Following Someone Else’s Lead

I’d been putting it off for years, despite the fact that I had a hand-typed stack of papers with names and dates for my husband Mark’s father’s family. The search for his paternal ancestors would have me working with the ultra-common surname Smith in the Philadelphia area—enough of a challenge to keep me procrastinating until now. To complicate matters, while I plan on tapping his siblings for any details they remember, since the older members of that line have passed on, I’m pretty much flying solo with only those pages compiled by his grand-uncle, Clarence, who thankfully decided to document this particular branch of the Smith family tree.

You may run into a similar situation, perhaps in the form of some clues in an old Bible that a cousin found, in a collection of hand-typed charts like those that Uncle Clarence left us, or these days, in an online tree that doesn’t include sources and whose owner isn’t responsive to your emails for whatever reason.

No offense to Uncle Clarence, but I don’t take un-sourced documents at face value. I will be doing my own research, to not only make sure I am climbing the right family tree, but also because those lonely names and dates don’t mean anything to me. These were my husband’s people and lives happened between those birth and death dates. I want to learn their stories and share them with our daughter. That said, when faced with a name like Smith, I will be looking to Clarence’s work for clues.

Getting Started
The first thing I did was to take the most current generation listed in the thirteen-page history and begin a tree.

Fortunately, on a visit to his grandmother before she died, Mark had transcribed three death certificates she had in her possession—one for her father, one for her husband’s grandfather, and his father as well. These gave me the names of spouses, birth and death dates and places, and residences at the time of death.  A quick look at Clarence’s pages and with the exception of one person for whom it looked like he estimated dates, they were spot on.

This tree gave me a framework I could build on and gather the records I found in the collections on, as well as the transcribed vital records. (I’ll be requesting the actual records as well, of course. Sorry Hubby, I trust no one when it comes to family history.)

I started seeking out census records that would help me to see the family structure, and as I worked back in time, I could see that while Clarence wasn’t big on including details (places and occupations would have been helpful, Uncle C.), he was pretty good with the names and dates.

The lack of the locations where people were born, married, and died was the biggest challenge at first, but because I was working with more recent censuses (1880 and beyond, which all specify relationships to the head of the household), I was able to use family structure and that was a huge help. Even though I was searching for families named Smith, I was fortunate in that they were large families. There may have been several families with William Henry as the patriarch, but when you factored in the names of his ten children, they were pretty easy to identify.

Even though the families cited in Uncle C.’s work were pretty easy to find by using the search options to “Add family members,” I extended my searches beyond the families cited in the work to make sure that there were no other families in the area with similar structure that could have been confused with Mark’s ancestors. I found a few similar families and although I think I’m on the right track with those that I’ve attached to my tree, I have started a file with details on these other families. Once I’ve laid the groundwork with census records, I’ll be digging into other record types to further prove the relationships. (I’ve already found one ancestor in the Civil War pension index and can’t wait to order that record.) As I begin digging into other records, the file of similarly-named people in the area will come in handy in distinguishing which records belong with each family.

Concentrate on One Person at a Time
The census research moved very quickly, and several times I had to force myself to slow down. When you’re on a roll finding record after record it’s easy to fall prey to “click and attach syndrome.” I found myself gobbling up census records like a little Pac-Man, just methodically clicking and adding them to my tree.

As I watched profiles fill up, I could see a growing list of residences through the census records I had attached, so I had a little bit more detail than what was included in Clarence’s, but I was missing so many details by not savoring every record I found. To get to know this family, I needed to go back and start reading those records.

As I followed Mark's great-grandfather's trail through the census, I saw him go from being a porter in a hotel to a carriage finisher, and finally, with the popularity of the automobile soaring in the early twentieth century, on to a career as an auto mechanic.

Going back a generation, his great-great-grandfather Franklin’s occupation was listed consistently as a blacksmith, perhaps a skill he learned working with his father, William Henry Smith, who was a gunsmith.  Just above William in the 1850 census, a James Henry is listed as owning a “rifle manufactory” with real estate valued at $15,000—a pretty penny in those days. In fact, of the nine occupations listed on that census page, six of the wage earners were involved in the gun industry, and a glance at previous and subsequent census pages revealed that this was pretty big business in the area.

This piqued my interest, so I set aside my Pac-Man ways and began digging a little deeper into the history of the area where they lived—Bushkill Township, Northampton County, Pennsylvania. 

I decided to see what local history materials had for Northampton County. I went to the Search tab and selected the state of Pennsylvania from the map in the lower left corner of the page. I’ll be using this page to survey other collections that are available for Pennsylvania for future research, but for now I was interested in the collections of “Stories, Memories & Histories,” particularly those from Northampton County. 

Narrowing the search to Northampton County, I found the “History of Northampton County (Pennsylvania) and the Grand Valley of the Lehigh,” which was published in 1920. I searched the book for Bushkill, which was the township where they lived and found this paragraph in the chapter describing the various townships.

Since Henry is the surname of the William Smith’s gun manufacturing neighbor, it sounds like this may have been a family industry. A search of the Internet also turned up links to the Jacobsburg Historical Society, which had even more information about the Henry family, the gun-making industry in the area and their production of firearms for the U.S. government. The gun-making history of the area and Mark’s Smith ancestor’s involvement should be an interesting facet of the family history to explore.

Whole Family Research
As I mentioned, the large Smith families made things easier for me. While researching each sibling of his direct ancestor’s meant a bit more work, it helped me greatly by the time it came to research the next generations. Often I had found the older generations living with children in their later years.

Researching the family as a whole and going through and reading the records I’d gathered for each person gave me a better look at my husband’s ancestors. While I have much more to do, even at this early stage, I have enough details to share with him and my daughter that will allow them to get to know and appreciate their Smith ancestors. 

Juliana Smith has been writing articles and editing newsletters at for more than thirteen years. When she’s not writing about family history, she’s probably off trying to track down her own or her husband’s ancestors.

Other articles in the 17 July 2011 Weekly Discover:  

Mapping Your Ancestors

Family History Tip: Changing African-American Names 

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