Most people generally have a specific person(s) of interest that they would like to research. They may have this person’s full name, place of birth, and other potentially useful information ready at hand. The information is plugged in to the particular database and…nothing. You go back and simplify or elaborate on your query. Still, nothing. You try over and over…yet nothing. There must be some record of this person! Why aren’t they appearing?
I recently came across this problem myself while trying to help a patron find out more information on an elusive family member. We knew the general area in which this person lived, and the family member’s maiden name. I finally found this person, but also found discrepancies that revealed why this person was so hard to find. The full name of Florence, which appeared on the census during her adult years, was written as “Flora” in 1870 when she was a child. The online transcript of the 1870 census indicated her father was born in India. I took a look at the actual census record and found “Ind.” listed. A later census record, correctly, indicated her father was born in Indiana.
Tip# 1 – Errors are common. Here are a few reasons why:
· -The census enumerator may have misheard or misunderstood the name, and thus wrote it incorrectly.
· -The indexer may have had a hard time deciphering the enumerator’s handwriting.
· -The family member, neighbor, or whoever the enumerator spoke to in order to gather information on the family, may have given incorrect information. For example, you may see a family member’s parent listed as being born in Alabama in one census record, and then see their parent listed as being born in Georgia in another.
· -The family member, neighbor, or whoever the enumerator spoke to may have given a nickname instead of a full name.
Tip #2 – Family information should be taken with a grain of salt. The names, stories, and other information you may have obtained through interviews with family members could have a grain of truth to them. Part of genealogy research is to fill in the gaps, or adjust what you may have already known with some sort of concrete information. You may also find out something completely different than what you were told! This is all part of the fun of genealogy research.
Tip #3 - Indexes are an invaluable tool, especially when researching records earlier than 1920, if you are having a hard time unearthing early family records in an online database. Indexes are usually compiled by genealogical societies and indexers.
U.S. Marshals collected census data between 1790 and 1870, and were replaced by specially trained and hired census-takers in 1880. The U.S. Census Bureau replaced the door-to-door method with a mailed questionnaire in 1960. Check out their site for more information on census-taking instructions for each decade. Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records by Loretto Szucs and Matthew Wright provides great charts on phonetic substitutes and frequently misread letters. And don't forget, we are more than happy to help if you have any questions!
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Matthew Wright. Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records. Ancestry Publishing: Orem, UT, 2002. Print