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On the Trail of a Credentialled Genealogist
Finding the Ancestry of Etna Briggs
by Karen Clifford, AG

Prospective clients often ask, "What does Genealogy Research Associates (GRA) do to track down families?" The question implies, "Do you have secret sources we don't have access to, or could I do research the way you do?"

Researchers at GRA are credentialled genealogists possessing accreditation from the Family History Library, certification from the Board for Certification in Washington, D.C., degree-holding individuals from credentialing universities and colleges, or interns assisting the above. They have been trained to use and evaluate major record categories. It is not so much that we use different records, but how we use these record groups that makes the difference. In the following case study, you will see exactly how we work.

Note: Twenty record lookups were used to solve this genealogical problem. Those searches are bolded. For brevity's sake, complete citations are not used in this case study.

August 13, 1997

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A client called and said, "I'm trying to find the ancestry of my grandmother, Etna Briggs, who was born in 1848 in Wisconsin and who died in 1910 in California."

"I know she was buried in Santa Cruz in 1910 but I don't know anything else about her life except her father's name was H. H. Briggs." Although the information was sketchy, we set out to find Etna's family, leaving the client to locate other family records. We knew we might need to contact her again later for other specific information.

A visit to a Family History Center (FHC) in a neighboring town allowed us to search the California Death Index, and it gave us the exact death date of Etna Briggs Iliff. If we were lucky the parent's names and places of birth might appear on the death certificate. The California death certificate does request that information, but did the question is whether or not the informant knew that information? It could take from 6 to 12 weeks for the death certificate to arrive, however, so we continued searching other records. We began with the 1850 census index CD, because Etna should appear as a 2-year-old child on it with her parents.


If we were lucky the parent's names and places of birth might appear on the death certificate.

Several Briggs families were located, but it only took a few attempts to find Etna Briggs with her parents, Harrison H. Briggs and Electa, on the 1850 Milwaukee, Wisconsin census. Her two siblings, Orion, age 6, and Vesta, age 5 months, as well as Etna, age 2, were born in Wisconsin, while her father was listed as being born in Ohio and her mother in New York.

A search of the 1860 and 1870 existing federal census index CDs revealed a Henry Briggs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A search of the actual census revealed this to be a different "H. Briggs" than Etna's father. The family seemed to have disappeared from the state.

When nothing turned out positive in the census records, we turned to available county records for Milwaukee. We found in a county history of Milwaukee, Wisconsin that H. H. Briggs and Mrs. Electa Briggs were among the founding members of a Congregational Church in 1847.

The phonedisks gave us the phone number of the Grand Avenue Congregational Church of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We called the church and requested any information on the couple. A few weeks later we received Historical Sketch — Grand Avenue Congregational Church of Milwaukee 1847-1907. Pages 7 and 11 indicated that the Free Congregational Church of Milwaukee was formed in 1847 by members of the First Congregational Church and the Presbyterian Church because these two churches would not allow meetings in favor of abolition of slavery. There were about twenty enrolled at its organization, including a Mr. Ansel Briggs. At the next meeting, on Feb 4, 1847, several names were added to the list of charter members, including H. H. Briggs and Electa Briggs. The church was sorry to inform us that they had nothing else on the couple. No death or burial records were located in their files.

While waiting for the church record to arrive, we turned to land records (available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and to its FHCs on interlibrary loan) to see if they could tell us how long the family remained in the county, if they had come much earlier to the area, and to ascertain any neighborhood connections (people who they might have associated with in case we could not find records of H. H. Briggs in the future). We found a mortgage between Rufus Chaney Jr. and Harris H. H. Briggs in 1850 and other mortgage records up to 1854 when H. H. Briggs stopped appearing in the records. No records could be found prior to 1850 in Milwaukee.


We turned to land records to see if they could tell us how long the family remained in the county.

We decided there might be some connection between the Ansel Briggs who joined the same church as H. H. within a few weeks of each other. An Ansel Briggs, age 21, single (no birthplace given), was found on the 1850 federal census index CD in Milwaukee. This younger Ansel could be the 1847 church member, as no wife was mentioned in connection with his joining the church, and other new communicants included wives' names (including H. H. and Electa). However, this young man in the census would only have been about 18 years old at the time of the church founding, yet the list calls the new member "Mr. Ansel Briggs," an unusual title for a young man, at that time.

Another Ansel was listed in the census index. He was 27 years older than H. H. (which was determined in the 1850 census) and had children born in Ohio, which is where H. H. claimed to have been born. We felt the older one would have most likely been the one referred to as Mr. Ansel Briggs in the church records. He lived in Walworth County. Even if the younger Ansel was the name in the church history, this still suggests a connection to H. H. Briggs: Since the given name Ansel is uncommon, and the population was not large at that time in this area, it would seem likely that Ansel the younger would be the son of the older Ansel.

A search of the vital records (birth, marriage, and death) of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from Family History Library records revealed nothing, so we undertook a search of the surrounding counties, starting with Walworth because of the elder Ansel Briggs. This turned out to be effective as it produced the maiden name and marriage date of Etna's parents. The marriage of Harris H. Briggs and Electa Harrington was duly solemnized at East Troy, Walworth County, Wisconsin Territory, 21 Jan 1844 by Gaylord Graves, Justice of the Peace. Mr. Graves didn't get around to registering the marriage until 3 months later.


A search of the vital records of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, revealed nothing, so we undertook a search of the surrounding counties

So far, no documentation linked the two Briggs (Harris and Ansel) together, but we found several other Briggs families were living in Walworth county. Indeed, that was Ansel's county of residence. Following genealogy clues means we are always asking ourselves questions, like: "Why would Ansel be joining a church in Milwaukee county in 1847 if he appears in Walworth county (one county away) in the 1850 census?"

While a connection between Harris and Ansel seemed probable, it was wise to seek additional proof before spending significant time learning Ansel's ancestry. The problem was that neither Ansel or H. H. Briggs appear in later Wisconsin records. The 1882 and 1912 histories of Walworth county did not mention them, nor did the 1894 collective biography or the 1860 census. The Milwaukee city directories available at the Family History Library listed Harris H. H. Briggs as a painter in 1847-48 and 1848-49, but not later. The only other Briggs individuals through 1855 were a Reuben and Uriah F., names not even in the 1850 census. It appeared the family, if they were connected, had moved in the early 1850s.


With a brick wall appearing in the foreground, we asked ourselves other questions. How did Etna get to California? When did she come? Could her family have moved because of the gold rush? When did she marry? Could her marriage provide us with clues? Coming forward on the family line is a tried and true technique for genealogists when something stops the progress backward in time.

A call to the client who had been gathering together other family clues from relatives revealed that her grandfather, James N. Iliff, was born in Kansas in 1841. She assumed her mother and father were married there. Her grandfather's birth year made him the perfect age to have served in the Civil War. A search of the Civil War Pension File Index revealed this to be the case, so we obtained his Union Pension records from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., through our associate there.


Coming forward on the family line is a tried and true technique for genealogists when something stops the progress backward in time.

The pension records proved invaluable for all the clues and facts it provided:

  1. The marriage of James N. Iliff of Lecompton, KS, age 26 and Etna Briggs of Centerville, Kansas, age 19, 26 Dec 1868, at Oskaloosa, Jefferson Co, KS; John W. Day, Probate Judge. [No witnesses listed on the marriage license.]

  2. Each residence of James N. Iliff from the end of the war until 1907 was provided. His places of enlistment and discharge, and individuals who signed as being acquainted with him were given.

  3. The death record of James N. Iliff and the residences of his widow were provided.

  4. The location and verification of the sister of Etna Briggs Iliff who in 1910 stated she was Vesta B. Boynton speaking in behalf of her sister. Vesta also gave a clue that she was raised in the same neighborhood as James N. Iliff in Iowa. A state which had not as yet been searched.

  5. Finally in Selma, California, 14 Jun 1910, an O. W. Stearns, who was born in Iowa in 1854, spoke in behalf of Etna Briggs so she could receive her widow's pension. He said she had lived with his parents from the time he was too small to remember until he was 10 years old. He said that Etna was about 5 years older than he and that she was like a sister to him. She left his home when she was about 16 years old. After she had been gone about two years, he learned by a paper notice of Etna's marriage to James N. Iliff. The Stearns family had kept in correspondence with her.

With these new clues, we searched the CD census indexes and records for the Stearns family. We found Etna on an 1860 census in Iowa, Fayette County, Westfield Township living with the Winslow Stearns family. Both Winslow and his wife, Phoebe, were born in Vermont. Living with them was Orvil W. Stearns (the O. W. who had given testimony in 1910), his one-year-old sister, Oran Briggs age 15 born in Wisconsin; and "Edny" Briggs (as she was enumerated) age 12, born in Wisconsin.

Now that we knew where two of the children had gone in 1860, we began to wonder what happened to their parents and the other sibling. We found Etna's sister, Vesta, on the 1860 census in Iowa, Fayette County, living with the Hoyt family. Mr. Hoyt's wife Juliaett, was born in Vermont. Vesta was listed as 10 years old and born in Wisconsin. Perhaps these Vermont families were related to Etna's mother. There were several directions we could go at this point: we could pursue the Harrington family of Walworth County, Wisconsin, or go further on the later family clues which were proving so fruitful. Professional genealogists have learned to exhaust the records of one area and more current time periods before moving backward in time where records become more and more scattered and scarce.


Professional genealogists have learned to exhaust the records of one area and more current time periods before moving backward in time where records become more and more scattered and scarce.

Why would Etna have left the Stearns home at the tender age of sixteen? By going to where her could her parents be located? Since Etna had married in 1867 in Jefferson county, Kansas, we pursued several records there. The 1870 census indicated a Henry H. Briggs, age 53, a farmer, born in Ohio living in Perry Borough, Jefferson county with a wife Rebecca (41, born Ohio) and a son whose name appears to be Charm (age 7, born Kansas). If this were Etna's father, Rebecca appears to be a second wife. She is about 10 years younger than Electa, and not born in New York, as Electa was. The likely scenario was that Electa died shortly after 1850 and Harris sent his three young children to live with other families, as he could not take care of them.

Since the pension record of James Nelson Iliff mentioned Etna Briggs' early years in Fayette county, Iowa, we turned there for clues to prove Harris' connection to Ansel. One volume of cemetery records for Fayette county did not include the Briggs family, but the volume is incomplete. The county histories, however, included several significant comments about the Briggs family, as well as the Iliff, Hoyt, Stearns families, with which Ansel's children were living in the 1860 census.

The 1878 History of Fayette County listed the soldiers who served in the Civil War, and included Orion Briggs, Etna's brother, as well as George S. Briggs, Harris's potential brother. It did not mention the two children, but notes that the Sterns family was from Vermont and that they were members of the Congregational Church, which could explain the children's presence in their home.

Having learned that Harris' son apparently served in the Civil War, we checked for pension records. The index indicated that Orion Briggs served in Company F, 9th Iowa Infantry (which matched the 1878 history) and that he received a pension in 1890 in Kansas. We requested his pension file, because it might indicate more about his early life and suggest where else to look for his father Harris H. H. Briggs, as well as Ansel.

With limited new information in Iowa and Kansas, we focused on seeing if earlier records about Ansel could document his marriage and children. With a birth in Massachusetts (according to the 1850 census) and children's births in Ohio, those became the most likely states to seek his marriage to a Susannah within a few years after 1810. Fortunately, the marriages for both states are well indexed in the International Genealogy Index (IGI) at the Family History Centers. The Massachusetts IGI listed an 1814 marriage of an Ansel Briggs to Susannah Allon (sic) in Bernardston, Franklin county. This was an important lead as this seems surely to be the Wisconsin couple, and likely parents of Harris H. H. Briggs, so we began searching records of that area.


With limited new information in Iowa and Kansas, we focused on seeing if earlier records about Ansel could document his marriage and children.

The 1902 history of Bernardston did not mention Ansel, but it did discuss the Allen family of the town. However, its comprehensive genealogy of that family did not mention Susannah. The only Briggs entry was a notation that Owen Briggs, born about 1758, served in the Revolutionary War in 1780. Clearly he was the right age to be Ansel's father, so we set out to learn more about Owen Briggs.

The vital records of Bernardston were extracted and entered into the IGI, and since Ansel did not appear in the IGI, we reviewed the printout of the birth extractions. The births showed no Briggs entries, nor a birth for Susannah Allen. Two family histories about Briggs descendants did not include any reference to Owen or to Ansel Briggs. Since the history of Bernardston claimed that Owen served in the Revolutionary War, we checked for a Revolutionary War pension for him and found that indeed, both he and later his widow received a federal pension for his service. The abstract of his pension files indicated that he also lived at Leyden, Massachusetts, that he did have children, but only Thomas was mentioned, and that he later lived in Lincoln county, Vermont.

This lead sent us to records of Addison county, where neither the history of his town, Lincoln, nor the probate records mentioned Owen or his children. Backtracking to Leyden, where he also served, we learned that Leyden was created from Bernardston. Although the history of Leyden mentioned Owen's Revolutionary War service, only one child was mentioned, a son Owen. It also alluded to a Zadock Briggs, a Revolutionary soldier. With the New England states possessing numerous town records, the Briggs family was located in extracted IGI entries. Owen Briggs, noted in Leyden records, married Margery Brown and had eight children between 1787 and 1802, but none were named Ansel. As this is the very period in which Ansel was born (about 1790), it seemed to rule out Owen as his father.

With Owen no longer a candidate, we focused on Zadock who also served in the Revolutionary War from the same area where Ansel later married, and whose age made him an excellent possible father for Ansel. According to the DAR Patriot Index, a Zadock served from Massachusetts and died in Ohio in 1823. Since Ansel's children were born in Ohio (if indeed he was Harris H. H. Briggs' father), this was encouraging. The index to Ohio probates shows a Zadock Briggs will in Washington county in 1823. This will, and the accompanying probate papers revealed much about his family, including the fact that he had a son Ansel, along with several other children.


With Owen no longer a candidate, we focused on Zadock who also served in the Revolutionary War from the same area where Ansel later married, and whose age made him an excellent possible father for Ansel.

In his will, Zadock named his wife, Sally as well as five sons and three daughters. Henry, the eldest son only received a dollar, apparently having already received his share of his father's estate. The balance went to the other sons, at one-quarter of the estate each, but each had to give a legacy to a specific sister. Son Ansel was to give $100 to his sister Asenath Jacobs, son Zara was to give $110 to his sister Sally Haynes, and both Marcus and Franklin were to give their sister Polly Very $40 each. Ansel was named the executor. An accompanying list of Zadock's estate, and who bought what items, revealed he possessed many goods. Ansel bought many items. Similar items, and amounts, were purchased by the other sons, sons-in-law, and others. Clearly Zadock had been successful.

With this record proving that Zadock had a son Ansel, the evidence was mounting (in particularly two areas) that this was the Ansel who later settled in Wisconsin: An Ansel in the same area as Zadock married Susannah "Allon" in 1814, and Zadock's son Ansel later lived in Ohio, where the Wisconsin Ansel was having children. We therefore set out to learn more about Zadock.

He did indeed serve in the Revolutionary War, as the comprehensive Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the Revolutionary War and the Daughters of the American Revolution Patriot Index notes. He served from Northampton, a neighboring town to Leyden. Knowing he died in Ohio, we checked the Official Roster of Soldiers of the American Revolution Buried in Ohio, also by the Daughters of the American Revolution. This reference provided much about him, including alleged birth dates for many of his children, including Ansel in 1790, which matches the 1850 Wisconsin census.

That reference included a source citation to the DAR Magazine which included information from a descendant of Zadock, Mrs. Willis Wagener, of Palo Alto, California in 1950 seeking information on his birth and marriage, as well as information on many of his children.

To explore Zadock further, we examined the research files of Walter Corbin (The Corbin Collection), a professional genealogist who specialized in Western Massachusetts during the first half of this century. His files included a fifteen-page file on the Briggs family, most of which is correspondence from Mrs. Wagener in 1948 seeking Zadock's ancestry. Fortunately, she provided detailed information on the descendants she already knew. She appears to descend from Ansel Briggs, as she names his twelve children, including many we had not noted in the Wisconsin records. She seems to call Ansel her great-grandfather and implies access to family records or memory. In any event, this served as sufficient proof of the connection to Harris H. H. Briggs, whom she names as "Harris Henry Harrison" Briggs. She also identifies Ansel's wife as Susannah Alton, not Allen or Allon.

Based on this research, it will take some time yet to determine Zadock's parentage. He may be connected to Owen, and to other Briggs who settled in Western Massachusetts. We will have to search many original records, including land and probate records, to find the connection.

We briefly explored the female lines. Susannah Alton, based on the IGI, seems to be the daughter of Amasa Alton and Silence, born 1795 in Vermont. The Ancestral File included several generations of Amasa Alton's ancestry, notably that of his mother, Susannah Blood. This conflicts with Mrs. Wagener's statement that Susannah's mother's maiden name was Blood (not her grandmother) and will have to be explored further. Indeed, this entire portion of Harris Briggs' ancestry needs to be verified in the published literature as well as original records.

Zadock's wife, Harriet Seymour should also be identified and may trace back to the earliest New England settlers. We look forward to pursuing these families further.

As the saying goes, "To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." An amateur genealogist uses only the tools he possesses (such as a knowledge of one record group — the federal census records), while the credentialled genealogist has developed the expertise to use many other sources. Especially those sources most likely to give the information in the fastest time possible.

About the Author

Karen Clifford is an Accredited Genealogist, an instructor in an Associates Degree program in Library Science-Genealogy and Computers at Hartnell College (Salinas, California) and Monterey Peninsula College (Monterey, California), and the Founder and President of Genealogy Research Associates, Inc. She has authored several family histories and textbooks including Genealogy & Computers for the Complete Beginner; Genealogy & Computers for the Determined Researcher; Genealogy & Computers for the Advanced Researcher; and Becoming an Accredited Genealogist.

Karen currently serves as Vice-President of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and Vice-President of the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA). She is a member of the California State Genealogy Alliance, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the National Genealogical Society, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. In 1998 and 1999, Karen served as Director of UGA's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She has received several awards for her volunteer work in the genealogy community including the FGS Award of Merit and the FGS Outstanding Delegate Award.

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