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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

December 20, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Place of Death

Q: I am trying to find out when my great-grandfather died. I know he lived in Sangamon County Illinois, Cotton Hill Township. He and my grandmother had their last child in 1891 and when I find them on the 1900 census it tells me my great-grandmother is head of household and a widow. I don't know where to search for when and where he died and where he is buried. -- Jackie

A: You have narrowed your time frame of death down to about nine years. If the family stayed put in Sangamon County, that would be the first place to begin your research.

Usually the first place to check for records would be the Family History Library, as this is certainly the type of record that they do try to microfilm. However, the death records that appear to be available online stop in 1890, which is before the time you need. There also is no index to the death records, which would have made it easy for you to write and request a copy of the death certificate if you had found his name in it.

You may want to get some of the cemetery records that are available. These records would at least narrow your search down to a date. This would then make it possible for you to write directly to the county courthouse to get a copy of his death certificate.

If he moved around a lot then you will need to begin by creating a time line of his life so you can see all the places you know he resided in over the course of his life. Then you will need to systematically look into those places to see if there are records and if the records have been microfilmed and if they have been indexed. A long process, but sometimes the only alternative.

Primogeniture and Inheritance

Q: I am researching a family who was in NJ. The youngest son was born in 1864. There were two sons, only the oldest one was mentioned in the will of his father (about 1870), along with a nephew. In the will of the mother (about 1900) the only person mentioned was the oldest child. In 1880 the youngest had left NJ for NYC to go to school to be a butcher. In 1884 he got married in AZ and by 1890 had a butcher shop in Los Angeles. By 1900 he was divorced and had moved to WA state. He remarried in about 1903 in WA. In other words, he was long gone from the family. I need to find information that supports that it was not necessary to name all children in a will. -- ETS

A: There are a number of reasons that a child is not mentioned in a will. For many families it has to do with the child having already received his or her share. This often happened when the child married and went to live on his or her own.

I have an example of a family where the father mentions only the younger children of the family in the will, those who have not yet reached maturity at the time he wrote the will. His older children, of which there were four I have documented, were not mentioned at all in the will. In the case of these four children, they all were married, on their own with families of their own.

The law of primogeniture where the oldest son inherits everything with or without the will is not something that carried on to the late 1800s. In most states, those that practiced this anyway, you will find that the practice was discontinued shortly after the American Revolution or at the latest into the early 1800s. In fact, the law of primogeniture was forbidden and all colonies that practiced it had revoked it by statute by 1811.

Of course, you will want to investigate the laws specific to the locality where the individual died to see what inheritance laws were in place at the time of the death. This will give you the best information about inheritance. You might also look for records before the death. Perhaps the father gave the son a plot of land for a dollar or some other small price and this was his inheritance, thus explaining why he didn't show up in the will.

Another reason a person might be excluded from the will would be from a falling out within the family. Perhaps the son disobeyed his father by choosing a bride or occupation that was unacceptable to his father.

Records for Castle Garden

Q: I would like to ask a question about the place folks came through before Ellis Island. It was called Castle Garden. Wondering if you can help me find out where they keep their records. I have been trying in vain, or is this impossible? -- RUGRATGRM1

A: You are correct, before the opening of Ellis Island, immigrants arriving at the Port of New York in New York City came through Castle Garden. Castle Garden was located in Manhattan.

The big misconception here is that the passenger lists are related specifically to Ellis Island or Castle Garden. In actuality, the passenger lists were maintained by the Port of New York. As the processing center was moved, this did not affect the records or where they ultimately ended up.

The passenger lists for the Port of New York beginning in 1820 can be found on microfilm through the National Archives, the Family History Library, other major genealogy repositories and some public libraries with large genealogy collections.

The biggest problem with the records of the Castle Garden era are the lack of an index. There is no complete index to these records. You may find some of them have been indexed by genealogical societies or individuals. You can find a number of them in the International and Passenger Records Collection.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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