After our tour through some of my favorite census hurdles, let me sum up with some of my corresponding tricks for dealing with them.
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.
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.
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.