High Gear

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium

Bertha Gearhart Jones left a pretty good genealogical trail for her great-granddaughter Reba Simmons to follow. But as is often the case in family history, the path is cluttered with confusing dates, names and places. Simmons knows the names of Bertha’s parents and a brother, but couldn’t find out anything else about the family. She’s doing a great job of researching basic records; delving into additional resources will add to this story and may straighten out conflicting details. Let’s help her get through this genealogical maze and kick her Gearhart research into high gear.

Cold start

The first step in tackling any genealogical problem is to identify what you already know and how you can use that information to find out what you want to know. As experts advise, Simmons worked back from her own parents, Erma Shull and Walker Spurlock, to her grandparents Louise Jones and Clyde Shull, then to Jesse Jones and Bertha (aka Willie B.) Gearhart.

Her initial online sleuthing and contact with a fellow researcher led her to several censuses and vital records. Focusing her attention on three West Virginia counties (Cabell, Mason and Putnam), and one in Ohio (Lawrence), Simmons was able to narrow her search.
She also visited the Cabell county courthouse and found a death certificate for Bertha Gearhart, which noted she was born April 26, 1880, to parents William H. and Catherine Gearhart, and died Aug. 30, 1965. A marriage record said Bertha wed Jesse Jones Oct. 21, 1903. Further research showed the couple had three children, Arnold, Louise and Don, and that Bertha had a brother, William, born between 1882 and 1884 in Mason County, WV.
Bertha’s father, Simmons learned, married Sarah C. Stickler Oct. 24, 1879—six months before Bertha’s birth. That’s certainly possible, but Simmons should look for other records to confirm these are Bertha’s parents. Also, Sarah C. is probably Catherine Gearhart, but Simmons should confirm this, too.
Creating a timeline of births, marriages and deaths will show Simmons at a glance what she’s already learned and what information is missing. She could use any number of genealogy software programs, the Genelines utility, or a free family tree-building site such as Geni. Find instructions for what to include here.
The next step should be to outline research goals and list tasks (find a research calendar here). Simmons’ goals might include “Research Sarah C. Stickler’s parents” (they may have been family friends or relatives of the Gearharts), “Find burial records for William and Catherine Gearhart,” and “Determine if Bertha Gearhart had siblings besides William.”
Bumpy ride

Looking at every census from an ancestor’s life is a basic step, one that brought up questions for Simmons. The 1920 census for Cabell County, WV, shows Jesse Jones as the head of household, with wife Bertha and children Arnold and Louise. The 1910 census lists Jesse Jones, with wife Willie B., son Don and daughter Louise.

But going back to Bertha’s childhood in the 1880 census for Mason County, WV, introduces conflicting information: It shows “John Gearhart”—instead of William—with wife Sarah C. and daughter Willie B. Inconsistency from one census to the next is a common and confounding aspect of genealogy. Sometimes the census taker misheard details, or got them from a youngster or neighbor. Or maybe a modern transcriber misinterpreted the writing. Looking at the details as a whole can help determine whether it’s the right family. Using census worksheets to transcribe key data helps to more clearly show discrepancies. In this listing, other details match enough to conclude this is Bertha’s family.
Simmons also should note the names of neighbors in case any are relatives or their surnames appear on other documents. Then she should do some additional searching on subscription site Ancestry.com 

(a version called Ancestry Library Edition is free at many local libraries). This may turn up more census results for both the Stickler and Gearhart families.

Humming along

I’d also recommend Simmons expand her search to collateral relatives, such as Bertha’s brother and her children Arnold and Don—in other words, people who aren’t in Simmons’ direct line.

During her courthouse trips, Simmons focused on vital records, another basic step. Utilizing additional resources is key. On her next trip, she should look for land, probate and other court records, which may contain the details she’s after: children’s and other relatives’ names, addresses, proof of relationships and more. Using the Family History Library catalog might save the travel. My cursory search shows microfilmed deed books, tax lists and wills for Putnam, Cabell and Mason counties. Simmons can rent film by visiting her local Family History Center (FHC).
Military records, such as WWI draft registration cards (part of Ancestry.com’s databases) are good sources for male ancestors. Church records also may prove useful. Doors to the Past, the West Virginia GenWeb Project, Cyndi’s List and Linkpendium have helpful links.
More nuggets may lie in newspapers, especially obituaries. West Virginia University library has extensive historical newspaper holdings. The library’s West Virginia and Regional History Collection has additional genealogy-related materials.
It’ll take more legwork, but plenty of resources are available to help Simmons break down her research barriers and gear up her Gearhart ancestor search.
Research Plan 
1. Record known detailson a timeline.

2. Formulate research goals.
3. Seek corroborating evidence for record discrepancies. 
4. Look for land, probate, military, church and other records.
5. Broaden research to include collateral relatives.