Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Dear Genea-Man: Why Can't I find my Ancestor in the Census?

Dear Genea-Man: Why can't I find my ancestor in the 1900 census? I know his full name, his date of birth, his parents names, and some of his sibling names.

Genea-Man responds: Even though you know all of those facts, it is possible that the census enumerator didn't get them right - he may have misspelled the names, made mistakes on the dates, or mixed up your family with another family. We don't know who gave the information to the enumerator - was it one of the parents, or one of the children, or the housekeeper, or a neighbor?

Even if the enumerator got most of it correct, what did the indexer see on the census page years later? Was the enumerator's handwriting clear? Did the ink on the page fade, or was the page damaged before it was indexed? Even worse, what if the indexer had a bad day or intentionally messed up? The latter is probably far-fetched...

Based on my own research, and opinions shared by others with me, it appears that perhaps 75% to 85% of all names were enumerated and indexed fairly well. Another 5% to 15% are poorly enumerated or indexed, but are able to be found using the indexes and creative searches. The last 5% to 15% were either not enumerated, or the records are not available or readable, or were enumerated and indexed so badly that they can't be found.

Searchers need to understand that there are differences between the two most popular online census search sites:

1) (a personal-use subscription site, or free at libraries with Ancestry Library Edition) has all of the US Census records available online. They have a Head of Household index for 1790 through 1840 and an Every-Name index for 1850 to 1930. Ancestry lets you put in a birth year and select an age range (plus or minus 0 years, 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years or 20 years). Ancestry permits wild cards in the given name and surname fields (a minimum of 3 letters then an asterisk), and permits an exact search (a check in the search box) or a Soundex search (uncheck the box).

2) The other census provider is HeritageQuestOnline which has all of the US census images, but not all names are indexed on HQO. They have a Head of Household index for 1790 to 1820, 1860 to 1880 and 1900 to 1920 only. They have a Head of Household index for the 1930 census for some states, but not all states. The spouses and children in a family are not indexed on HQO. HQO requires a full surname - no wild cards and no soundex-type search can be made. HQO lets you specify age ranges in 10 year increments (e.g., 0 to 10, 11-20, 21-30, etc.). You can get a maximum of 1,000 results on HQO - if there are more then you have to restrict your search to a smaller locality (e.g., All States to State to County to Town).

My list of "tricks to try" for elusive ancestors in the census records are to:

a) Write out the surname in longhand script. For each letter, identify other letters that are often mistaken for that letter (e.g., L and S, R and K, m and n, b and l, etc.). You can then combine letters to create alternate surnames (for example: Seaver could be Leaver, Seaner, Searer, Scaver, Seuver, Seaven, Saever, etc.) You could leave out a vowel (e.g., Sever, Lever, Seavr, etc.) or add a letter (e.g. Severs, Seavers, Seavern, Seavere, etc.) This will result in a list of names to try in the search box (especially on HeritageQuestOnline).

b) Sound out the surname. How would your ancestor have pronounced it? If he pronounced it that way, how would you have written it down? What if the enumerator was a different nationality than the householder? How would a Norwegian spell the New England name Seaver ("Sea-vah") in Wisconsin? This also results in a list of names to try.

c) Can you limit your search to a specific township, county or state? If so, search only in that locality. This reduces the number of results to a more manageable number. If you don't find your target, then expand your search to the next higher governmental division - Town to County to State to All States.

d) Do a search with only the surname. If you know a birth year and birth state, search using those items also. I always use a date range of +/- 2 years for children and +/- 5 years for adults. If those don't work, I expand the range to the next highest choice.

e) Do a search with only a given name and no surname, but with a birth year (and range) and birth state.

f) Do a search without a given name or a surname, but with a birth year (and range) and birth state. You may get too many results in a large city, so this works best if you are searching a small county or if the birth place is not a nearby state.

g) If you know the given names of the children, pick one of the names that is uncommon (e.g., I would use Josephine rather than Mary if that was a choice) without a surname, and use the birth year (with a range of +/- 2 years).

h) Put the given name or middle name initials in the given name field - some enumerators used only initials. You will get results with the initial as either the given or middle name.

i) Did the surname have a prefix like De, Mc, Mac, O, Van, Von, on the surname? The indexer might have listed it by the last part of the surname (e.g., "Knew" for "McKnew").

j) Did the enumerator or indexer leave out a letter in the name? I recently looked for a "Crosby" and it was enumerated and indexed as "Crsby." Try alternative spellings without each letter.

k) Did the enumerator or indexer misspell the given name or abbreviate it (for example Jno instead of John, Geo for George, Goerge for George, Cahrles for Charles, etc.).

l) Was a middle name used as a first name by the householder? This is fairly common.

m) Did the enumerator transpose the householder names (i.e., first name last, last name first) for the head of household?

n) For a blended family, were the children enumerated with the head of household's surname? I've seen this several times.

o) If you are using, then use the wild card search capability. You can put the first 3 letters of each name in the search box and then an asterisk (like Isa* and Sea* for Isaac Seaver) and see a list of candidates. The results list will often show the spelling variation used by the enumerator or indexer.

p) On, you can input additional names on the 1880 to 1930 census. You can input one or all of the father's given name, the mother's given name, the spouse's given name, and their birth places. This can be very effective especially for uncommon names. Of course, if one of those is wrong in the records, you won't find the target.

q) lets you search with an "Exact search" box checked or unchecked. If the box is left unchecked, you will get a long list of results, with the best matches first. I usually check the box and use the other "tricks".

r) Sometimes "less information" works better than "more information." If you know the full name (e.g.) "Frederick Walton Seaver" then you might search for "Fre* Sea*" in a county rather than put the full name into the search boxes and the town/county names. If there are too many results, then reduce them with a birth year and range and/or a birthplace, if known.

s) Have you checked all the available indexes? The Ancestry index and HeritageQuestOnline index were done at different times by different people, and there are many differences between the search terms and the results.

t) As a last resort, and if you are fairly sure where they resided in the census year, you can search line-by-line either online or on microfilm. City directories may help pinpoint a ward or enumeration district in a large city.

The census records are like a haystack. You are searching for a few needles in that haystack. The indexes currently available online are tools we use to find those needles. In many cases, they work wonderfully - we can usually find the actual census image online in minutes rather than weeks (as we did pre-2002 with microfilms).

I know my faithful readers have lots of experience with this type of research - what other tips are useful for searching the census indexes effectively?


Anonymous said...

I've used every one of those approaches, frequently with success. But here's something else: if the surname has its origins in another language, the pronunciation and spelling issue can get very complicated. For example, I had the hardest time (for three years) trying to find some of my "LeJay" relatives in Louisiana. The name is of French origin. My knowledge of French is tres petite! A correspondent with knowledge of French names suggested I try "Legire." And indeed in the 1880 census, there are the Legires--who in other censuses are known as LeJay. Not an easy one to deal with unless you know the language. Another "trick" is to drop the articles or prepositional phrases when searching certain French, Spanish, Italian or German names. For example, when loking for LeJay relatives, drop the "Le" and search only for "Jay." This works well because (1) the enumerator put down that way or (2) as frequently has happened, the family dropped the article themselves to Anglicize the name. So "von Wald" becomes "Wald,"
"de Martini" is "Martini", etc.

Becky Wiseman said...

These are great tips Randy! I had a family that I knew where they should be in 1850 (Rootstown, Portage County, Ohio) but couldn't locate them in the index. This was before Ancestry had their every-name index available. So I searched page by page in the township and finally found them. My ancestor's surname was "Berlin" but for whatever reason the census enumerator had written in the same surname as the previous household, which was "Elsworth". I know it is the right family because they had 10 children and the given names and ages are correct for everyone listed in the household.

If the every-name index had been available at that time because I could have searched for one of the children with a unique name (3 year old Milton), but even then I'm not sure I'd have clicked through to the record since the surname would have come up as "Elsworth"... sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and look through a township or even an entire county page by page or click on an index entry that doesn't seem likely.

Anonymous said...

Though not LDS, I have been doing a lot of transcriptions for the 1900 census for their new online project. After doing almost 20,000 names, I think I can probably add a few more ideas for searches...
1. My mantra is "Vowels don't count in genealogy". I would suggest searches using a wild card for each vowel. There have been many, many names that are very clearly written, but using unexpected vowels, ie. Albart for what I assume is Albert...but I have to type what is there and not guess.
2. Use a +/- 10 year age search. I can't tell you how many, for example, have an age listed as 26 and a birth year as 1884 (which would be 16), or an age of say 32 with a birth year of 1858 (which would be 42). Again, as a transcriber, I have to type what is there and not guess.

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this list! It's great having them all listed in one place.

I've become a huge fan of wildcard searching on Ancestry, typically using it before soundex and other methods.

Ancestry will also take a "?" as a wildcard character which helps in some situations. For example, the surname Hager can be spelled Hager or Hagar; searching for "Hag?r" will find both.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips. I am relatively new to genealogy, but have been amazed at everything I can find while sitting in front of my computer. I've been blogging since 2002 on a personal blog, but have been doing so much research lately that my personal blog may transmute into a genea-blog at some point.

I found some 'Feinstein' relatives in one of the censuses indexed under Firenstein. Since requires at least three letters before the wildcard, no wildcards would have pulled it up. Luckily, I had a suspicion the problem was the last name, plugged in the first name of both a son and the father, entered the state I knew they were living in, and went through the list until I found it.