Throwing the gates open: Doing a broad family name search on ancestry websites

Most of my family research activity is quite specific. I tend to spend a great deal of time tracking down specifics about an individual or a particular family group. My time is usually spent tracking down individual dates and county of birth, dates and county of deaths, marriage dates, maiden names of mothers, etc. However, just to shake things up from time to time, I’ll do a general search using the broadest search terms available.

Armed with an increasing list of mothers’ maiden names, I’ve started to do broad searches on marriages between two family groups. So how does this work? Page 1 in the document below is an example.

While is an amazing resource for intricate and detailed searches, I find (for me) that is an amazing resource for broad searches.

The surname Byrd/Bird was a name which cropped up in connection with the Sheffeys in Wythe and Smyth Counties in Virginia. I had spotted a few marriages between the two families from the 1870s through to the turn of the 20th Century. So I was naturally curious to see how many marriages occurred between the two families.

I decided to search for all the individuals born in Virginia with the surname Sheffey (no first names are used in this kind of search) who had a spouse with the surname Byrd (again, no first names used). The record shown above gives a glimpse (death certificates and baptism records provided more). You’ll also see that alternate spellings for each surname are returned in the search results (Sheffy, Bird, etc). Each record that this search returned also gave details about parents – Page 2 in the document above shows the mother of Dennis Byrd (Josephine Sheffey’s husband) was a Sheffey.

I could (and have) made the search even broader at times by omitting the state of birth. And the results were no less illuminating…showing direct marriages between the Sheffeys and Byrds between 1920 and 1935 occurring in Delware, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. And, as to be expected, there were also marriages between both families via their shared Richardson, Hill and Carpenter cousins.

It’s a brilliant family history exercise to do – but definitely one where you have quite a bit of time to process the results! The results from this search kept me busy updating the family tree for the best part of a week!

Genealogy challenges: Part 2 – The Turners of Charles County, Maryland

My Turner lineage has been one of the most difficult and troublesome to trace. Of the eight families my research has primarily concentrated on, I’ve gained the least ground with this one.  Common names and scant citation in official documents have all played a part in making this a difficult family to research.

My great-grandfather, Daniel Patrick Turner (1879 – 1929), was a harbinger for what was to come. I naively believed that there couldn’t be very Maryland-born, African-American men with the name Daniel Patrick Turner during my great-grandfather’s lifetime. Had I been searching for an Irishman with that name it would have been a different story.  An African-American?  It had to be a cinch.   Wrong! A search on and returned an impressive list of African American men bearing the names Daniel Turner and Daniel Patrick Turner.

An inspired moment led me to search for his marriage record to Beatrice Josey.  Hers was a more distinctive name and that hunched paid off. I found Daniel and, more importantly, I found his year of birth, his parents’ names and his place of birth. I also found his death certificate which again listed his year of birth, Maryland as the place of his birth and his parents’ names.  At this point I believed I had enough information to sink my teeth into some deeper research.

Census data could only be found if I searched for both Daniel Turner and his wife Beatrice. The result of this meant I could only find him via his wife Beatrice.  To-date, I have been unable to find him in census records prior to his marriage – with one exception. There are simply too many Maryland-born, African-American Daniel Turner’s born in or reasonably around 1879 to be certain that I’m looking at the correct one in the records.

The exception is the 1910 Census where he’s living with his sister Matilda (Turner) Jackson. And this I found when doing a Census search for his sister.  Matilda Turner, being a relatively distinctive name, was easy to trace.

Born in 1879, it should be possible to find Daniel in the 1880 and 1900 Census records.  So far, he’s proven elusive.

I also haven’t been able to determine Daniel’s county of birth, which is another issue.  Knowing the county of his birth would provide a narrower parameter in which to search. His son, my maternal grandfather, is recorded as being born in La Plata, Maryland. Daniel, however, doesn’t appear to have any association with La Plata. So this, it appears, would be a dead end in terms of this line of enquiry.

Daniel’s father, Patrick Turner (b. 1842), would prove to be even more elusive. Patrick Turner appears in the 1870 Census with a wife, Caroline, and not my great-grandfather’s mother, Amelia Burch.  He was resident in Charles County, Maryland. A search of 1880 records unearthed nothing. He simply wasn’t in the records.  I’ve had all manner of enlightened moments in terms of searching for him in the official records. Thinking Daniel Patrick Turner might have been named for his father, I tried searching for a Daniel Patrick Turner born in Maryland in 1842 – with no results. I’ve tried every variation of ‘Patrick Turner’ I could think of: Patrick, Paddy, Pad, Pat, etc – and again, nothing.  He simply vanishes by the time of the 1880 Census.  He may have died before the 1880 Census.  However, his death ought to have been recorded.  African-American deaths were officially recorded at this time so I couldn’t imagine why his wouldn’t.

A search for marriage records to either Amelia Burch or second wife Caroline also drew blanks. I couldn’t find a marriage record for either wife.

The last role of the dice with regards to Patrick Turner was a possible relocation.  At some point between 1910 and 1920, Daniel Turner and his family moved from Maryland to Washington D.C.  My rationale was the son may have followed the father to Washington D.C. – or vice versa.  However, again, a search of Washington D.C. census returns turned up nothing for Patrick Turner.

Every avenue of research continues to draw a blank.

I’ve done some preliminary research on African-American Turners in Charles County, Maryland. Generally, the Turners of Charles County fall into a few camps.  These are family groups who lived in Nanjemoy, Port Tobacco, Bryantown and Newtown.

Map of Charles County, Maryland

Map of Charles County, Maryland

Interestingly, La Plata is located between Bryantown and Nanjemoy.  Newtown is just to the south of La Plata. So while it would appear that my grandfather and his family were amongst a handful of African-American Turners in La Plata, they weren’t too far from the extended Turner family.   This at least is something. It places my grandfather, his sisters and his mother into a (very, very) general Turner family context in Maryland. However, it doesn’t answer the questions around Daniel Turner or Patrick Turner and who, exactly, they were related to in Charles County.

I haven’t raised the white flag of surrender on the African-American Turners of Charles County, Maryland just yet. I’ve left this to simmer quietly on a back burner.  My hope is that a Turner researching the same family line will get in touch with at least one or two missing pieces to aide in the research.  If the information can’t be found in official records, I hope it will become available in someone else’s family tree.

This is one reason – and an important one in my book – why more African Americans should take the leap and begin tracing their ancestral history. Online family trees can, and do, provide invaluable information.  They are an important resource, especially when there are gaps in the official records.

Genealogy challenges: Part 1 – General overview

The vast majority of my posts have been about successes in tracing my ancestors and their kin and surprise discoveries along the way.  Today it’s about the other side of the coin.  For in tracing family history, there are failures, dead-ends and moments of absolute frustration.

I’ll be covering this side of genealogical research in the next couple of posts. I’ll be concentrating on a specific family and highlighting the challenges and issues which has made tracing them a veritable mission impossible.

When researching family history, there will be a minimum of 8 families to tackle. For example, this is mine:

On my father’s side of the family:
1:  My paternal grandfather:  Sheffey (Wythe & Smyth Counties, Virginia)

2:  My paternal grandmother: Roane (Henrico County, VA)

And then:

My Paternal Sheffey grandfather
His father – will be a Sheffey, so this doesn’t count as it’s the same family.

3. His mother – my paternal great-grandmother: White (Wythe County, Virginia)

My Paternal Roane grandmother
Her father will be a Roane, so this doesn’t count as it’s the same family.

4. Her mother – my paternal great-grandmother: Bates (Henrico County, Virginia)

On my mother’s side of the family:
5:  My maternal grandfather:  Turner (Charles County & La Plata, Maryland)

6:  My maternal grandmother: Matthews (part of her extended family has the surname Mathis) (Wise, Edgefield, South Carolina)

And then:

My maternal Turner grandfather
His father – will be a Turner, so this doesn’t count as it’s the same family.

7. His mother – my maternal great-grandmother: Josey (Rich Square, Northampton County, North Carolina)

My maternal Matthews grandmother
Her father will be a Matthews, so this doesn’t count as it’s the same family.

8. Her mother – my maternal great-grandmother: Harling (Blocker Township, Edgefield, South Carolina)

These are the eight families that the majority of my research is based upon.

Or looking at it another way….

My immediate family tree

My immediate family tree

Of these eight families, the following have been relatively straightforward to research:  Sheffey, Roane, Josey and Harling. The Sheffey and Roane are well-documented families. I’ve also been fortunate that there are a number of African-American Roane’s and Sheffey’s tracing their family’s history and sharing information via services like  Meeting these newly found extended family members, and sharing information online, has helped all of us on our respective genealogy adventures.

The Harlings and Joseys have also been relatively straightforward to research. They are distinctive family names – which always helps – and, like the Sheffeys and Roanes, were close-knit form the end of the Civil War through to the early 1900’s. They also tended to stay in the area they were born.

The White, Turner and Matthews/Mathis families have posed all manner of challenges. I’ll cover the respective challenges each family poses in the next couple of posts.