Thursday, October 18, 2007

Forum Diving — Searching the Census

Dawn, one of our forum regulars (can you have forum regulars for such a small forum?) received as a gift the Family Tree Maker Program. I'm not sure which version she was given but it came with a FREE YEAR OF ANCESTRY.COM. Okay scoff if you want about this being some nefarious plot to enslave her by the big bad corporate giant of genealogy subscription services, but I for one am completely jealous — in a quasi sort of I'm happy for you Dawn kind of way.

It sounds from her posts that she is already making good use of her time. One of my favorite things about Ancestry is their every name index for all the census years. In my opinion, there are two kinds of people in the world — those who come close to swooning with joy at the words, EVERY NAME INDEX, and those who don't. I'm a do.

One of Dawn's family lines is Maenle. She searched high and low for them in the census. Fortunately, she knew where they should be living and finally found them with the last name indexed and written as Manley. Dawn made the observation that either the head of household or the census taker couldn't spell. Either case could be true.

Prior to the twentieth century, many people could neither read nor write. On the other hand, census takers would sometimes forget to ask for a proper spelling, and would spell a last name phonetically or assume a more common spelling.

Sometimes, the head of household wasn't home, and they interviewed a wife or child. Even if their husbands were literate, the wives might not be — a lot depended on the society in which they had been raised.

Other times a neighbor might end up giving the census taker the information about the family, when the family members themselves were unavailable. You can imagine how many problems that could create.

An additional problem, even when you have something as wonderful as an index available, is that the writing on the census isn't always legible or the quality of the microfilm isn't the best. That means the person responsible for creating the index had to give it their best guess — so you wind up with Jacobus indexed as Jacobs, Smathers indexed as Smothers, King indexed as Ring etc.

Jana Lloyd, in her article “Leonis or Lewis? Some Quick Tips for Finding Your Ancestors in the Census” addresses these very issues. You can find the article at Pay particular attention to the GETTING AROUND THE ERRORS part of the article.

“Top 10 Search Tips for Census Success” by Kimberly Powell at is also helpful. In addition to issues that I've already raised, she talks about the use in the census of nicknames, looking for neighbors when you can't find your target family, and of taking advantage of the every name index by looking for siblings or children when you can't find that elusive head of household.

If you are having problems finding your ancestors in the census records, these are two articles well worth your time.

Until Next Time — Happy Ancestral Digging!

Note this post first published online, October 18 , 2007, at Desktop Genealogist Blog at The News-Messenger Online

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