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Finding that Elusive Ancestor

Article by Sue Fenn

As a fellow genealogist, I am sure that you have had the same experiences I have had, in attempting to find people in census documents. Sometimes, an ancestor can be found in, say, the 1851 and 1871 UK census documents, but is nowhere to be found in the 1861 census. Or, you find them in all of the census documents, but the information in the various documents is not consistent. These situations no doubt are the cause of a great deal of frustration on the part of genealogists, but the frustrations are generally offset, to a great extent, by the feeling of satisfaction and triumph when the ancestor is finally located or the discrepancies are resolved.

A few things to keep in mind when searching census documents electronically for an ancestor:

1. Be creative with spelling. Spelling was not standardized to any great extent until relatively recently. (Some sources say the mid-1800s). Add to that the number of different regional accents in Britain, and the fact that, even after “standardization”, some enumerators were not good spellers, and it is easy to see how a family name could be reflected on paper in several different ways. Further, if there were spelling variations in a family name, even within the same parish records, the family members themselves mostly likely would be unaware of those variations, as the vast majority of the people were illiterate before the 1900s. Hence, it is possible that two branches of the same family living in different areas would end up with two different spellings of the family surname (i.e., Denby versus Denbigh; Shirley versus Shurley or Shurly; Morrison versus Murison; and so on), or, that an ancestor could have three different spellings for his surname at birth, marriage, and death.

Sometimes, of course, the family name was deliberately changed, for various reasons. I heard of one couple who, with their children, were recorded as the “Laframboise” family on a couple of census documents. The mystery of where they had disappeared to was solved when someone noted a family named “Raspberry” that showed up in the same location when the Laframboises were no longer listed. Some families will translate their names to English, as this one did; others will change it completely, seeking a new identity. Still others would do so to differentiate between one branch of the family and another. A fellow researcher told me that his branch of a particular family moved to a different area of the country, and dropped the ‘k’ from the middle of their name, so that they would not be confused with the other families of the same name, some of whom were very rich and well known. I’m sure there are many other reasons.

2. If you cannot find the person you are looking for, and you know the names of other family members, try searching under each of their names and birth years, rather than the ones you are actually trying to find. Try choosing the family member with the most unusual or rarely used name, as they will likely be easier to find, and the list of “hits” you’ll have to search through will be much shorter.

3. Look for remarriages of an individual’s parents. I once found the children I was searching for listed as having the stepfather’s name shortly after their mother divorced and remarried. In a later census, when the children were of age, they had reverted to their original surname.

In another instance, I could not find a particular family in the Irish census documents for 1901, although I knew, from other information I had, that they had to be there. I discovered that the husband’s mother had married between the 1891 and 1901 census events. I also noted that one of the children had a somewhat unusual name. I entered the child’s name and year of birth, with no surname, in the 1901 Irish census search function. What opened up was a page containing all of the children in the Irish census bearing that name – I think there were half a dozen of them – including one bearing the step-father’s family name! When I clicked on the link to view her other family members, there was the missing family group! This led to locating the husband’s military records, as it turned out he had enlisted using the step-father’s name, and stated that he was age 18, rather than his actual age of 16. However, in the 1911 Irish census, the family had reverted to the husband’s original family name, although for military purposes, he continued using the step-father’s name. A later entry in the military record re-enrolled the husband in the army using the step-father’s name, but stated that he was “alias [birth name]”, and gave his real date of birth – thereby verifying that the military man using the step-father’s name and the civilian with the family using the original surname were one and the same person.

4. Again, with respect to marriages, remarriages, and name changes, do not always assume that a child who was born with one family name, and his/her birth was registered with that surname, will continue to use that name. In one recent situation, I had a young woman who had married and had a couple of children, following which her husband died. She then either married, or lived common-law with, the father of her next two children. (I can find no record of a marriage, but that does not mean that it did not occur). The two children of the second marriage were mysteriously absent from one of the census documents, when they were in their teens. The son was named Leara, a very unusual first name for the time. (When I found the record, I learned that the transcriber had recorded it as Sarah. Searching by the unusual first name therefore did not pay off on this occasion.) I checked all of the surnames related to the family that I was aware of, and could not locate these two siblings in the census. It was only when I thought about where parents might send their teenaged children that I found them living with their maternal grandparents and assisting them in running their inn. The surname used was that of the mother’s first marriage, rather than the second, and even then, was misspelled sufficiently that it did not appear in a search under that name. This was the first clue that the two families (that is, the children from the two relationships) might be using the two surnames interchangeably. One of those two siblings went on to have a couple of children out of wedlock; she then married, but the union did not last long. A number of other children followed, some of whom were given the married name, although in the census documents, all three surnames were used over the years for some of the children. In this particular circumstance, it was necessary to go back two generations, using the census documents, to determine how the surnames were linked, and how they were being used, in order to verify that the woman identifying herself as the birth mother, using three different family names on the various birth registration documents, was indeed the same person.

5. Also, census records are not always accurate. In the 1841 UK census, for example, the census takers often rounded the person’s age up or down to the nearest ‘5’ or ‘0’. There also were reasons for people to lie with respect to their age, their marital status, or any other information recorded on the census documents. I once found a relative who stated, in the 1851 UK census, that she was a widow. I originally assumed that this was true; however, when I went looking for her husband’s death date, I discovered that he had been shipped to Australia as a convict, after committing a break and enter. He was very much alive, as there were records of him appearing for convict musters in Australia, and of a later pardon. Clearly, it was easier for the wife, back in England, to state that he was dead (and in a sense, I suppose, he was dead to her and the family, as they never saw him again) than to explain to the enumerator that her husband was a convict. The moral of the story: the census documents should not be taken as absolutely true, but should be viewed as clues to a puzzle; clues which may or may not be entirely accurate.

6. Sometimes you will find that a woman is listed as the head of the family, but her marital status is shown as “married”. (Generally, if a woman was married, her husband would be listed as the head). There are a number of reasons why this could occur. In one instance, I discovered that the husband was serving a short sentence for getting into a fight with another fellow; in another, one of the men in a collateral line to my family was a Quaker minister, who traveled all over the world on preaching tours. Alternatively, the husband might have enrolled in the military, and was overseas somewhere. Another possibility was that he was ill, and in hospital. Men who fished or sailed for a living may not have been listed with their wives and families on the census, if they were not on land when the census was taken.

I hope that these tips will prove useful in your research using census documents, no matter which country they are from. As with anyone doing genealogical research, I still have some “brick walls” that I have not been able to break through, but as I work on other branches of the family and discover useful, alternative ways of looking at things and finding the information, I am hopeful that some of these strategies will prove fruitful in finding those solutions.

About the Author

Sue Fenn lives in Ontario, Canada. She is a lawyer and teacher, and in her spare time, she enjoys discovering new things about her forebears.

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