Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Dance, Dry Bones, Dance

Dance, Dry Bones, Dance

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 30, 2010

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, and caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.

So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. – Ezekiel 37:1-10

A couple of months ago, Confutus commented that he had a fairly complete genealogical record of his large Mormon family, but found himself thinking,”Who are these people?” Although their records were good and their temple work apparently complete, he began trying to find out something about their lives:

I started doing skeletal reconstructions of family histories based the kind of information on Family Group Sheets, verifying it as much as possible from Census records. Even that little helps a great deal in turning dry lists of names into real people. It also helps to know whether brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, cousins and grandparents were living or dead, near or far.

I’ve made some (to me) fascinating discoveries, and expect to make more as I broaden my search beyond just the census records and shared pedigrees. Do you have any particular suggestions for a good next step, Ardis?

There are ways to get to know your ancestors as real people, as more than just names on the page, even if they didn’t leave diaries and other personal papers, even if they didn’t hold the kind of rank that makes historians write biographies about them. You won’t know them as well as if they had recorded their personal thoughts on paper, but you can still flesh out the genealogical skeleton and make those dry old bones dance.

This post on generic records (to be followed by a second post on LDS records) assumes these things:

  • You, like Confutus, already know the names, dates, and places that make up the standard pedigree and family group records. The purpose of this exercise isn’t to expand your pedigree, but to come to know the people whose names you already have.
  • You already have, or know how to find, the kinds of records I’ll be talking about. This isn’t a how-to of basic research, but if we talk about a kind of record that you don’t know how to find, say so in the comments and perhaps I can write a separate how-to post.

Rather than a post on basic research, this post suggests ways to evaluate the material you have gathered, to understand what it says about your ancestors’ lives, from about 1800 to 1950, generally in North America. The same techniques, if not the same records, may apply to other times and places.

First tip: Search every source you can find that covers the time and place of your ancestors’ lives. Doesn’t matter if it is trivial; doesn’t matter if it seems repetitive. Search everything, and collect every mention of your family that can be uncovered.

Second tip: When you’re evaluating your material, divide it into family groups: One set of parents and their children. Don’t try to think of the entire “Parshall line” for two centuries; focus on the single family group at a time.

Third tip: Make a chronology. List everything in date order that can be associated with a date, whether it’s a complete day/month/year, or “about 1870” or “summer 1921.” Include birth, marriage, and death dates for everyone in your family group; dates of census enumerations; dates of purchase and sale of land; dates wills were written, and dates they were submitted for probate; dates of the tax records you find; dates of military service; dates of receipts found in the handling of their estate. Everything. No matter how trivial.

Here are illustrations of things I learned about my ancestors by constructing a chronology that I probably would have missed without one:

* One farming couple in the early 1800s had quite a bit of land and quite a few children, so I was able to find quite a few records of the purchase and sale of land. With the chronology, I realized that the parents gave each of the sons 40 acres when he turned 21, or upon his marriage if he married younger. That was cool, and I might have missed the pattern of helping to set their sons up in life if I hadn’t made the chronology. Even better, though: A few months after the father died and after his estate was settled, the mother deeded 40 acres to each of her grown daughters. This was something she chose to do, because it wasn’t a requirement of the estate. Had there been disagreements between husband and wife over the uneven treatment of sons and daughters? I won’t ever know that, but I can surmise that this mother was making things right because she felt the different treatment was not right.

* When a widow died in 1876, she left small bills due for her current expenses. Merchants and others submitted their bills to the court, and the probate packet preserved both those claims and the receipts everybody signed when the debts were paid. I entered the dates found on bills, even from such “unimportant” papers as the account from the local general store. Then I realized that about three months before she died, this tee-totaling Methodist woman had almost daily purchases of brandy charged to her account. About ten days before she died, the brandy charges stopped but there were charges for laudanum (an opiate). These purchases coordinated with increasingly frequent visits from the doctor, as shown by his bill submitted to the court. The last store charge was for crepe, traditionally hung on a family’s door as a sign of mourning, charged on the day of her death. What these trivial records told me was that my grandmother had died of something very painful that took a few months to kill her – cancer, perhaps? Whatever the cause, I felt sorrow for her pain and for the children and grandchildren who watched her inevitable sinking toward death during those last months.

Usually, getting to know something personal about your ancestors, at least enough to distinguish them one from another as more than mere names on your records, means seeing what the records are trying to show you. You need a little imagination to read between the lines – but not so much imagination that you get carried away into unlikely and unsupportable fantasies. Here are some illustrations of what records told me about ancestors or other historical figures, to give you an idea of how to read between those lines:


Every census asked different questions; every family changed over time, which is reflected in the census. If your ancestors lived where there were state censuses as well as federal ones, don’t overlook the state census. For all the fearful wailing over the intrusiveness of questions on the 2010 census, this one asks nothing as intrusive – and therefore as helpful to you – as past U.S. censuses:

You learn something of the occupation of your ancestors, and sometimes their financial success at those occupations – besides the bare listing of job title, some censuses will tell you whether your grandfather was self-employed or worked for a boss; how many months he had been unemployed during the previous year; whether he could afford to own, or only rent his home; whether there was a mortgage on his farm or whether it was owned free and clear. His net worth will be indicated in a few years.

But look beyond that. Compare your family’s financial situation with that of the neighbors – was grandpa the town squire, owning more than almost everyone else? or was he an immigrant living in a neighborhood filled with other immigrants? If he lived in town, are his neighbors’ occupations “genteel” ones, or does everybody seem to be working for the same cotton mill? Does your family have a hired girl or farm hand, or are they the ones whose children are away working as hired hands for the neighbors? Is there a “flavor” to the neighborhood? If you’ve always thought of your grandmother as a seamstress, but everybody else on the page is in the theatrical business, then she probably sewed costumes, not ball gowns.

Look for family members outside the household. Does your family live next door to grandpa? Is Uncle Chuck listed on the next page? Or does your family live far from any extended family? These can all give you an idea of their general way of life.

Don’t overlook the agricultural census that is available in some times and places – the census that asked questions about every conceivable type of farm animal or crop, including some you’ve probably never heard of (mangel wurzel, anybody?). What was the family’s cash crop? Did they have horses for pleasure as well as the pair that pulled the plow? Did they have more cows than were needed for one family, and does the census indicate a higher than necessary production of butter and cheese? Did they have a half-acre vegetable garden signaling fresh veggies for the family only, or did they have extra acres of cabbage or tomatoes, suggesting that they sold the surplus at a market or to a nearby cannery? Does the agricultural census indicate that they gathered beeswax as well as honey? Then they probably had clear white light in their homes rather than the dimmer, more yellow light of oils and tallow candles.

Who in the family is doing what part of the farm work? If there’s just one or two cows, and a few pounds of butter and cheese, it’s probably the mother and her daughters; if there’s so much that it indicates industrial production, then the men were probably involved. If there are a few sheep, and the census indicates that a few dozen yards of flannel or fulled cloth were produced in the household, then you’re looking at how your grandmother and her daughters spent a good part of their time.

Probate records

These are the records of disposing of a person’s property after death, whether by will or otherwise. Genealogists like them because they indicate children and extended family members. You’ll love them for what they can disclose about your family.

Did the law require a detailed inventory of the dead person’s property? Lucky you! You’ll be able to guess a lot about your ancestors by the things listed there. Do they have clocks and mirrors? Are there tools of a trade (carpentry? medicine?) Are there spinning wheels and looms? Or is the property described only as “one lot of old forks and spoons” and “a basket of rags”? I’ve seen both types of inventories.

In some times and places a widow didn’t have the use of her husband’s property; rather, she was allowed a certain value of whatever household goods she chose, plus a share of the estate, but everything else was sold soon after a man died so that his children could immediately take possession of their inheritance. What the widow chose can tell you something of her character, perhaps: The lady who died after that painful illness chose a favorite horse; another grandmother included the children’s schoolbooks among her limited portion. Both suggested what the women prized most.

You can sometimes learn other things about a family following the death of an ancestor. Does the court record include complaints from some heirs that business isn’t proceeding fast enough, or to their liking?

Maybe you will have the good fortune to discover what I did about one of my families: A relatively wealthy farmer died after making a very elaborate will for his complicated family – three wives (successive, not plural), with children by each wife; the oldest children were 30 years older than the youngest ones; and there was a mentally retarded daughter who would need care the rest of her life. The will was very complex, with designations of differing amounts to different children according to the different responsibilities assigned to them by the father. It was professionally drawn by a lawyer. But the document that ended up governing how the estate was divided was a crude one, written in pencil on cheap school-tablet paper. The brothers and sisters, despite their varying ages and marriage status and prosperity and political power, wrote out a simple statement setting aside their father’s will, agreeing to provide the same amount specified for the widow and pledging to take care of their sister in the best circumstances possible, but otherwise dividing the property share-and-share alike. And one after another, they all signed that document. Knowing the circumstances of different family members as I do, I’m so proud of their unselfishness and their trust in each other as brothers and sisters.

Finally, read and examine even the most routine of probate papers. Notices had to be given to the heirs concerning various milestones in closing an estate – does everybody live in the same general neighborhood, or have they scattered to points west? The address given for my second-great-grandfather when his father died in New York in 1850 was “Ophir, near Sacramento.” Really? 1850? California? That is still the only indication I have found that my grandfather was part of the Gold Rush, but it’s a pretty convincing indication.

Land Records

Even though they’re boooooring and written in the legalest of legal gobbledygook, read the deeds that transferred property into and out of your family’s control. Do they pay for the property straight out? or is there a mortgage, or other payment arrangement? How is the property described? I have deeds that mention selling 40 acres “except the grounds upon which stands the schoolhouse built and donated to the people of the neighborhood” and another deed that mentions the family burial ground and its approximate location in a wooded area. Both tell me something about my families.

Who signed the deeds as witnesses? family members? strangers? I treasure one deed that is signed by a grandmother with “X her mark” but is witnessed by her daughter, who signed her name in a hand that is obviously comfortable holding the pen. I stared at that deed when I first discovered it: Here, in one document, I know the generation when the women of my family, at least in that line, became literate. (The grandmother who signed with the X, by the way, is the same woman who claimed the children’s schoolbooks as a part of her widow’s portion.)

One of my ancestors had a huge farm, and every year or two he seemed to add another 40 or 80 or 120 acres to it. He never sold a foot of it, but just built his farm larger and larger. His son-in-law, my ancestor, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to hang on to anything. He bought small parcels, as small as an acre, usually with a mortgage, and within a few months seemed to be forced to sell, only to try again a few months later with the purchase of another small parcel. What was wrong with him, I wondered? Did this cause trouble in the family? Did the father-in-law think poorly of his apparently insolvent son? Then I woke myself up one morning because I was laughing in my sleep – I had had a dream where my “insolvent” grandfather reminded me that he was a carpenter. He bought small parcels, built a house or houses upon them, and sold the property again a few months later, to his profit. Far from being insolvent, he was such a respected and competent man that he had no trouble getting mortgages time after time after time.

Court Records

Although you likely will not find court transcripts or full records of trials or lawsuits except for very recent years, even the old court ledgers from the early 19th century can tell you something. I don’t know much about Thomas Saunders, other than that he trekked into the wilderness to settle in western New York a full generation before Joseph Smith’s family reached that frontier. Somehow that says “tough guy” to me. So does the line in the court ledger saying that Thomas Saunders had been arrested for getting drunk and causing a riot.

Tax Records

Did your grandfather own a dog? Was it a pet, a working animal, a hunting companion? The tax records show that my grandfather had a dog for which he paid 50c tax every year … except when he didn’t. Did he really not own a dog every other year? Or did he not happen to mention the dog to the revenoo man when he could get away with “forgetting”?

Military Records

These records, whether they’re sparse as a muster roll in an early day, or as detailed as your grandfather’s personnel record from Korea, will tell you so much about an important period in a man’s life that you don’t need any illustrations from me of how to interpret them. Even a World War I draft registration card, whether the man ever served or not, will tell you his general build, hair and eye color, and whether he has any physical disability.


The possibilities for deducing something personal about those names on your pedigree chart are as endless as the kinds of records that have been made over the past two centuries. Consider why a record was made, consider who provided the information to create the record, consider who was doing what that caused a record to be made. That will lead you beyond the literal words on the page, and you’ll get a better idea of what your family was doing, and what kind of people they were.

Please share your own illustrations of learning something about a family member by reading between the lines of some record in your files or some story told over the dinner table.



  1. This is really quite an extraordinary post, Ardis. And the reference to Ezekiel was delightful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 30, 2010 @ 8:46 am

  2. Ardis,

    This is a priceless checklist for anyone searching out the lives, not just the names, of their ancestors. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    Comment by CurtA — March 30, 2010 @ 10:06 am

  3. Your genealogy/family history lessons are always a treat, and so helpful to novice as well as seasoned researchers. Thanks.

    Comment by Maurine — March 30, 2010 @ 10:17 am

  4. This is a “million-dollar” post. The story of the farm couple’s equitable land distribution is very telling, I think, about their character and personalities.

    I’m going to find myself referring back to this post over and over, I think, as I’m in the same situation as Confutus. With most of my ancestors joining the church in the 1800s, I’ve often felt “all the work’s been done,” so I’ve focused on family history, trying to preserve what would otherwise be soon-forgotten oral history. This lets me move beyond the early 20th Century stories, and flesh out those individuals that didn’t leave one-page life sketches.

    Comment by Clark — March 30, 2010 @ 10:47 am

  5. Bravo, Ardis! Wonderful! Thank you.

    Comment by Researcher — March 30, 2010 @ 11:04 am

  6. A great post with some very specific suggestions.

    Let me give a personal story about what this can lead to.

    My two sons ,through thier mother are descended from Peter Rambo (1612-1698). He was one of the first Sweedish settlers in the Deleware- Pennsylvania area. A few years ago we visited Philadelphia besides the usual trips to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall we visited the Old Sweedes Church which Peter Rambo helped found and where he is buried. It is the oldest continuing church in Philadelphia. We also visited the Sweedish-American museum. When I told the guide that my boys were descended from Peter Rambo they knew who he was.In Wilmington Deleware we were able to vist a reconstruction of the ship Kalmyr Nyckel which brought the first Swwedes including Peter Rambo to the New World, kind of the Sweedish/American Mayflower.

    Rambo was as my boys said a “real cool guy”. He brought some apple seeds over from Sweeden which developed into a variety of Apples know as the Rambo Apple which is still grown in the Eastern United States and literaly met William Penn when he got off the boat in Philadelphia.

    One of my boys asked me what
    I would say if I ever met Peter Rambo.(I would be very satisfied to be in the same Kingdom he is in ,given the sort of life he led and the fact that all his Temple work has been done) I think I would thank him for his contributions to the early settlement of what became the United States and also for being my boys 8th great-grandfather.

    Comment by john willis — March 30, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  7. This is terrific, Ardis. I don’t have time to read it all carefully, so I’ll have to bookmark it and come back later.

    For those with Mormon pioneer ancestors, the Overland Pioneer Travel database can be a great start in filling in the blanks in your ancestors’ records. (Since I have a only a one-page typescript of my great-grandfather’s reminiscences, there have been a lot of blanks to fill in.)

    But, between that brief record, which gave me the name of the ship he sailed on from Liverpool to New Orleans, and the Overland Pioneer database, I’ve been able to find diaries of others who were on the same ship, and in the same pioneer company. I discovered, completely by chance while at an unrelated historic site in Iowa, an article about the Mormon immigration through Keokuk in the year my great-grandfather was there. (A good argument, if I’ve ever heard one, for looking through old historical journals while others are off buying souvenirs!) The footnotes to that article have led me to more primary sources. I found a brief reminiscence of a man from the family that shared a wagon with my great-grandfather’s family (which, sadly, was not all that complimentary). And I’ve found some other people who also had ancestors on the same ship, and in the same pioneer company, who have led me to other sources. It’s been a terrific adventure–I’d recommend it to all my friends!

    Comment by Mark B. — March 30, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  8. Wonderful Ardis. So much to absorb. So little time to practice it all. I will be back here everytime I’m ready to learn a new trick. Thanks.

    And who’s to say what rank a person has to have to garner the attention of historians. I write about people whose relatives are surprised anyone would have an interest. OK, I’m not a professional biographer. I get it.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 30, 2010 @ 11:31 am

  9. Definitely a keeper post! Recently I’ve been going back over census records to glean additional information about the neighbors of ancestors and I’ve learned much about the areas they lived in. I’ve read a lot of history to help fill in background.

    Thanks for reminding me that I need to start looking at land records. I’m at the point now where maps are very useful, especially old maps if they can be found.

    Comment by Phoebe — March 30, 2010 @ 11:33 am

  10. this is a wonderful post, thanks!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — March 30, 2010 @ 11:37 am

  11. My mother has written a multi-volume history/historical fiction account of all our family lines as far back as she could trace them. The entries are life vignettes that are heavily footnoted to indicate what is supported fact and what is conjecture. It is an amazing collection of books that she has woked on for years.

    I asked Ardis for a bit of help when I was helping Mom edit one chapter where Cornelius Lott, one of our cousins, went off with the Mormons. (He, by the way, was captain of the company Mary Fielding travelled in, and it was he who was humbled when she whom he had belittled beat him to the valley.) His story is the only point of contact our family had with the church prior to me, and I was glad she included it.

    It has been a wonderful gift to get to know these men and women, often led by their faith, who went through major trials and personal triumphs and tragedies to build our present world.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — March 30, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

  12. #7 – In addition to the Overland Trail Database, don’t overlook the new Mormon Migration site:

    Comment by reed russell — March 30, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

  13. Wow, Ardis. Thank you. What a gift this post is.

    Comment by m&m — March 30, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

  14. p.s. The title sort of gives me chills.

    Comment by m&m — March 30, 2010 @ 11:46 pm

  15. Wonderful, wonderful. Thanks for this.

    Comment by Hunter — March 30, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

  16. Maybe this is too technical, but Ardis, how would you actually set up a chronology? Would you do it as an Excel spreadsheet? Or just type it in Word, and then sort it later?
    Or would a database program, like Access, be better to use in the long run?

    Comment by FMaxwell — March 31, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

  17. I just do it in WordPerfect, FMaxwell. I arrange the dates in the format:

    2010 March 31

    with a tab between each element. I usually only use the year at the beginning of a year’s events, and the month at the beginning of a month’s events, so that I can run my eye down and easily pick out where a new time period begins. Then I tab again and type out a simple description of the event. When I have new events to enter, I enter a couple of returns in the correct place — i.e., I sort manually rather than having the computer do that — and type the new event in its correct place. I wish I could paste in a sample, but it wouldn’t look right in the blogging software, which doesn’t allow for tabbed columns.

    I think a word processor works better than a spreadsheet because the length of my description of the event might be just a few words, or run for several lines. Also, I type my chronology at the beginning of the same file where I type transcriptions of all the documents I’ve found pertaining to that family. (I virtually never use the citation apparatus in a genealogy database, for instance, because I have the full text of all my data — and I’m starting now to plug in digital images since that has become so easy — in a documentation file in WordPerfect. Any word processing software has features that make entering that kind of data much easier than any genealogy database program, IMO.)

    But if you’re very comfortable with a spreadsheet or database program, either would work well. I’d suggest simply picking whatever tool you’re most comfortable with, that displays your information in a format that is pleasing to you. This is one of those tools that is intended to serve YOU, not another way to make you serve the needs of the computer.

    I’ll email you a sample of one of my chronologies if you like.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 31, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

  18. Thank you for this delightful and inspiring post.

    My husband looked over my shoulder once at the fingerprints of my great grandfather on his military records. It showed one of his index fingers amputated close to the first knuckle. I wondered aloud how that came about.
    “Well,” asked my husband, “what did he do for a living?”
    “Duh,” I had to reply, “he was a butcher.”

    Comment by Alana Considine — April 6, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

  19. Ha! I love it, Alana! Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 6, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

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