Case Study: Researching an Ancestor on Genealogy Websites

Case Study: Researching an Ancestor on Genealogy Websites

What records might genealogy websites have for your ancestor? How might, and other sites figure into your search? Let our online research case study show you.

Discovering the story of John Hudson Pennington took research on every site mentioned in this guide—and then some. I learned he got government contracts to build railroads in Mexico and Colombia, and a “grand hotel” in Guatemala. His banana plantation in Honduras was set to earn a fortune, but failed when a storm blocked a shipment. He was married at least five times, charged with bigamy and had an affair. Purportedly a millionaire at one time, he died flat broke. 
I had no trouble finding him, born in about 1849 in Maine, in the 1860 census of Houlton, Maine, when he was 10 years old at the home of his older brother George (my ancestor). He’s also easily found in the 1880 census in Minnesota, where he worked for a machine manufacturer and lived with his first wife, Maggie, and their six children. 
Finding him in other censuses was more challenging. I recognize his family in the 1850 census of Houlton, Maine, but there’s no son John, about age one. Instead, there’s a 3-month-old named Richard. I believe that was his original name, and his parents later renamed him. 
John’s father, William, was a farmer and preacher in Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. The family moved often. I’ve found them in microfilmed 1861 census records of the parish of Moncton, Westmorland County, New Brunswick. Several websites have Canadian census records, but I can’t find the Penningtons in 1861 on those sites. As it turns out, Moncton Parish was left out when the records were digitized. Microfilm is the only option to view them. Online records from the 1871 census of Southampton Parish, York County, New Brunswick, do name John (“Hodgen J. Pennington”) and his wife. 
The Oct. 21, 1900, Cincinnati Enquirer mentions “Captain J. H. Pennington,” so I checked Cincinnati city directories around that year and found him in 1900 and 1901.
Online newspapers were indispensable in tracking John’s moves across the United States and abroad. News items on his marriages, divorces, land transactions and other business signaled other records to pursue. For example, a Feb. 28, 1909, Baltimore American article on GenealogyBank reports John petitioned the circuit court for a divorce from his wife Florence, so I hired a researcher to get the court records from the Maryland archives. John had told a housekeeper that he and his wife were living apart, “on account of her extravagance, that as long as he had money to keep up her wants, it was all right.”
GenealogyBank also has an April 18, 1894, New York Herald article illustrated with a sketch of John in a top hat and coattails. It states “Col. Jeremiah H. Pennington hopes that his marital misadventures will soon be at an end … By his own admission Col. Pennington has been very careless in acquiring wives … [He] is tall, young and handsome … has good features, frank blue eyes and a smile that never disappears.”
Among its passenger lists, has many matches to a search for John H. Pennington, born in 1850 in Maine. Those for John H. or J. H. Pennington born between 1850 and 1855 appear to be the right person. He and his young bride Beatriz arrived from South America in New York on the Philadelphia Sept. 20, 1893. She’d soon learn he still had a wife in California. (She didn’t know about the one in Canada he’d probably never divorced.) New Orleans passenger lists show him arriving from Belize in 1896 and twice in 1901, from Costa Rica in 1899, and from Cuba in 1905.
I’ve found only the last of John’s five marriages online:’s index Wisconsin Marriages, 1836-1930, reports: John Howard Pennington, born in Ho[u]lton, Maine, to William Edward Pennington and Isabell Slipp, was married April 14, 1897, in Milwaukee, to Florence Howard Denby, born in “Brooklyn, US,” to Thomas and Maria Howard.
My last newspaper references to John find him in Baltimore, where he died in 1909.’s database Baltimore, Maryland, Deaths and Burials Index, 1877-1992 says that John H. Pennington died at age 50 in Baltimore and was buried June 30, 1909, in Loudon Park Cemetery. The source is Family History Library microfilm No. 1429985. The cemetery says it has no record of John, though, so I’ll have to borrow the film for more details. has a collection called Maryland, Register of Wills Records, 1629-1999. It’s not indexed, but browsing Baltimore City registers around the time of John’s death led me to a 1910 entry for John H. Pennington. I hired a researcher to copy the file at the Maryland State Archives. John’s will leaves Golden Fruit Co. stock to friends, and the rest of his estate to four children. But funeral and estate settlement expenses ate up the inheritance.
From the March/April 2015 Family Tree Magazine 

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