land deeds because they couldn’t own the land at that point. Maybe they were hoping they’d eventually be able to purchase the land. I also learn that after 1898 white settlers were supposed to pay taxes on livestock, but only those who were forced by the collector actually paid up. This tells me that there are possibly no tax records. I do get lots of ideas for further research, both from the county histories and the Family History Library catalog such as checking the microfilm: “Permits to non-citizens 1878-1904”. If you’re planning a trip to the FHL, my post “Ten Steps to Success, Visiting the Family History Library” will help you know how to prepare.
What if you don’t live close to the FHL? Try using their catalog, online at FamilySearch.org to locate records and county history books. More and more of these are being digitized and you can read them from your home computer. If the book isn’t digitized yet, try searching online for the title. In the case of “Pioneers of Chickasaw Nation,” the book is available from the author. I can order my own copy to peruse at length! A Google search might even find the book in a library close by. If the book or record has been microfilmed by the FHL, you can order a copy to be sent to a Family History Center near you.
I’m looking forward to continuing my exploration of my ancestors’ adventures in Indian Territory. To think, it all started with a question about that marriage record!
To summarize, try these suggestions to put your ancestors in their place:
- WHAT: Reexamine the records; look for clues you might have missed and ask yourself questions.
- WHERE: Locate the places mentioned in the records; use Google searches to find online map collections.
- WHY: Try to understand why your ancestors moved to a particular location: search online first for information, then try the FHL catalog on Family Search to find titles of good county histories.
Best of luck in finding your family wherever they may be!
William Huston Shults holding my grandfather, Charles Leslie and Dora Algie Royston holding Della, circa 1908