Genealogy 101b: The Real Story
Copyright 2001, William B. King, all rights reserved
Eventually I did get to look at the 1860 and 1870 censuses of Lawrence Co., PA. This is what turned up:
1860 Lawrence Co., Pollock Twp., p. 305, household 159, 148
1870 Lawrence Co., 1st Ward New Castle, p. 99, household 264, 258
The first thing I noticed about the 1860 census was that John King and family had apparently moved. They were now in Pollock Twp. But wait a minute. There is no Pollock Twp. in Lawrence County. It took me more than a little digging in a county history to find that Pollock Twp. was created out of the northwest corner of Shenango Twp. about 1855 and was eventually incorporated into the city of New Castle about 1860. So John may not have moved after all. The next thing I noticed was that John had suddenly decided he was born in New Jersey. (Okay, maybe it wasn't so sudden. He had ten years to make up his mind.) He was no longer an engineer; now he was a laborer. Leroy (his name was given incorrectly in the census) was his oldest son, as I might have expected if his age in the 1880 census was correct. Othello went by his middle name, Walter. Eva was born about 1859. And there's another Piper sister, I had to guess.
Then I noticed something about the ages--they were all, with the exception of those for the younger children, multiples of five. Could it be that the Kings were away from home when the census taker came around and that this information was given by a neighbor? I'd read that such things happened, and that would explain the problem with John's birthplace and Leroy's name.
More surprises were in store from the 1870 census. Now the family was living in New Castle, which as I already knew didn't necessarily mean that they had moved. Now John King seemed to think he was born in New York. Now Leroy/Levi was missing entirely. (As it turned out, he was in Armstrong County, boarding with another family and working as a nail feeder.) But the big surprise was Samuel Piper, age 85, born in Ireland. Surely this was Elizabeth's father, and also the father of Susan and Martha. (This turned out to be correct.)
By this time I was wired to the Internet and in communication with three cousins who were also working on this line. They were just as puzzled about John and Leroy and the rest of them as I was. One cousin did send me an obituary for Othello, however, and it had the "wrong" birth year for him. The obit said Othello had been born in 1851. This agreed with the 1860 census (for an October birth month), but the 1870 census would have him born in 1850, too early if he was the younger brother.
Another thing I had access to via the Internet was census indexes. It was the indexes that helped me find Leroy King in Armstrong Co. I also searched them for earlier mentions of Samuel Piper but couldn't find him. Finally I stumbled across a Samuel Peiper listed in neighboring Butler Co., PA. Could this be him? It was, and when I saw the actual census record it was plain as day. The name was Piper, not Peiper. The index had gotten it wrong. If it hadn't occurred to me to search under incorrect spellings, I wouldn't have found him.
Another index led me to the John King family in 1880. This index listed every person over 16 years old, and I noticed in Lawrence County a John, Elizabeth, and Eva King all enumerated on the same page of the census. I ordered the film, and there they were. I'd missed them the first time I'd read the film many years earlier, and it was no mystery why. I would never have gotten the name King out of that chicken scratch! Here's the 1880 listing:
1880 Lawrence Co., Pittsburgh St., New Castle, p. 142, household 31, 38
John was back to being born in New Jersey. (I still don't know if this is correct. To add to the confusion, in 1910 and 1920 his son Leroy said John was born in Ohio.) Elizabeth, who was listed in Clarion County with her son (visiting) was also enumerated with her husband in Lawrence County. This time she gave the birthplace of her mother, correctly as it has turned out. I knew where Leroy was, but where the heck was Othello? Many many many hours of microfilm reading years earlier had not turned him up. I had always assumed that I'd find him with his father, when I found his father. In fact, to this day, I've never positively identified Othello Walter King in the 1880 census.
Here's what I've learned about the census. It is a very valuable resource for genealogical research and should be consulted for every ancestor and family member who might be enumerated. Sometimes you get very pleasant and unexpected surprises. The information it contains, however, is not always correct and, in fact, is incorrect with surprising regularity. The records are handwritten, and the handwriting varies from quite good to absolutely abysmal, with the average being on the bad side of readable. Reading the handwriting of census takers is definitely an acquired skill, and you'll work hard at acquiring it! If the handwriting doesn't make you blind, the condition of the records just might. Oftentimes the filmed pages were in such poor or faded condition as to be unreadable. The censuses are also surprisingly incomplete. Robert Blackstone does not occur in 1880, nor does his wife and family. Othello King does not occur in 1880. On my mother's side, my great great grandfather Amos Trace does not occur, even though I have found his wife and family living in Meadville, PA. (I speak, by the way, with the authority of the complete index of the 1880 census recently published by the LDS Church. I have not only searched endlessly through films for these people, but they are also not in the index.) On my wife's side, I know for a fact that her great grandfather lived in Brooklyn from before 1900 until after 1930. I have abundant documentation to prove it. He does not occur in any census, however. More correctly, I should say he does not occur in the soundex indexes of those censuses. (At this time, the 1930 census remains to be checked.) On the other hand, I have found people enumerated more than once in the same census. Elizabeth King is an example from the 1880 census. Susan Piper, listed in 1850 with John King's family in Lawrence County, was also listed with Samuel Piper's family in Butler County, though the name was given as Susannah in that listing.
Indexes to censuses are a mixed blessing. They are certainly easier to read than the original censuses, and they are remarkably convenient finding aids, but they are also often incorrect. The misspelling of Samuel Piper's name is a minor indexing error. More serious errors you might encounter in indexes range from complete omission of names that are present in the census, to the listing of names in the index that do not occur in the census. George Convert, listed above as living with John King, does not occur in the 1850 index I have. There is a Henry Convert, but when you look him up on the film you discover his name was actually Harvey. [Note added in proof: George Convert is in my 1850 index after all, but his last name is misspelled!] I've seen reputed complete indexes on the Internet that have omitted entire counties, and one such index I could name omits all of the counties on the western border of Pennsylvania. (By the way, you have to pay for access to these!) I love my indexes, but I don't trust them to be accurate.
To possibly belabor the point, here's an example of the kind of accuracy you can expect from census indexes. I checked my index to the 1850 census of Ohio for Kings living in Mahoning County (Family Tree Maker, Family Archives, CD#317). Here's what the index said, with an attached note of what I actually found when I searched the census itself:
I did not read the entire county, so I don't know if some of those not found were there but incorrectly indexed. I also don't know if there were other Kings who were missed in the index. I wouldn't be surprised if there were. My 1830 index of Ohio listed six Kings in Geauga County, Hamden Twp. There were actually eight. So it goes with indexes.
After the 1900 census was opened to public scrutiny, I decided to search it for Leroy Porter King in Oklahoma. I ordered the 1900 soundex for King in Oklahoma and found Leroy fairly quickly living in Wellston, OK. From this I got my next surprise. He not only had two sons, he also had a daughter who had been born in Kansas in 1883. I've since checked the 1910 and 1920 censuses. Between 1900 and 1910, he moved to Oklahoma City (not Tulsa). His older son disappeared (I've learned since that he died without leaving any children), his daughter also disappeared (married, I presumed correctly), and contrary to what my aunt had told me his younger son had a family of his own.
On a whim one day I began searching phone books for Oklahoma City on the Internet for the names I'd seen in the census. I found one. Could this be a grandson of Leroy Porter King? The odds were against it, but I screwed up my courage and called. I'm happy to report that the gentleman I spoke to was a very pleasant man and was, indeed, the grandson of my great grandfather's brother. We talked for about an hour, during which time this distant cousin of mine gave me information about Leroy's branch of the family faster than I could write it all down. Leroy has descendants after all--not as many as Othello does, but quite a few. I was also told that Leroy did not live to be 100, and he did not strike it rich in the oil business. He'd been a hardware salesman and a banker, and he died in Indiana (I was told) about 1943. A couple weeks later I got quite a surprise in the mail. My Oklahoma cousin had photocopied pages from a King family bible that his grandfather Leroy had made, including information that Leroy had copied from a much older Piper family bible, and had sent these copies to me. I now had the exact birthdates of Leroy, Othello, and Eva Mae, and I had reliable information on the Piper family that went all the way back to 1818, including Samuel's marriage date, the maiden name of his wife, and the dates of birth of all his children, as well as a few of their marriages and even a couple deaths. I know when, if not where, Samuel Piper died, and I know that his daughter Elizabeth King also went to Kansas, although I don't know if she left her husband John and went there with her son Leroy. [Yes, she did.] She died there in 1909. To say it was a windfall sounds too much like an understatement. It was certainly more than I expected.
There was no information about the origins of John King, however, although the bible record did contain a note about his year of birth--1817, not 1819. Just to show that bible records cannot be entirely trusted either, John's year of death was given as 1887, also in disagreement with his tombstone. This has turned out to be wrong--on this one the tombstone is correct. [Update 2009: Nope! The tombstone is wrong, too. A death notice in a newspaper has since turned up that makes his death date some time in August 1889.]
It seems everyone in our family is named after someone, and the name Porter has always befuddled us. My aunt's theory that it was John's wife's maiden name had turned out to be wrong. So where could the Porter name have come from? Maybe that would give a clue to John's origins. I set out to learn more about Leroy Porter King. He moved to Kansas, from the evidence of the censuses, between 1880 and 1883. My Oklahoma cousin told me he participated in the Oklahoma land runs in the early 1890s. In fact, we already knew that because one of my cousins had found his name in public land records of Oklahoma that had been published on the Internet. We knew he lived first in Wellston and then in Oklahoma City, and according to my Oklahoma cousin he was living with his daughter in Indiana when he died. I decided to find out where. It didn't seem like it should be too hard to get a death certificate.
I went to the Indiana state website on the Internet and downloaded the form for requesting a death certificate. I filled in Leroy's full name, his year of birth and death, his parent's names. I wrote a check for $4 and mailed it off. Two weeks later a suspiciously thick envelope came from the Indiana State Dept. of Health. I ripped it open, and to my disappointment found the application and check had been returned because I had failed to fill in the county and city of death. That's what I was trying to find out! If I'd known that, I wouldn't have needed the death certificate. What kind of crappy indexes do they keep in Indiana anyway? The bible records I had gotten from Leroy's grandson do not give his date or place of death, but they do tell where he is buried. From the cemetery records I was able to learn exactly when and where Leroy King had died. It was not Indiana after all. It was Illinois. I'm sending for the death certificate even though it's going to cost me $10 and even though I'm not sure what there is to learn from it. [Not much as it has turned out, although it does give a birthplace for his father John, which I believe is incorrect.]
It was time to venture into the land records. I'd read about how valuable deeds are in tracking down ancestors, and I was about to find out for myself. I must say that the staff at the courthouses in Lawrence and Venango Counties in Pennsylvania have been very helpful, and their responses to my letters have always been quick. Unfortunately, after having lived in Lawrence County for over thirty years, John King left only one deed. It was made in 1867, recorded in 1875, and described him simply as "John King of Pollock Township." The property he bought in 1867 had previously belonged to the Presbyterian Church and then to the Evangelical Society of America. It was sold after John's death by the sheriff of Lawrence County to pay off his debts. That sale was ordered on 5 March 1886. So I learned two things from the deeds: John King had moved at least once in the 30 years he lived near New Castle, but not very far, and 2) he was dead by March of 1886. [Update: See note above. He died in 1889.]
The part of Lawrence County in which John lived had been taken from Beaver County in 1849. Maybe there was a deed in Beaver County. I knew from the bible records that John had been married in Butler County in 1848, so maybe he first owned land near New Castle when that land was in Beaver County. I wrote to the Beaver County courthouse asking them to check their deed indexes. My letter was returned. They don't do genealogical searches. They even used my own SASE to inform me of this. I will either have to go there myself or hire someone to do it. Bummer! [Update: Done! Nothing! He's not in the tax records either.]
Next I tried the probate records. Maybe there was a will or some sort of probate or estate papers. Now that I had narrowed down John's date of death to about a two month period, I decided to write. I wasn't entirely sure where John died, but I figured it had to be either in Lawrence County where his property was located or in Venango County where he was buried and where his son Othello was living at the time. I wrote to both counties. The letter came back from Venango first. Nada! Then the letter came back from Lawrence. Nothing there either.
John King had been married in Butler County, so that was my next stop. What had John King been doing there? He must surely have been there long enough to meet and marry Elizabeth Piper. I started with the census. Within minutes I found an interesting clue. In the 1850 census, Samuel Piper was enumerated in the borough of Prospect. There a few households away on the reel was the name of the minister who had married John and Elizabeth: Rev. Joseph Bowman. And within another couple of households was the family of George and Mary King. It just so happens that I had in some of my old notes the years of death for both of these individuals from cememtery records I'd seen in the Butler Public Library. I wrote to Butler County to see if there were wills. Within a week I got a reply back telling me how much it would cost to have them check the indexes and copy the wills if any. I wrote a check for the not inconsiderable sum of money and mailed it. That was several weeks ago. I'll let you know how long it takes to get a reply.* (I happen to know that wills exist for both George and Mary.)
I also decided to see if I could find an early deed for Samuel Piper. I wrote to Butler. I have yet to receive a reply. Only they know what they did with my SASE. The lesson here, I think, is this. If you're going to try to do genealogy by mail, you'd better be well stocked up on at least two qualities: patience and a heaping tolerance for frustration. Some counties reply quickly and helpfully, but my experience is that they are in the minority. Some reply slowly if at all, and some simply don't do genealogical searches in the public records. Some records offices require you to submit all the information you hope to get from the records in the first place! All things considered, I think it would be a whole lot easier if you just plan to go there yourself. Even at that, don't expect to find all the stuff the books tell you to expect. Even if your ancestors owned land, the deeds may never have been recorded, and if you find deeds they may not be all that helpful. Unless your ancestors were fairly well to do, you should not count on finding probate records. You might; it's certainly worth checking, if you can get the county officials to cooperate. Just don't be surprised when there aren't any. Other places you might write to are also a crapshoot. County historical societies sometimes answer and are helpful, and sometimes they don't (or aren't). Churches are reputed to be valuable sources of genealogical information, but I couldn't testify to that. My experience is that churches don't answer these kinds of queries, even when you include a SASE.
That brings me to the Internet. Don't even get me started! Oops, too late. I have, of course, searched all the major genealogical databases on the Internet, not to mention many of the minor ones. I haven't found them very useful. In fact, the only one that has given me any credible information is the database at the LDS site, www.familysearch.org. There I found some extracted church records from a small village in Germany that led me to several ancestors on my mother's side. The other databases (and to an extent the LDS site as well) contain user contributed information which varies in quality from quite good to complete garbage. Much of the information in these databases is simply wrong. Let me give but one example (of many many that I've discovered).
According to the bible records, Samuel Piper's wife was Sarah Pillow, who died in 1842. No mention was made of her parentage. In one of the Internet databases, one of my cousins found her listed as the daughter of William Pillow and Elizabeth Porter of Tennessee. Could this be the solution to the Porter problem? It didn't seem likely. Tennessee is a long way from Pennsylvania. We continued to search and eventually came up with the answer. Through a correspondent we found via an Internet message board, we learned that Sarah Pillow was the daughter of Henry Pillow of Butler Co., PA. The correspondent even sent a transcription of Henry's will that mentioned his son-in-law Samuel Piper.
This illustrates the real usefulness of the Internet, I think. It can put you in touch with people who are researching the same lines, and these people can sometimes be sources of valuable information. And sometimes you get from them the same kind of undocumented crap they have already posted in the Internet databases. From my experience, I'd say it's about 50:50 odds.
Right now (Sept 2001) the amount of original source material available via the Internet is pretty meager. Ten years from now that will hopefully not be the case. Several sites are now beginning to post complete census records, for example (although you'll have to pay for access to them, and they are very frustrating to use when they work at all). Maps, always a valuable genealogical resource, are available on the Internet right now. So are a few county histories, which have been transcribed by tireless volunteers. I always go to the county GenWeb sites to see what's available there when I begin research in a new county, and occasionally they are quite helpful. The most valuable resource on the Internet right now, however, is other people doing research on the same lines as you are.
I've made many contacts via e-mail over the last couple years, and some of these contacts have turned out to be goldmines of information. Some of them haven't. There are a whole lot of people out there who have no clue about careful documentation and original sources. There is a surprising number of people who get quite huffy when you ask them about it, too. Some of my correspondents have disappeared in a puff of electrons when I've had the nerve to ask them about sources.
As for the major databases, I still search them periodically but, I have to admit, not very hopefully. Especially when looking for someone with a common name, you end up with a lot of useless junk like "John King, male." That's it! No dates, no places, no links to other people. Personally, if it were my database, I'd purge that sort of useless nonsense. (But then they couldn't advertise a billion names, could they?) You will also see a lot of "John King, private," meaning this is a living individual and we don't want to divulge any information about him. Let me give you people a clue: If it's private, don't post it on the Internet! Some people seem never to get tired of seeing their or their family's names posted all over cyberspace. Others have made a hobby out of copying information from one Internet database and then posting it to another one (often right back to the same site). One surname search I did recently at Rootsweb Worldconnect (one of my favorites by the way) yielded over 1300 hits. When I asked it to prune hits that did not list birth and death dates and places, the number of hits fell to 137. These contained information on about 20 unique individuals, often with the same incorrect dates listed over and over again, obviously just copied and reposted by different individuals.
Finally, many of the search engines at Internet genealogy sites are still very primitive. When you search for John King, even if you indicate you want an exact phrase match by putting it in quotes, you still get "hits" like the following: "One day JOHN was walKING by the lake when..." Often the search engines don't search for names, even when you indicate you want them to. So searching for Henry Pillow, for example, can return abundant "hits" about other people and their pillows. Even when the engine does manage to search for the name you specify, it sometimes won't allow you to refine your search by entering dates or places. That can make searching for a name like John King entirely futile. (Try it and see.) Before many of these big databases will be truly useful, they need not only to get quite a lot more critical about the type of information they accept, they also need to upgrade their search engine technology beyond what was available around 1965. Okay, I'll stop now.
*The wills came the very same day I wrote this. Much to my surprise, when I looked at the dates on the letters I discovered that I'd been waiting only about three weeks. This just goes to show how impatient one can get when one is waiting for what one thinks might be the answer to a long-standing genealogical problem! It was not the answer, by the way. I did learn something, though. In my experience, the county clerks who record deeds and wills have much neater handwriting than census takers. This wasn't the case for Mary King's will, which was very nearly illegible, in fact was illegible in part.
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