Taking those first few steps

Every adventure begins with the first step.  I’d taken mine when I’d started tinkering around with Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. My next step was also a pretty simple one.  Two parents meant four different families to research.  Which one first?  I’d already decided to limit my search to just one family.  I had a feeling that keeping track of potentially hundreds of names from one family would be enough of a challenge.  I didn’t feel up to the task of keeping tracks of names and dates for more than one family at a time.

My decision was an easy one.  I already had two generations of Sheffey’s.  It made sense to limit myself to the Sheffey family tree. Two generations had already yielded 11 people: my paternal grandfather, his seven brothers and sisters and his father, Daniel Sheffey. This quick search had already taken me back to 1844, the year Daniel Sheffey was born.  This information came from the 1880 Census for Wythe, Virginia.

Census returns can be a blessing and a source of frustration. It is the proverbial double edge sword.  However, they can provide essential clues. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries had a rigid classification system for blacks. While inconsistently applied, the word ‘Mulatto’ did have significance, especially on census returns.  The word ‘Mulatto’ appeared against the entries for Daniel Henry Sheffey and his children.  This signified that at some point I would come across White ancestors. I’ll explain in a future post about how you can use citations of ‘Black’ and ‘Mulatto’ to assess whether or not two family groups sharing the same surname are directly related – or not.

The spelling of Christian names and surnames can be equally funny and frustrating.  I don’t know what talents or experience a Nineteenth Century census taker needed to get the job.  Spelling doesn’t seem to have been a requirement. And they don’t seem to have been inclined to ask how names were spelled  So a name like Absolom can appear as Absalam, Absolam or Abslam.  So across a number of census returns, the same person can have his or her name spelled in many different ways.  I’ll share some tips about this too in the future.

There are other clues to help you as you take your first steps in searching your family’s roots:  date of birth, county of birth, county of residence to name a few.  I’ll do a few posts to explain how and why each of these are important.

So my first steps started with Daniel Sheffey, a Mulatto born 1844 in Wytheville, Virginia, and his children. Finding details about his parents was the first priority.

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