Tag Archives: Census Records

County Histories: Looking at Census Leads

When looking at the details found in Samuel C. Dimick’s biographical sketch, let’s start with a basic one. Let’s look at him in the census. For each of my research subjects, I try to find them in every census they should be in. For Samuel, we will just look at a couple that I focused on because I primarily wanted to know why he came to Ohio from New Hampshire. We can’t always answer ‘why’ questions in genealogy but we can make some good educated guesses if we find the right information. So, I wanted to figure that out if I could.

1870, Lyme, Grafton County, New Hampshire

In 1870, Samuel was living with his wife Mary in Lyme, New Hampshire. He was 34, she was 35, and they had two sons, Marshall, age 2, and Burton, age 6 months. Samuel’s occupation is hard to make out, but it looks like “R.M. & Tin Plate Manuf.” I only knew he was a farmer from my earlier research.

1880, Center Township, Wood County, Ohio

By 1880, he was living in Center Township in Wood County, Ohio, which is near Bowling Green. He is listed as a farmer.

These two censuses at the bookends to his migration to Ohio. Sometime between 1870 and 1880 he and his family made the move. We will continue to look for clues about his life in the county history and see what more we can learn.

Beginning Principles: Important Records

If you are a beginner, you might not have a good idea of all of the different types of records one can find for their ancestors. As you gain experience, take classes, read blogs and books, watch webinars, and so on, you will gain a greater knowledge of some of the details you can really find. However, let’s start with some of the basics.

  • Vital Records – These include birth, marriage, and death records. What a beginner might not know is that they are a construct of the 1900s for the most part, especially what we think of now as a “birth certificate” or a “death certificate.” Those were not required by states until the early 1900s. And even then, it took quite some time for various counties to become completely compliant with those laws. However, you may get lucky and find births and deaths registered even earlier depending on the time and place. I do a lot of Wood County, Ohio research. They have birth and death records back into the 1870s. Baptism records will be found if your ancestors were members of a church that conducted infant baptism AND recorded those baptisms. Marriage records, on the other hand, have been recorded for quite some time, this is one record type that you will find going back to the 1600s in the U.S. not only in civil records, but also in church records.
  • Census Records – These are quite possibly the best record for quickly putting together family groups, and sometimes, several generations. Federal census records began with the U.S. Constitution. The first federal census was conducted in 1790 and every 10 years thereafter. However, not all survive. What most beginners don’t know is that nearly the entire 1890 census was lost in a fire. Only a few scraps remain. Some states conducted state censuses usually on the years ending in ‘5’ and only for a time.
  • Newspapers – And in particular, obituaries, are one of the best records for getting started with your family history. Obituaries usually give a good biographical sketch of an ancestor, who he/she married, who their children were, who their parents were, etc. Other newspaper articles are helpful too. Items in the “gossip column” or “social news” section can pin family members down in a time and place. If something bad happened, an accident or intentional event, that usually made the front page.
  • Cemeteries – Tombstones and cemetery records are quite useful in tracking down ancestors. When I first started, Find A Grave was only about famous people. I did a lot of cemetery visiting across the U.S. Now, I don’t have to (though I still like to) since Find A Grave has expanded to try to catalog all burial in the world.

These are some of the “basics” when it comes to records for the beginning genealogist. I will discuss some of the more “advanced” records to be found next week.

Great Lakes States – State and Territorial Censuses

I spoke on Wednesday at the National Genealogical Society Conference on “The Third Coast: How the Great Lakes Shaped America.” This lecture really just skims the surface of  topics one would need to know to do effective research in the Great Lakes States. (I put together this lecture and realized I had a lot to say on the subject and gave me the idea to develop an entire course on the subject.)

One thing I wish I had more time to discuss is the use of State and Territorial censuses in Great Lakes research. The following map I colorized to demonstrate the Great Lakes states that held state-level censuses, typically on “the fives” (e.g. 1855, 1865, and so on).


The states in green held state censuses, those in orange did not. Indiana (in yellow) did, but they are scattered or no longer exist. So, of the eight Great Lakes States, five of them offer this extra set of records that other states do not.

I share with you two resources for further study on this topic:

To make things a little easier, I have collated the information from both of these sources, as well as that from the appropriate state archives, to create a useful table regarding only the Great Lakes States. (Click here to download a PDF.)

So, if you had not considered whether or not your Great Lakes ancestors had been captured on a state or territorial census, I hope the above resources help you figure that out. Happy searching!

Village Genealogical Society Seminar

villagesI am VERY excited to be presenting an all-day seminar to the Village Genealogical Society and the Akansa Chapter, NSDAR on 17 September 2016. The seminar will be held at the Coronado Community Center, 150 Ponderosa Lane, Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. To register visit this website http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~arhsvgs/ or click here:  VGS Workshop 2016 Flyer and Entry Form (pdf).

The group has picked some fantastic topics. I will be presenting:

  • “Census Hurdles: How to Jump Over or Go Around”
  • “From Deeds to Dirt: Case Studies in Analyzing Research with Maps”
  • “Cluster Research and the Fan Principle: Finding Your Ancestors through their Friends, Associates, and Neighbors”
  • “The Heart of it All: Migration Research Methods”

This seminar will begin with some foundational research record sets and methodology (censuses and maps), and then build on those lectures in the afternoon with two methodology lectures. The “Cluster Research” lecture will explain the FAN Club principle (thank you Elizabeth Shown Mills) and demonstrate some of the best methods for identifying your ancestors’ FAN club. The second, “The Heart of it All” will bring together all of the records, techniques and methodologies from the day into a final case study on determining one family’s migration route and their reason for moving.

I’m looking forward to this opportunity and I hope to see some of you there!

What I Don’t Know, Part 5: Census Records

Once I have oriented myself with the geography of a new research area, I generally begin looking for my research subjects in the census. I will start with what I know. Usually it’s that they died in a location, so working back to the census year just before their death date, I will locate them and then work backward. This constructs the family group(s) giving a rough skeleton to their familial framework. Census records can contain many errors but I find they are a great tool to get started and create a sketch of the family structure, often for several generations.

In the case of Jeduthan Dimick, I knew from his biographical sketch in the compiled genealogy that he died in 1839 in Pope County, Illinois. Using census indexes at Ancestry.com I located Jeduthan and his household in the 1830 census in Hardin County, Illinois.

2014-03-30 10.43.06 pmAny census before 1850 consists of the name of the head of household and then hash marks for the rest of the family members broken down by age and sex. The household for Jeduthan consisted of:

Jeduthan Dimick household analysis:
Males under 19 = 3       (possibly Fayette, Mary? and Franklin)
Males 40-49 = 1             (Jeduthan)
Females under 19 = 1    (Sarah)
Females 40-49 = 1         (wife Mary)

This is probably Jeduthan, his wife, 3 sons and 1 daughter, but we can’t be sure with no names to identify them by. However, according to the compiled genealogy I started with, Jeduthan had 2 sons and 2 daughters. It is possible the census taker counted one of the girls (Mary) as a boy, it is impossible to know, but I am fairly certain this is the right family since no other “Jeduthan Dimicks” showed up in the searches.

Chatten Scroggins, Sanders’ father, also shows up in the 1830 census, in Gallatin County, Illinois. If you remember my earlier discussion on geography, Hardin County was formed from part of Gallatin County, so we are looking at a nearby location to the Dimick family.

2014-03-30 10.48.57 pmChatten’s household consisted of:

Chattan Scroggins household analysis:
Males under 19 = 5         (John, James Lewis, Sanders and two unknown boys)
Males 40-49 = 1               (Chatten)
Females under 19 = 3     (Mary and 2 unknown girls)
Females 40-49 = 1           (wife Elizabeth)

This family probably consisted of Chatten’s wife, 5 sons and 3 daughters. Again, the children don’t exactly line up with what is indicated by the compiled genealogies but no other “Chatten Scroggins” showed up in my searches.

I did a similar search for the 1840 census, but knowing that Jeduthan Dimick died in 1839, it was difficult to locate the rest of the family in 1840. Likely they lived with friends or relatives in 1840 while they were getting their living arrangements in order. Since the 1840 census lists only the head of household, it is difficult to know right now where they are in the census.

The Scroggins household is located in the Gallatin County census enumeration. Sanders has moved into his own household and is living next door to his father’s home. He has only one female of about his age living with him, likely his first wife, and no children are living with him.

This is just the first step with the census records. I conducted this research through the 1870 census for the purposes of the program I put together. I would normally follow as many family members as possible through the 1940 census. I also found the families in the Illinois State Censuses that were available. Going through the census records, I was able to put the family groups together in time, place and relationship. This beginning work then allowed me to move on to other records and resources.

Love and Marriage – Getting a Good Wife

The Bismarck (North Dakota) Tri-Weekly Tribune, 2 April 1878
The Bismarck (North Dakota) Tri-Weekly Tribune, 2 April 1878

“Marriage is not about age; it’s about finding the right person.” Sophia Bush
(Read more at BrainyQuote.)
There’s nothing that says “love” like going to look for a good wife. There must have been a shortage of “good women” in North Dakota in 1878. Well, it wasn’t a state yet, but part of the Dakota Territory in 1878. Statehood for North Dakota occurred in 1889. The population was sparse (and continues to be) for the area. And I imagine there really was a lack of “good women.”

1880 Census, Dakota Territory
1880 Census, Dakota Territory

In the 1880 Dakota Territory census, Phillip W. Lewis is listed with his wife, Mary, and their son, John (age 1). And where are Phillip and Mary from? Virginia. I think Phillip found his good woman.

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 Ancestry.com 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:

      2013-10-07 03.47.00 pm

2013-10-07 01.20.14 pm

2013-10-07 03.59.37 pm

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 – 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.

2013-10-07 12.00.43 pm
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.