Category Archives: Census Records

Census Hurdles – Searching Tips and Tricks

2013-10-07 03.46.42 pmAfter our tour through some of my favorite census hurdles, let me sum up with some of my corresponding tricks for dealing with them.

Language Barriers
Think in terms of thick accents and how the names may have sounded.

SOLUTION: Create a list of all possible spellings of your name to use when searching.

While you may know exactly how your ancestor’s name was spelled, the census takers and indexers did not. They did the best they could.

SOLUTION: Keep an open mind about how names were spelled in both the census and the census index.

Indexing Errors
Hard-to-read handwriting & typos

SOLUTION:  Learn about old handwriting. Read a lot of old handwriting. Look at tutorials, articles and examples on old handwriting. Be sure to make “corrections” at using the “add alternate information” link.

Quality of Information Given
How do we know who gave the information and how accurate it is? We don’t.

SOLUTION:  Take every bit of information from the census as a clue, not the truth. Always, always, always corroborate census data with other research. Back up your findings with birth, marriage, death, land records and other research.

Microfilming Errors
Did all of the pages get microfilmed?

SOLUTION:  Pay attention to the page numbers in the upper corners of the census records. If there are missing pages, you can write to the National Archives for missing pages.

Are the images readable?

SOLUTION:  Not much can be done here. You may have some luck with putting the image into a photo editing software and adjusting the brightness and contrast. Also looking at the images in the negative can be helpful.

Some other things you can do to make your census research more successful:

  • Use indexes but do not rely solely on them, as we’ve seen, there are errors.
  • Make a list of spelling variations. Write down every way you can think of that the surname could be written. Write down every way you find it indexed.
  • Read the census line by line for a given district if you are sure they should be there and you can’t find them in the index.
  • Learn about old-style handwriting. You can learn a lot about this by volunteering your time as an indexer through FamilySearch Indexing.
  • Corroborate census info with other research.
  • Don’t give up. Just because you don’t find them in an index doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Get creative with your searches.

I hope this series has given some ideas of what our ancestors, census takers, indexers, microfilmers, and researchers have to deal with during each step of the process. Between when the census taker stepped foot on our ancestors’ doors to these census indexes and images displaying on our computer screens many potential mistakes could have been made. Keep in mind the reasons, try to imagine the situation, and be creative in searching and you will have more success using census records.


Census Hurdles – Microfilming Errors

When moving from one level of human interaction with a piece of information to the next, we introduce more and more potential for errors. I’ve already discussed some sources of errors such as language barriers, literacy, handwriting, and indexing errors. There is also the possibility of errors in microfilming.

If you are browsing images either online or on microfilm, you might want to pay attention to the page numbers. Were any pages skipped when microfilming the original census books? If there weren’t necessarily page numbers on every page, you can pay attention to dwelling and family numbers to be sure they are in sequential order and none were skipped from page to page.

I have been victim to those really dark or really faint microfilmed pages. Check out some of these beauties:

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I’m not sure how we are really supposed to read these, let alone the indexers. Thankfully, there have been some really great advances in digitization and many of these dark and light images can be corrected.

Other oddities I have seen:

  • hands in the image
  • pages not completely turned
  • blurred images, as if the page was being turned while being filmed
  • other pieces of paper in the image, over the census

I’m sure everyone has a fun example of microfilming errors. I’m hoping over time, these errors are being fixed and improved. It just highlights the fact that no one is perfect, right down to the folks who run the photography equipment.

Census Hurdles – Who was the Informant?

641px-Volkstelling_1925_CensusYou might think that your ancestors were always home when the census taker knocked on the door. Or that they all sat down, had a cup of coffee or tea while they cooperated completely with the census taker’s questions. Honestly, we have no idea what happened. With the exception of the 1940 census, we have no idea who gave the information to the census taker. We don’t know if it was the head of household, his wife, one of the children, a neighbor, or if the census taker made it all up. We just don’t know.

This not knowing creates a lot of problems for genealogists who are trying to establish proof using the principles of the genealogical proof standard. Having an unknown informant on a record does not allow for the researcher to determine how much firsthand information that informant was likely to have. Therefore we have to assume that the information given to the census taker is suspect, likely to have errors. This should not stop us from using the census. On the contrary! The census is one of the records sets I use most often to establish ancestors in a time and place.

Having an unknown informant is one of those hurdles of the census. Use the data you find in the census as a road map to other documents, as the skeleton upon which other research is built. Corroborate everything you find in the census with other documents, with known informants. Only then will you be able to know you have the correct information.

Unfortunately there is no genealogical time machine that allows us to go back to the day the census taker visited our ancestors. (I’m still working on that technology in my lab. I’ll keep you posted.)

Census Hurdles – Indexing Errors

We’ve all seen it. You’re looking at the index on a commercial website and you just can’t find that name you are looking for. But there are a few that are close in other regards. Maybe the first name is correct but the last name is not even close. Maybe the last name is completely butchered but the names of everyone in the household match up to what you are expecting. And then you click to see the actual census image and there they are, the last name as plain as day to you. Why then, was it indexed so poorly?

For example, unable to find William Avery, I stumbled upon this index entry:

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It very clearly says “Avery” to me, but then again, I KNOW the name I’m looking for. Thankfully allows you to “add alternate information” that shows up when searching. Through collaboration, some of those incorrect index entries can be corrected.

Indexers aren’t always from the same geographic area as the records they are indexing. They may not even be from the same country. We’ve all heard that sometimes these indexing projects are farmed out of the country for cheaper labor. I don’t know for sure, I haven’t looked into it myself, but I know that even indexing records from a different part of the United States can be a challenge! (I’ve done it through FamilySearch Indexing and am much more comfortable indexing Ohio records than I am Georgia records.)

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A sample of a section in’s wiki on how to read old handwriting.

Aside from lacking familiarity with an areas surnames, there’s the problem of bad handwriting, old script-style handwriting, archaic letter formations, and the like. Good indexers have to try to understand old, swirly, twirly script, they have to become detectives and handwriting analysis experts. Most of the time, they simply do the best they can. There is the human factor to indexing. No one is perfect. Even the best make mistakes.

I am an active indexer for FamilySearch Indexing as well as working on indexing projects for my local area, and have come to have a completely new understanding for what it takes to be an indexer. It has allowed me to have some compassion for those who have so kindly and graciously indexed records for my benefit. I understand why ‘f’ and ‘s’, ‘z’ and ‘g’ or ‘a’ and ‘o’ get confused sometimes. Let’s not forget to be grateful for the speed with which records get indexed these days and the wide accessibility of them. (Almost gone are the days of reeling microfilm page by page by page.)

When you see those errors, think about me (and the thousands of volunteers like me), indexing your ancestors’ records to the best of my ability.

Census Hurdles – Literacy

Like the problem of language barriers, literacy (or the lack thereof) likely complicated the census taker’s job. Most of my ancestors, as far as I can tell, had a limited education. Only in the 1900s do I begin to find out that my ancestors went to school. Those that I was able to talk to only went through some elementary or middle school. Their focus was on earning a living, and especially through the Depression era, helping their parents make ends meet. School and education were not a focus in my family until recent times. I have one grandfather who attended Bowling Green State University, but it is unclear if he graduated (WWII happened and he enlisted). Other than that, it’s been my parents’ generation that really began to focus on education.

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Andrew Slye is enumerated as “Schlei”

Keep this in mind when trying to locate your ancestors in the census. While YOU may know how your ancestors spelled their names, sometimes they did not. Take Andrew Slye (father of Leonard Slye, aka Roy Rogers). He is enumerated in the 1920 census as ‘Schlei.’ We can only imagine why. I don’t believe the Slyes had accents since they had been in the country for many generations. Maybe a neighbor gave the information because they weren’t home. Maybe the census taker was foreign-born. Maybe the census taker hadn’t done that well with spelling in school or never went to school. Who knows. The point is, literacy could and did affect the way millions of ancestors were enumerated.

Literacy can be complicated by the previous post, language barriers. Imagine if the census taker had a limited education AND had to try to understand a thick accent! Double trouble.

Census Hurdles – Language Barriers

2013-10-07 09.54.11 amI have deep Germanic roots. My grandfather told stories of how his grandparents sat around the table and spoke in German. They were not the immigrants, in fact, I’ve traced back several generations beyond theirs and still haven’t found the immigrant ancestors! This tells me that they were proud of their heritage and carried their culture with them through many generations. Our country is made up of countless cultures all blending together and collectively adopting English as the primary language.

Imagine the census taker. He rode around on a horse or in a buggy or walked. He would have had to deal with the elements, hot sun, soaking rain or blustery wind. He knocks on the door of a farmhouse and is greeted by the farmer’s wife… and a thick accent. If they were not native English speakers, their ability to communicate and answer the census taker’s questions were likely limited.

l have encountered many times what I can only imagine is a problem with understanding thick accents. I have worked on the Limmer family for a long time. They have proven quite challenging to find in the census however. I would never have guessed the differing ways to spell “Limmer” but have had quite a time learning all about it:

  • Leemer
  • Leeman
  • Limer
  • Lammer
  • Lamer
  • Laman
  • Lamman
  • Limar
  • Limmar

And so on… Pondering this difference in spelling, I began to understand the plight of the census taker. First he had to try to understand what they were saying, then he had to try to spell it. And if he asked “How do you spell that?” he would have had to try to understand what letter they were saying. Pronouncement of letters varies from language to language, which I learned from taking Spanish in high school and German in college. (What letter was that?) I can only imagine.

This understanding was highlighted for me here in the 21st century. I went to lunch with my mentor Birdie Holsclaw. The lady at the counter asked for her name so they could call it out when her sandwich was ready. When we sat down, I caught a glimpse of her receipt: “Bertie.” She just typed what she heard. No accents involved! Now, imagine a German sandwich maker…

Census Hurdles – Introduction

2013-10-07 10.08.20 amOne of my favorite record sets for creating a framework for any given family is the census. Census records can be an invaluable wealth of information putting ancestors in a time and a place every ten years (every five if you are lucky enough to have them in a state that held a state census every five). In the censuses from 1790-1840, only the names of the heads of households were recorded (and using those censuses can be a whole different animal). However, in 1850 we begin to get more information with every census. Heads of household, relationship to that head, birthplaces, birth month and year, occupations, whether naturalized, military service, and so on.

When I begin researching a new family line, I invariably begin with the census. Finding their names in the correct time and place gives the researcher a solid foundation to begin from. The census is like the solid footing from which all other steps are based: find the family in the census, mark them on a map and begin searching for other records in the town, county, state and trace migrations when they occur.

There are many reasons why you may be having difficulty finding your ancestors in the census. This series of blog posts will share some of my favorite “hurdles” for finding those ancestors. I will cover things such as language barriers, literacy issues, indexing errors, information quality, microfilming errors, and I will end with some of my favorite searching tips and tricks.

Joseph Higdon/Higden

In the previous post about census findings for Thomas and Angeline Mitchell I listed the 1850 census. One page later in the 1850 census for Barren County, Kentucky is the household of Joseph Higdon/Higden. [Ancestry link]

On Angeline’s death certificate it listed her father as “Thomas Mitchell” (obviously not correct) and her mother as “Joe Higdon.” (Probably not her mother, but possibly her father.) I am going to begin looking at Joseph Higdon as a possibility for her father. [Angeline Mitchell death certficate, no. 8014, Missouri State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Jefferson City.]

Searching through Ancestry, I was able to locate Asa R./B. Higdon, one of Joseph’s sons, in the 1860 census in Springfield, Henry County, Missouri with possible wife Emeline M. (age 18), a child Jessee B. (age 1) and his sister Mary Higdon (age 32). [Ancestry link]

Census Findings for T. C. Mitchell Family

The following are all of the censuses for Thomas C. Mitchell and family from 1850-1910.

Thomas Mitchell household, 1850 U.S. census, Barren County, Kentucky, population schedule, Division 1, page 374, dwelling 993, family 1018; National Archives micropublication M432, roll 191. [Ancestry Link]

Thos. C. Mitchell household, 1860 U.S. census, Cooper County, Missouri, population schedule, Saline township, Gooches Mills post office, page 58, dwelling 390, family 390; National Archives micropublication M653, roll 616. [Ancestry Link]

Thomas Mitchell household, 1870 U.S. census, Audrain County, Missouri, population schedule, township of Loutre, Martinsburg post office, page 510-B, dwelling 161, family 145; National Archives micropublication M593, roll 756. [Ancestry Link]

Thos. Mitchell household, 1880 U.S. census, Audrain County, Missouri, population schedule, township of Loutre, enumeration district [ED] 2, supervisor’s district [SD] 3, page 18B, dwelling 150, family 151; National Archives micropublication T9, roll 672. [Ancestry Link]

Thos. Mitchell household, 1900 U.S. census, Montgomery County, Missouri, population schedule, township of Upper Loutre, enumeration district [ED] 69, supervisor’s district [SD] 9, page 13B, dwelling 261, family 264; National Archives micropublication T623, roll 876. [Ancestry Link]

T. C. Mitchell household, 1910 U.S. census, Montgomery County, Missouri, population schedule, township of Upper Loutre, enumeration district [ED] 111, supervisor’s district [SD] 9, sheet 5A, page 150, dwelling 99, family 103; National Archives micropublication T624, roll 800. [Ancestry Link]

Gilbert Z. Avery -1850 Census

I found Gilbert Z. Avery in the Wood County, Ohio census as follows:

Gilbert Z. Avery 33
Eliza J. 26
Washington E. 5
John B. 3
Fanny M. 7
Jonas Zimmer 23
William R. H. Avery 23 (brother) (Also enumerated with father’s household in 1850)

Gilbert Z. Avery household, 1850 U.S. census, Wood County, Ohio, population schedule, Plain township, district 154, page 312, dwelling 687, family 709; National Archives micropublication M432, roll 741. [Ancestry Link]