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Expert Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

Oct 05, 2003
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Birth Certificates in Portugal

Q: I'd like to know how to go about obtaining the birth certificates of ancestors in Portugal. A trip there is financially out of the question. My grandmother's father, Bernadino Gonsalves Teixeira, was born in Madeira, Portugal on May 20, 1897. My grandfather's father, John Ferreira, was born on April 14, 1855 in Fayal, Portugal and his mother, Margaret Oliver, in 1861 (no month or day known) in the Azores. I already have their death certificates, as they all died in the states. I'm hoping to gain information about their parents. — Sandy

A: When researching Portugal, as is the case when you are researching many other European countries, you must first determine the town of birth or the town where the other event, such as marriage or death, took place. For most researchers this is the hardest aspect of the research. For you this has already been established. So in that respect you have one of the major steps behind you.

The civil registration in most towns begins in 1911, though there are some town registrars that have records dating back to the early 1800s. Keep in mind that civil registration in Portugal is far from complete. Even with the recording of contemporary records, it is estimated that only about 85% of current births are actually recorded. Earlier records are even less complete. Something to keep in mind as you pursue your research.

Representatives from the Family History Library have been to Portugal and have microfilmed many of the records in the country. The good news is that there are some civil registrations for Madeira. According to the Family History Library Catalog there are civil registrations of births, marriages, and deaths from 1834 to 1911 for non-Catholics in the district of Funchal. This brings up another point. In addition to civil registration, if you find that the records that are available do not cover the time you need, or in this case if your ancestors were Catholic, you will need to venture into the church records to find the information you seek.

Also, there are times when the older Portuguese records have been transferred from the town registrar to the District Archives. As I noticed with the catalog entry for the records of Madeira, while the search I did was for Madeira, the civil registration records that showed up were for those that were microfilmed in the District Archives which is in Funchal. I did not have any luck with the town of Fayal in the Family History Library Catalog, though once you identify the district Fayal is in, you may want to search the catalog for that district and see what they may have.

Searching for Slave Records

Q: The 1860 Shelby County Slave Census shows Richardson BASS owning four slaves, and from the sex and ages this appears to be a family. How can I find out when and where he acquired the slaves and when they became free? — Pat

A: The researching of slaves often requires that the researcher concentrate more on the slave owner than on the slaves themselves. If Richardson BASS had only the four slaves you mention, then he would be considered a small-scale owner. The records that you will need to concentrate on, now that you are back to this time when slaves were owned, will be:

  • Deeds
  • Census Records
  • Wills
  • Probate Records

Though this is an uncomfortable thought, it is important to remember that according to the laws of the time, slaves were not considered people. They were considered property or chattel. Slaves could be bought and sold. They could be bequeathed in a will. As a result, the slaves are likely to be listed in the inventory of an individual's estate on bills of sale.

By comparing the names and details on slaves in these records, you are likely to determine when the slaves were purchased. It is very likely that the records you will need to research may not be available on microfilm, especially if you are looking for small-scale slave owners. Their personal records, if they still exist, are likely to be located in the local historical society.

There are a number of books that you may want to read as you try to progress in your slave research, including:

  • Tony Burroughs' Black Roots
  • Charles L. Blockson's Black Genealogy
  • Franklin Carter Smith's and Emily Anne Croom's A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors
  • Dee Parmer Woodtor's Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity

Canadian Records

Q: My mother was born in Ontario, Canada. I do not find any of your products regarding emigrants from Canada. And the records I do find in the Canadian government database are quite hard to decipher. What records does your company provide in the way of information regarding Upper Ontario, Canada, regarding birth, marriage, death, etc. She married my father in St. Paul, Minnesota, and to my knowledge she was never a naturalized citizen. — Jerome

A: If your father was a citizen of the United States either by birth or because he went through the naturalization process, then your mother would have become a citizen when she married him. She would not have had to go through the naturalization process herself.

In regard to what offers for those researching in Ontario, there are quite a few databases available for Canadian, and more specifically Ontario, research. Some of them may be earlier than your current research offers, though I would mention all of those that are presently available as part of the International & Passenger Records Collection. They include

  • Canadian Genealogy Index, 1600s–1900s
  • Census Records, Ontario, Canada, 1871
  • Ontario, 1858–1869 Marriage Index
  • Ontario, 1869–1886 Marriage Index
  • Ontario, 1887–1899 Marriage Index
  • The Ontario Register, 1780s–1870s

The Canadian Genealogy Index, 1600s–1900s, was actually compiled by a genealogy company in Toronto. This massive index identifies individuals in city directories, census records, marriage records, land records, and more. There are more than two million records in this index alone. I had the opportunity to use this index for the first time when I was in Toronto a number of years ago. Originally it was found in twelve volumes that divided Canada into four regions. Each entry included a code that identified the original or published resource from which the information was taken. It is one of the most valuable Canadian resources I have found, and having it available online makes it even better.

You will also want to turn your attention to the Family History Library, or your Family History Center, which is your branch of the large genealogy library in Salt Lake City. Through your local Family History Center you can request microfilms from Salt Lake City. There are many records available for all of the provinces of Canada.

Am I Looking for a Widow?

Q: Nehemiah WHIPPLE was born circa 1750 in Hardwick, Massachusetts. He died in 1809 in Whipple Hollow, Rutland Co., Vermont. He married Sarah ROBERTS, born circa 1752. She died in Whipple Hollow, Rutland Co., Vermont. My question is, where would I find marriage records? No one has found Sarah ROBERTS' parents. I've looked in all books on ROBERTS—maybe she was a widow? Also, they had children. My Nathan was born 1794 in Vermont. I have cemetery inscriptions from Rutland County. Nehemiah's parents were Benjamin WHIPPLE and Hepzebah CROSBY. — Gwen

A: The first thing you need to do is to completely document the life of Nehemiah WHIPPLE. I am not just talking about his main life events, birth, marriage and death. You need to trace his every movement. It is important that you determine when he moved from Massachusetts to Vermont. Was it as a child? Or was it after he reached adulthood? The answer to this question will greatly affect where you are likely to locate a marriage record for him.

The use of land records and tax lists may play a heavy role in this documentation. They exist when other records, such as censuses, do not. Land records are especially useful, as they often times mention those who lived on neighboring plots of land by name.

In addition to tracking Nehemiah through these records, you will want to keep an eye out for any ROBERTS that are listed. Just write down the information. Sometimes in order to pin down where someone comes from, you have to expand your scope and begin recording information on all those with the same surname.

You mentioned having searched published ROBERTS family histories and coming up empty handed. It is always possible to overlook someone in these histories when you don't yet have a good enough handle on the person.

Your thoughts on her possibly being a widow are good. In order to follow this up, you will need to better determine when she married Nehemiah. This will be aided by the searching I described above. Once you know where he was living at the time of the birth of his first child and a few years prior, you can begin to concentrate your search in those areas.

Keep in mind that vital records are not all-encompassing for Vermont, if indeed it turns out that he was in Vermont before he married. A law greatly affected the Vermont records. The town clerks were required to record the vital records, and the cemetery records (though few of these were done) on cards which were then sent to Montpelier. These cards have been microfilmed and are available through your local Family History Center.

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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