Using Ancestry: Tracking Siblings Forward, by Juliana Smith

Margaret Howley Dyer, Juliana's great-grandmotherIn last week’s column, we talked about various search techniques for the U.S. federal censuses at If you’re still looking for that difficult someone, you might want to check out the comments that have been added to the blog.  A number of readers added their own search tips and reading them has inspired me to delve into my family history again. This week I pulled out one of my tougher lines–the Howleys.

I have to admit, that although I periodically work on this family, it typically gets thrust back into the recesses of my cabinet because it’s so darn frustrating! These people really weren’t very good with dates. In the few census enumerations I’ve been able to find for my second great-grandfather, Thomas Howley, he only ages five or six years between the ten-year federal enumerations. Quite a feat, but he makes up for it by aging seven years between the 1880 census and his death in 1884. Argh!

His wife Jane wasn’t any more consistent. I have her in every available federal census between 1860 and 1910 and using the ages given, her dates of birth range between 1831 (which is correct) and 1840. Her immigration date, where given, is also “give or take ten years.” (You can see why they tend to get put back in the cabinet!)

I resisted the urge to file them away this time. As I browsed through the binder that holds all the records I’ve found on that family, I noticed that I only had scattered information on Thomas and Jane’s children, with the exception of my great-grandmother, Margaret. I have a few census listings and my mom was fortunate enough to obtain correspondence from family members confirming several of the daughters’ married names. But a glance at a timeline of the family reminded me that in several cases the children carried on the tradition of “blurry dates.”

I set out to fill in the blanks as best I could with missing census records for each family member. As I went along, I was reminded of how important it is to complete census work on each and every family member. We should be gathering every single clue from these records that are now so readily available.

Of course I had census enumerations for the siblings for the years they were at home with the family, but in most cases, once they married and moved on, I stopped looking for them. Duh! These are the children of my “brick wall” ancestor too. I need to be collecting all of their vital records too, and the census is a great place to start that search. Let’s review…

We’ll start with the obvious–births. In most families, the ages given are a good indicator of around when a person was born. (Clearly this doesn’t include the Howleys.) The 1900 census even goes so far as to include the month of birth.

The 1900 and 1910 U.S. censuses also include fields for “Mother of how many children” and the “Number of these children living.” In Jane Howley’s case, I realized this week through this field that I was missing a child. She is noted as having had seven children, with four still living in 1910, but through cemetery and census records, I only have record of six.

Most of the Howley children were born in predictable intervals, but looking at the estimated birth dates for all of the children, I see a gap between 1866 and 1870. I’ll start my search for birth and death records for that child who may have been born and died within that time frame.

Let’s move on to marriage records. While enumerations between 1850 and 1880 all include a field to note couples that were married within the census year (1870 even requests the month), that only accounts for a small percentage of the population who happened to get married in a census year. But the 1900 and 1910 censuses also include a field for the “Number of years of present marriage.” Doing the math, we can estimate when a couple was married and start our quest for a marriage record that may contain helpful information like mother’s maiden name, addresses, and possibly relatives mentioned as witnesses.

In 1930, “Age at first marriage” gives us another way to get at that information, based on the current ages given (provided your ancestors weren’t Howleys, that is). If the bride and groom’s year of marriage doesn’t match, this can also be a tip-off to a previous marriage.

In 1910, M1 was used to denote first marriage, and according to the enumerators’ instructions, they were told that “if this is the second or subsequent marriage, write “M2” (meaning married more than once).” So if the enumerator followed these instructions to the letter, M2 could also mean more than two marriages. Good to know. Enumerator instructions are available online at the IPUMS website. 

Obviously, the disappearance of a person from a household could mean a death, but it can be tough to tell. With the death of a spouse, it can be a little easier since a surviving spouse would be noted as widowed in the following enumeration. In other cases, it can be a bit more difficult to determine.

Some U.S. federal censuses from 1850 through 1880 included a mortality schedule enumerating the individuals who had died in the previous year and some of these are available at But again, not all are available, and for those areas that are included, they will only include those persons who died within the previous year.

Beginning in 1900, the year of immigration to the U.S. is given for those not born in the U.S., and naturalization status is noted which can narrow your search for passenger arrival records and naturalizations. (Again, unless your ancestor is a Howley and gives a different year in each available enumeration and another one entirely on her death record. Thanks Jane!)

Where’s All This Going to Take Me?
Thomas Howley died at a relatively young age, as did his daughter who was my great-grandmother. But as I gather more information on her siblings, tracing them forward into enumerations that provide more detailed information, I am getting leads to other records that may eventually help me past this stumbling block.

In some cases, you may find that a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle has moved in with another family member. Addresses found on censuses, birth, marriage, and death records can help you follow the family’s movements through the years. Knowing where they lived can lead me to church records, which can be a goldmine of information. Sponsors and witnesses may turn out to be cousins, aunts, or uncles, and knowing more about the expanded family structure is key to moving beyond your brick wall–fuzzy dates and all.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

11 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Tracking Siblings Forward, by Juliana Smith

  1. Quick note: your comments on Monday, May 21 on censuses showing a woman as widow after the death of a spouse, I wish to point out that in some cases such as my paternal grandmother she listed herself as widowed when in fact her husband left and never returned but they never divorced either. So when a census lists a woman as widowed it could be a coverup for the ‘disgrace’ of separation or divorce. I’m sure this opens up another whole new area to write about.

  2. Good point Linda! In some cases you might also see the man enumerated as if he were home. My great-grandfather left and was counted in both Idaho and New York City in the 1910 census. Apparently my great-grandmother didn’t want to let on that he had left. We were tipped off to his departure through probate records that gave his address in Idaho.

  3. Years ago my brick wall was my husband’s great-great grandfather, Nickolas, who brought his wife and one daughter from Germany in 1839. His son (also Nicholas) was born in 1841 in Missouri. He was my husband’s ancestor. Nickolas senior died about 12 years after arriving and left only one record- the 1850 census. I wanted to know the town from which the family emigrated. I searched with no luck every record (including obits) that I could find on his wife and daughter as they were the only ones born in Germany. It appeared hopeless until I realized that I had been ignoring a cousin of Nicholas junior who arrived in Missouri shortly after his father’s death. A thorough search of him and his family led me to discover his Civil War pension record which asked where he was born. There in the little box was the answer – the handwriting almost unreadable. It looked like “St. ~~~el” So with that printout and an index to an atlas I compared every name that started with an S to the scratchings on my copy. I quickly realized that “St.” could be the anglicized “Sankt”. At the very end I finally reached “Sankt Wendel”. Once I saw the name, it seemed obvious that those were the correct letters. Further research through the LDS did indeed reveal the family in the local church records there. Since then I have become a firm believer in following other family members.

  4. As I read this, I thought, I have a family like this – our elusive Irish Murphy! Besides many, many Murphys to sort through, there are also many Jeremiahs and Marys. And very little family information available of this generation. But, I keep plugging along and reading your columns keeps me looking in different directions. Thank you for that. I think I have finally found a clue (small though it is) in the immigration records so will continue my journey backwards.

  5. I always enjoy your way of helping us searchers.
    In the 1850 census, one of my greatqrandfather’s daughter’s name was missing
    I wondered what happened to her for a long time. (The family came over in March of 1847 and she was 13 that year.)
    Eventually I found her in the nearest large city as a servant. Her name of course, wasn’t spelled correctly, and those she lived with were no relations.

  6. In my English/Irish family of origin we celebrated birthdays with great fanfare, and ages were known and acknowledged.

    My husband’s mother and father, born USA 1880’s, never celebrated birthdays, and had no idea how old they were. Had to find some kind of birth certificate for SS.

    That helped me to understand the discrepencies in the census ages.

    The other confusion is the person going by first name some years, middle name in other years!

  7. Very interesting Juliania, it confirmed what I was thinking and gave me food for thought. Am an addicted family researcher and have learnt loads from it all.
    Thanks for you input.

  8. Your article came in the right time for me, as I have almost been despairing at some of my relatives, who emigrated from Sweden to the US at the end of the 1800’s, and whom I have not yet been able to find in the Census.
    Thank you very much.
    George Lundblad

  9. Meybe I’ve missed it, being a new family researcher, but are there recommended sites for finding information on adopted children?? I’m looking for cousins adopted out/abandoned and/or given away. Thank you for any help.

  10. LOL!!! Thanks for the laugh Deirdre Smith. My great-grandmother used a different first name on every Census in which she appears: Bridget, Elizabeth, Lizzie and Liz! Go figure! It took me forever to connect an address from the birth record of one of her children to the household at the same address the year before he was born! What a find!

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