Archive for the ‘Research Tips’ Category

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 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. 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 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 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 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 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. 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) *

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?

Getting the Most from Your Library Research

One of my early childhood memories is practicing writing my name so that I could get my own library card.  I wanted to be a big girl like my siblings and check out my own library books instead of having my mother check them out for me.  Once a week my mother would take my siblings and me to the local library where we would check out shopping bags full of books, magazines and records.  For big research projects, my mother would take us to the main library downtown where we had access to a larger selection of materials.

Benning Branch Library
Where I first learned to do research
Courtesy DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division

Benning Branch Library – Children’s Room -1963
Where I spent many of my childhood days
Courtesy DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division

The library system has grown a lot since my childhood days.  It is now possible to obtain a library card for a variety of library systems.  In addition to providing access to items in the library, the library card also provides access to a wealth of online resources.

Here are a few tips for accessing resources outside of your community library.

  • Community College – The community college in my county allows residents who don’t attend the college to obtain a Community Patron library card. Check with the community college library in your community to see if they have a similar program.
  • Reciprocal Library Agreements –Some library systems have reciprocal agreements with the library systems in nearby communities which allow patrons with a library cards to obtain a free library card by showing a card from their library.
  • Nonresident/Out-of-Region Access – Library cards are not always limited to residents of the community.  Some libraries will also give library cards to people work, go to school or own property in the community.  Other libraries will give a library card to nonresidents for a small fee.  I do a lot of research in Caroline and Spotsylvania County, Virginia. These counties are serviced by the Central Rappahannock Regional Library (CRRL) system.  Since I have no ties to the state or counties, I do not quality for a free library card.  However, I am able to obtain a nonresident library card for an annual fee of $30.
  • College Libraries – Many college libraries will grant library cards to alumni and staff.   Additionally they may have Friends of the Library Program which will give library cards to people who make donations to the school.  College libraries are excellent source for research because they provide access to theses, dissertations and other resources not available at your community library.
  • Library of Congress – For those you who live near Washington, DC, the Library of Congress provides access to prints and photographs, historic newspapers, maps, manuscripts and film and a host of other materials.  Most material must be used onsite, but the Library of Congress is an excellent place for research.
  • Interlibrary Loan Program (ILL) and Worldcat –  Most libraries have an interlibrary loan program (ILL) which allows the user of one library to borrow books from another library.  Worldcat  (  provides access to library  collections around the world.  I use Worldcat to locate books of interest and then request them through my local library’s interlibrary loan program.  The books are sent to my local library branch where I can pick it up and return it when I am done.

If you follow the above suggestions you will have access to a wide variety of materials in libraries all over the country which will greatly enhance your research.

History Makers in Our Midst

Summer is almost here.  Families will be gathering for barbeques, cookouts and reunions.  There will be many stories of days gone by and lots of photo albums and memorabilia to share.  As you are visiting with family this summer, why not use it as an opportunity to preserve  history.  Not only will you learn family history, you may also learn that you have history makers in your midst.

Caroline High School Literary Program
Beryl Jackson is in the first row on the left

Beryl Jackson is such a history maker. She shared her memories of being in the first group of students to desegregate the Caroline County School system when I interviewed her for a book I was writing on Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia.  In 1965, Beryl and a few other students transferred from Union High (the high school for Blacks) to Caroline High ( the high school for Whites).  Although her experience did not make national news and is not recorded in history books like the story of the Little Rock Nine, it did change the Caroline County School system forever.

Your family member’s memories have historical significance, not just for your family but for the community as well. Here are a few topics that are likely to come up during family discussions:

  1. Way of Life –What was the lifestyle of the people living in the community?
  2. Employment – How did people in the community earn a living? (ex. farming, working in steel mill)
  3. Migration – Did family members come to America from another country? Move from one area of the country to another?  What was their experience?
  4. Clubs/Social Organizations – How did family members socialize with other members of the community?
  5. Institutions – Where did family member go to school or church? What impact did these institutions have on their lives?
  6. Community/Neighborhood –Communities change overtime. What was the community like when your family member lived there?

The next time you go to a family gathering be sure to take your digital recorder and/or video camera and preserve history.


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