Tips for Searching the Census

September 30, 2012 2 comments

I often joke that my ancestors must have been hiding when the census taker knocked on their door because some of them seem to disappear from one census to the next.  Here are a few tips for locating your ancestors in the census when they seemed to have disappeared.

  1. Use Soundex Search.  The spelling of a surname sometimes changes with the passage of time.  Using a soundex search will help you locate names that sound alike but are spelled differently.  Don’t only relay on the soundex search because some surnames that sound alike have different soundex codes and therefore, would not be picked up by a soundex search.
  2. Use Wildcard Search.  A wild card search allows you to search for a name when you are not sure of the spelling by using use special symbols (called wildcards). The specific wildcard rules and symbols vary by census index; however most (including Ancestry.com) use asterisk (*) to represent multiple letters and the question mark (?) to represent one letter. One of the surnames I am researching is  “Woodfork”.  However, the spelling on the name varies greatly: “Woolfolk”, “Woodfolk”, “Woodford” etc.  The common letters in all of these spellings are “woo” and “fo”; therefore, whenever I search for an ancestor with this surname I always search for “woo*fo*”.
  3. Search for nickname.People do not always appear in the census with their birth name.  The marriage certificate for one of my Shakespeare ancestors shows the brides name as “Sarah A. Ferguson”.  In most of the censuses she is listed as “Sarah”; however, she is listed in the 1920 census as “Sallie”.  “Sallie” and “Sally” are common nicknames for Sarah. There are many websites that list common nicknames for popular first names.
  4. Search for Middles Names.  Many people are known by their middle name, not their first name.  Searching for my maternal ancestors was a major chore.  My mother had done a good job of writing down the family history she remembered.  I also had additional information that had been collected from some of my other elderly relatives.  However, I was having a tough time reconciling the information I found in the census with the information that was provided by family members. For example, when I reviewed the information collected from my family there was a “Leander Herbert”, “Parren Hebert” and his son Henry.  However, when I located my 2nd Great-Grandparents in the census they did not have any children with those names, but they did have a “John Herbert” and a “Thomas Herbert”.  It took me awhile until I figured out that almost everyone in the family used their middle name.  “Leander Herbert” was “John Leander Herbert”.  “Parren Hebert” was “Thomas Parren Hebert” and his son Henry was “Thomas Henry Herbert”.
  5. Search for abbreviations.  Sometimes names are abbreviated in the census.  My 2nd great grandfather “William Woolfolk” is listed in the 1870 census as “Wm Woolfolk”.  Other common abbreviations I have encountered in the census are Jno (John), Chas (Charles) and Jas (James).  You can find website that contain lists of abbreviations for many common names
  6. Search for family members. Sometimes you may need to search for a spouse, sibling, or child to locate a family member.  I could not find my 3rd great grandfather, “Sancho Shakespeare”, in the 1880 census, so I decided to search for his wife, “Lucinda Shakespeare” and was able to locate the family.  “Sancho” had been written as “Sanker”
  7. Search for surname only.  If the surname is not common you can search without a first name.  There are not that many people with the “Shakespeare” surname in Caroline County, Virginia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  In fact, there appears to be only one family in the census and they all are my ancestors. I could not find my 3rd great grandfather “Sancho Shakespeare” and his family in the 1870 census.  I decided to search for the “Shakespeare” surname, without a first name.  One of the names I located was “George Shakespeare”.  Other members of the household were Sarah, Lucinda, John, Martha and Fannie.  The surname for those family members was “Shakeleford”.  This family was my ancestors.  “Sarah Shakespeare” was really “Sancho Shakespeare” my 3rd great grandfather, Lucinda was his wife, John and Martha were their children and Fannie was their granddaughter.  “George Shakespeare” was their grandson who I was not familiar with because I knew him as “George Rollins” and “George Lewis”.
  8. Search for first name.  If a person has an uncommon first name it may be possible to locate him/her without searching for a surname and using other information instead.  When helping a friend research her family history, I searched without luck for a female who lived in James River Buckingham, County Virginia with the name “Willie Lethea Morris”.  I was able to locate her in the 1930 census using her married name but could not find her using her maiden name.  Based on the information from the 1930 census, I estimated she was born circa 1890. I then did a search for the first name “Willie”, born “1890 +/- 5 years”, and living in James River, Buckingham, County, Virginia and located her in the 1900 census where she is listed as “Willie L Morrison” (“Morris” had been transcribed as “Morrison”), the 1910 census where she is listed as “Willie Arthur Morris” (“Arletha” had been incorrectly transcribed as “Arthur”).  I was even able to locate her in the 1920 census where her married name was misspelled.
  9. Search for Initials.  On several occasions I have encountered a page in the census where almost everyone’s name was written with the initials and the surname.   When using the approach be sure to search for first name initial, middle name initial and surname, as well as, first name initial and surname.
  10. Search for neighbors. In the past people lived in the same location for many years, sometimes all their life.  Searching for a neighbor is a good way to locate your ancestors.  Once you find the neighbor check two pages before and two pages after the neighbor and look for your ancestor.
  11. Just Browse.  Sometimes when all else fails it may be necessary to go to the enumeration district where the person last lived and browse the census page by page.

Ancestry.com provides users with the capability to submit corrections.  I strongly encourage researchers to use this feature to submit corrections once you find an elusive ancestor. Your correction will be added to the indexes and other users will be ale to see your correction.

Revisiting Resources and Repositories

When researching your family history, it is a good idea to revisit resources and repositories that you have used in the past. New information may have been added since your last visit or you may have gained additional knowledge that will make you see the information in a new light. Such was the case with my paternal great grandfather, Overton Woodfork.

From my research, I knew that Overton’s parents were William and Louisa Woolfolk and his mother’s maiden name was Shakespeare. I also knew from my research with the census (via ancestry.com) and the DC City Directories (using microfilm and the actual directories) that Overton had lived in Caroline County, Virginia during the 1870’s and early 1880’s; Washington DC during the late 1890’s and the 1900’s; and returned to Caroline County, Virginia during the 1930’s where he died in 1933. There were time periods, where he seemed to disappear and I did not know where else to look for him since, to my knowledge, he had only lived in Caroline County, Virginia and Washington, DC.

I had recently learned that one of my Shakespeare ancestors, Martha Shakespeare Lewis, and her husband, Arthur, had moved from Caroline County, Virginia to the Walnut Hills area of Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1890’s where they lived until she died in 1915 and he died in 1935.  I also knew that some of my Shakespeare ancestors had moved from Caroline County, Virginia to Baltimore, Maryland.

Periodically, I search ancestry.com for my ancestors to see if I can locate any new information. A few months ago, I decided to search for my paternal great grandfather and was surprised to see the search results contained an ‘Overton Woodfork’ in several Cincinnati, Ohio City Directories. Since Overton Woodfork is not a common name, I had a suspicion that it might be my great grandfather. The 1886 entry in the Cincinnati City Directory really caught my eye because in the section for the address it said “bds Arthur Lewis’ Walnut Hills”. Another search result was for an entry in 1887 Cincinnati City Directory contained “rooms 20 Curtis Walnut Hills”. After checking my research notes form Martha Shakespeare Lewis, I confirmed that she and her husband also lived at this address. Therefore, I am almost certain that these entries for ‘Overton Woodfork’ are my great grandfather.

Overton Woodfork in 1886 Cincinnati Ohio City Directory

1887 Cincinnati Ohio City Directory – Overton Woodfork

1887 Cincinnati Ohio City Directory – Arthur Lewis

A little while later I searched for Overton Woodfork again on ancestry.com and this time the search results also contained entries from the Baltimore City directory. After making this discovery, I decided to browse each Cincinnati City Directory and Baltimore City Directory manually during the time periods that Overton did not live in Caroline County, Virginia or Washington, DC. I found Overton Woodfork in several of the directories that did not show up in the online search results either because his name had been transcribed incorrectly or some of the names on the page had not been indexed. I also visited the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, Maryland to search the microfilm for the Baltimore City directories that were not online.

After completing this research, I now have a more complete timeline for Overton Woodfork. There are still a few years where I don’t know where he was living, so I still have more research to do to fill in the blanks.

In addition to illustrating the importance of revisiting resources and repositories, this experience demonstrates the importance of not solely relying on online search engines to perform research. It is also necessary to browse through the original documents to search for information. You may discover new information that will help you fill in the blanks on your family tree.

1940 Census Indexing on Ancestry.com Update

The 1940 Census became available to the public the first week of April 2012. Originally the ability to search by name was not available because the census was not indexed.

Ancestry.com has been adding indexes by state on a regular basis.  Currently 25 states and the District of Columbia are indexed.  (*) indicates the index was just added:

  • Alabama (AL) *
  • Arizona (AZ) *
  • California (CA) *
  • Colorado (CO)
  • Delaware (DE)
  • District of Columbia (DC)
  • Georgia (GA) *
  • Hawaii (HI) *
  • Indiana (IN) *
  • Kansas (KS) *
  • Kentucky (KY) *
  • Maine (ME)
  • Michigan (MI)  *
  • Montana (MT) *
  • Nebraska (NE) *
  • Nevada (NV)
  • New Hampshire (NH) *
  • New York (NY)
  • Ohio (OH)
  • Oregon (OR) *
  • Pennsylvania (PA)
  • Tennessee (TN)
  • Vermont (VT)
  • Virginia (VA)
  • Washington (WA) *
  • Wisconsin (WI) *

Genealogy Buddies

My mother piqued my interest in family history when I was child by sharing her photo albums, memorabilia and tidbits of information.  I started researching my family history when I was in high school but did not get serious about my research until almost 30 years later.  By that time, my mother had dementia and was not able to share in my research.  No one else in my family shares my passion for genealogy so I usually don’t discuss my research with family.

Although my husband does not share my interest in genealogy he is very supportive of my interest.  He does not complain when I ask him to make a detour when we are on vacation so I can visit a library or archive to do some research. He always obliges me when I ask him to proofread something I have written and does not mind that my research stuff take up 95% our home office space.

My husband is a great sport when it comes to my research.   However, when I really need someone to talk to I call on one of my genealogy buddies.  I rely on my genealogy buddies to share the joy of a new discovery, commiserate about the frustration of a brick wall and to keep me motivated.

One time I went into a panic when I thought I had lost a notebook containing all the research on my Shakespeare ancestors.  Although I had backup copies of all the items in the notebook, the thought of losing my neatly organized binder nearly brought me to tears.  “What are you looking for”, my husband asked when he saw me frantically searching in the office closet.  “I can’t find my Shakespeare notebook”, I replied.  “I am sure you will find it”, he calmly replied and went on his way.  I needed to talk to someone who would truly understand what I was going through so I called my genealogy buddy, Robyn.  “I can’t find my Shakespeare notebook”, I wailed when she answered the phone.  “Oh girl, I know how you feel”, she replied and proceeded to tell me about the time she had misplaced some of her research.  We talked for a while and I was much calmer after our conversation ended.  I later resumed my search and found my notebook.

My genealogy buddies give me a push when  I need it.   When I had a very rough draft of my book on Union High School, I shared it with a graphic designer to get his input for a cover and the book layout. My heart sank as he flipped through my draft and made comments:   He did not like my tentative title, he did not like my idea for the cover design, he did not like the pictures I had selected, and he did not like my concept for the book layout. In short, he did not like anything about the book.  As I drove home after the meeting I became dejected and started to doubt my ability to complete the project.  When I got home I put my rough draft away and moped around the house for awhile.  Then I called my genealogy buddy, Vanessa, and told her about my experience.

She could hear the dejection in my voice and sought to reassure me.  She pointed out that this was just one person’s opinion and that I should not let it deter me.   She encouraged me to seek the advice of another graphic designer and others who had published local history books.  After my conversation with Vanessa, my vision for the book became clearer and my motivation returned.  I thought of a new title for the book and found a graphic designer and editor who helped turn my vision for Memories of Union High:  An Oasis in Caroline County, Virginia 1903-1969 into a reality. I have received many compliments on the book, congratulations from my congressional representative, recognition from the Caroline County Board of Supervisors and the book was a Finalist in the African American Non-fiction category for the 2012 National Indie Excellence Book Awards contest.  None of this would have happened without Vanessa’s pep talk.

I am also inspired by many other genealogist and family historians: Alice Harris, President of the Central Maryland AAHGS chapter  who always does such a great job planning so many informative events for the chapter,  Thomas McEntee who shares a lot of useful information on his blog and has so many inspirational guests on his GeneaBloggers Blog Talk Radio show,   Bernice Bennett who also has great guests on her Blog Talk Radio show, as well as, the many people I meet at genealogy conferences, forums and chat rooms.

Every family historian needs genealogy buddies to keep them going.  I am so thankful for mine.

Appreciation for the Opportunities We Have Today

Performing genealogy and local history research gives me an appreciation for many of the opportunities I have today.  For most adults, attending school as a child and learning to read and write are skills we take for granted.  Such was not the case for many of our ancestors.  For many, educational opportunities were few to non-existent.  When educational opportunities did exist, many people could not take advantage of them because the daily tasks of providing food, shelter and clothing often took precedence over receiving an education.

A few years ago while visiting a cousin who agreed to share information on my Woolfolk ancestors; I had an experience that caused me to reflect upon my life.  One of the items my cousin shared with me was a letter written in 1906 by Lucy Jane Woolfolk Ellis, the sister of my great grandfather, Overton Woolfolk.  Lucy Jane was born in 1875, a little more than ten years after the end of slavery.  According to the 1900 census, Lucy Jane could not read or write so the letter may have been written for her by someone else.

Lucy Jane Woolfolk Ellis Letter – 1906

Reading the letter was a stark reminder of the value of education.  The letter did not contain any punctuation and was filled with so many grammatical and spelling errors that it was almost impossible to read.  After almost an hour, I was able to decipher the letter and learned some valuable information about my Woolfolk ancestors.

Like many of my contemporaries, I never give a second thought to the fact that I can read and write.  I am cognizant of the educational opportunities I have received and appreciate how those opportunities have greatly enhanced my life.  However, I don’t think I am special.   Lucy Jane’s letter made me pause and really appreciate all that I have and how far all of the Woolfolk descendants have come.

This experience illustrates the importance of family and community history.  I believe people who understand the past have a better appreciation for what they have today and will feel a responsibility for continuing the legacy and making the future better for the next generation.  As family and community historians we must continue to preserve the past and encourage the next generation to take advantage of all the opportunities afforded them.

Ancestors with a criminal past

In an earlier post , I talked about my genealogy buddy Robyn and how I would sometimes get genealogy envy when she discussed her ancestor’s many accomplishments. Robyn recently wrote a great post on Joseph Harbour, one of her ancestors with a criminal past.   Since I had written about the many accomplishments of Robyn’s ancestors, I thought I would share this story to remind everyone that almost every family has some ancestors with a shady past.   When we are researching and preserving our family history we must document the good and the bad.  One thing I love about Robyn is she always has an interesting story to tell.

Robyn also wrote a great post on Alabama Convict Records which gives great tips on using convict records to locate ancestors who seem to have disappeared for a few years.

Telling Your Story: Tips for Writing Your Memoir

Writing your memoir is a great way to preserve family history.  Many people think their life is too mundane to share.  You don’t have to have lived a miserable childhood, suffered some tragic fate or hobnobbed with the rich and famous to write your memoir.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Telling your story is a great way to preserve your legacy and show others how you came to be the person you are today. In addition others will learn valuable life lessons from your experiences.

It does not have to be a Pulitzer Prize novel like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or a great family saga like Alex Haley’s Roots that is published for the world to see.   Just write down your recollections of people, places and events in your life and share it with your family and friends. 

 My mother wrote her memoir in which she described her life growing up and living in Washington, DC from the 1920’s forward.   She wrote it out in long-hand on notebook paper.  We typed the information, supplemented it with pictures and other memorabilia and had it copied and bound at the local copy store.   My mother’s memoir is truly a family treasure that can be passed on to future generations.

In addition to preserving family history, writing your memoir is also a great way to preserve local history.  Florence Coleman Bryant wrote her memoir titled Memoirs of Country Girl which contains her recollections of growing up in a farming community in Caroline County, Virginia during the Depression. I used the book as a resource when researching Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia in preparation for writing a book. Ms. Bryant’s memories of Caroline County and Union High were a value asset to preserving the history of the county and school.

Here are a few tips for writing your memoir:

  1. Pick an area of focus.  It is not necessary tell your life story in chronological order starting at birth.  You can write about a particular time period in your life, a particular event, or a person who influenced you.  Your memoir can be a collection of unrelated stories about your life.
  2. Just write.  Your first objective is to get your memories on paper.  You can either type or write them, whichever you find easiest.  Make a list of memories as they occur to you.  Don’t worry about the details, spelling, grammar, punctuation. You can make changes later. Just let your thoughts flow and write.
  3. Be Yourself. Write in the first person in your natural voice.
  4. Take Your Time.  Don’t’ try to write everything at once.  Write for awhile, put it down and come back to it later.  Some people find it useful to write every day for at a certain time in a special place.  Others write whenever a thought comes to them.  Keep a pen and paper or digital recorder with you at all times so you can record your memories when they occur.
  5. Be truthful but tactful.  You want to be truthful but it is not necessary to write a tell-all novel that spills the family secrets or divulges all your personal business.  Some  information may be too personal or painful to share.
  6. Be gracious.  Refrain from make disparaging remarks about others.  Be aware that the statements you make will impact their life. Be sure you are able to support what you say.
  7. Use photographs and memorabilia to jog your memory.  Look through photo albums, scrapbooks and memorabilia and write down what you remember.
  8. Use periodicals to jog your memory. Browse magazines and newspapers and make a list of national, state and local events.  Write down your memories of these events and the impact they had on your life.
  9. Listen to music. Listen to old songs and write your memories as they come to you.
  10. Fill in the details.  After your finish the draft add some background to put your story in the proper context. Searching the internet is a good place to find information. Search for events, people and places you mentioned in your story.  Do research to confirm your recollection of historical facts or well-known events is accurate. For each story you have written, ask yourself: What was the occasion?  Who was involved? When did the event occur?  Where did it take place?   How was my life impacted by the event?
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