The genealogy goes on. . . with negative findings

Review any death certificate and obituary.  In many cases, the person’s birth information, including names of parents, is correct. You can easily find more about the family from census and other records. What if the information is not that easy to find?  Negative evidence and information can still provide clues. In this post, I describe my frustrating search for C.W. Black, presumed father of Nellie Black Johnson, and one of my husband’s maternal great-great grandfathers.

According to Nellie’s death certificate[1], her parents were C.W. Black and Mary Bull. Nellie’s oldest daughter, Katie Jean Johnson Brannon, provided the information.  Nellie’s obituary[2] stated that she was born in Montague county, Texas and spent most of her life in Limestone county, Texas.  I begin an attempt to prove that the information is correct.  A DNA Match with Nellie’s granddaughter (my husband’s mother) led to the possible identification of Marianne Bull, born about 1855 and daughter of Isaac L. Bull and Sarah Neel, as Nellie’s mother.

Discovering C.W. Black has been more difficult. What can I expect to find? Start with the 1900 census.

  • Evidence for Nellie’s birth year of 1888:  Census records for 1920 through 1940 plus Nellie’s death certificate support this date, plus or minus one year.
  • Evidence for Nellie’s reported birth place: Nellie should be with one or both parents in either Montague county or Limestone county, Texas.  Search criteria:  families with Black surname, females 11 or 12 years old with first name of Nell, Nellie or Nettie.


Transcription errors are possible. Handwriting can be hard to read. Faded ink creates illegible entries. Online databases do not always capture the person or family that you are searching for.  I searched the 1900 census for selected Texas counties page-by-page.  So far, I found six families with surname of Black in Montague county and 19 families with surname of Black in Limestone county.  I recorded all individuals on blank census forms. [3] Results to date?  None that described Nellie or her reported family.

These are negative findings.  According to Elizabeth Shown Mills, negative findings are “the absence of information we hoped to find.” [4]  I hoped to find Nellie and at least one parent in either Montague or Limestone counties.  Negative evidence, as defined in Genealogy Standards, is “a type of evidence arising from the absence of a situation or information in extant records where that information might be expected.”[5]  My search is not complete so I cannot label it as negative evidence.

Example, 1900 census form, Montague county, Texas, families with Black Surname. Compiled by Susan Posten Ellerbee, March 2020.

One genealogical standard is termed “evidence mining”.[6]  We look for items to answer our research questions. In this instance, the findings are negative.  The standard encourages us to not ignore any potentially useful evidence or information even if it’s negative. Pay attention to all of the evidence not just evidence that is direct or indirect.

These preliminary negative findings suggest that Nellie and her parents did not live in either Montague or Limestone counties in 1900.  At this time, I cannot confirm where they lived in 1900.  Alternative hypotheses:

  1. Nellie and her parents (or at least one parent) lived in another county in Texas in 1900.
  2. Nellie and her parents (or at least one parent) did not live in Texas when the 1900 census was taken.
  3. Nellie and her parent/ parents were not counted in the 1900 census.
  4. Nellie’s father died before 1900 and her mother remarried. Nellie is listed with surname of her stepfather.
  5. Both of Nellie’s parents died before 1900. Nellie lived with another family.

My research question remains the same:  Where did Nellie and her parent/ parents live at the time of the 1900 census?  Where to next?  Search Falls county, Texas, home of many in the Bull family, and next door to Limestone county.

As my frustration mounts, I temporarily halt this search. Next post:  My continued search for C.W. Black.  


This post is shorter than many. I am stumped and need to take a break. These negative findings take more time than expected as I process the information.  Searching census records page by page is not difficult but is tedious. Initially, I wrote a short post about genealogy during this Corona Virus crisis but decided not to post it. Others have done so. I just keep on working.

I questioned my mother-in-law about her dad’s mother’s family. She does not remember Nellie’s family ever being discussed or visited – no mention of aunts & uncles or cousins. Nellie died when mother-in-law was in her early 20s. I don’t remember if I knew the names of my great-grandparents when I was that age. But, my parents freely shared that information with me later.  And, I heard the names of cousins, aunts and uncles (such as Dad’s Uncle Frank, his mother’s brother) on both sides.  Tracing my parents’ families seems easy compared to this brick wall. Was there some scandal? Possible that Nellie was an only child? Possible that Nellie’s mother died in childbirth and Nellie was taken in by other family members? Possible that Nellie might be found in an orphanage in 1900? Is Nellie’s maiden name really Black? Given the DNA connection, I believe that Nellie’s mother was a Bull. The identity of her father remains a mystery.  

What helped:  Blank census forms from NARA, mostly legible handwriting on census records.

What didn’t help: feeling overwhelmed by this and our nation’s current health crisis.  

To-do: Search 1900 census in Falls county, Texas for families with Black surname. Complete page-by-page search of 1900 census in Limestone and Montague counties. If no relevant findings, expand searches to other counties. Write post about limited findings for C.W. Black as found in online databases.

©Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Your Roots blog, 2020.


[1] “Texas, Death Certificates, 1903-1982,” digital images, Ancestry (  : viewed & downloaded 27 February 2020), entry for Nell Johnson; citing Texas Department of State Health Services, Austin, Texas; certificate no. 37422.

[2] “Funeral services for Mrs. Johnson set for Wednesday,” obituary, Mexia Daily News, 3 May 1960; digital image, ( : accessed & printed 6 March 2020); citing Mexia Daily News (newspaper), Mexia, Texas.

[3] . “Resources for Genealogists, Charts and forms, Federal Census Forms, 1900 census,” The National Archives and Records Administration (  :  accessed 1 February 2020).

[4] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained, 3d ed. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015), 25.

[5] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 2d ed. (New York, New York: Turner Publishing Company, 2019), 81-82.

[6] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 24-25.

5 thoughts on “The genealogy goes on. . . with negative findings

    • Thanks! Yes, this is interesting. I looked it up. Nellie’s DOB on that 1900 census is recorded as Feb. 1882. Our Nellie’s DOB was Jan 1888 (presuming, of course, that info on her death certificate is correct). Per census records, our Nellie reported her age as 32 in 1920, 42 in 1930 and 52 in 1940, consistent with birth year 1887/1888. Also on that 1900 census that you shared– Elisha Black age 14. Elisha’s death certificate show his mother as “Mattie Bull”. I am still exploring families with surname of Black in various Texas counties and following all leads. Not ruling out any possibility at this time. Susan


  1. I hope you caught that there are Two Nellie’s in that entry…..the daughter born Feb 1887 and an older daughter in law (presumably the wife of David) born Feb 1882. With the 1900 census taken in June, the daughter Nellie would have recently turned 12 yrs old and the entry looks like either 12 or 13 written over. That would fit then with 22 in 1910, 32 in 1920 etc. But yes, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the death certificate and the name “Mattie Bull” as the mother too.


  2. Pingback: Friday’s Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

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