Using Beyond Border and Ocean-A Different View of Census, by Sherry Irvine

globe.bmpNot everyone has an oral tradition of stories, a collection of old letters or a well-traveled Bible. In other words, many of you may not be aware of the strands of relationships across North America, the Atlantic Ocean or in areas of the British Isles.

Even knowledge of family contacts may not be enough. I have known about closely-maintained connections to England among some of my paternal ancestors for a long time. It was collateral relations who were said to have made trips back, but looking to see whether anyone was caught in a census was not a high priority before online indexes and images. It was too much work on the off-chance that some member of the family was listed with some other connection in a census that came along only once every ten years.

Online census indexes have changed that, in particular the collection at which now includes some or all of the returns from the U.S., England, Wales, and Canada. In addition, understanding the wider horizons of your ancestors can enrich your family history; I recommend taking the initiative and looking for people who are “hiding” in unexpected places. Following are three suggestions:

Three Searches
The first two searches described here use the census search tool in the usual way, with a full name or a surname. If you do not usually work in steps, try it now as the following explains:

1. With a full name: using the ranked and exact search you can look for the names of anyone in the family across an entire country, a state, province, or county. Do this one census at a time and one country at a time. Then change one detail at a time; each addition of a fact (e.g., birthplace, or birth year) produces fewer results. Several smaller groups of results concentrate the mind.

Here is an example: I discovered that a sister of my great-great-grandfather remained in Scotland, living in Edinburgh. I wanted to track her life in hopes of finding other members of the family. She was not in the 1851 census in Scotland, so I decided to search for her in England and Wales. Working these regions separately, stating the birthplace as Scotland and giving a date range of ten years for her birth, I tried the search. She turned up in England, visiting the family of a married sister in Somerset. As a bonus, the niece of another sister was also in the house on census night.

2. With a surname only: it must be an unusual surname or the geographic area of the search must be quite limited. Again you should try both ranked and exact searches and work one census and one new input detail at a time.

For this search, I tested a surname of Irish origin in my mother’s side of the family–Boddy. They were back and forth across the Canada/U.S. border in the 1800s, so I searched 1850 through 1880 inclusive, one at a time, checking for the name in the entire United States and in New York State because I knew there were connections there. In one household in Oswego, New York, there were nine people; Boddy was written as “Bodey” and “Brady” and only two people in the two families were born in New York State, all others in Canada. There is no doubt by the names, occupations, and the Canadian connection that I had come across a cluster of cousins and siblings living together.

3. With no name at all: choose a limited area such as a single district or parish; work one census at a time; put in the birthplace.

In this third example, I selected several parishes in eastern England where I know there were relations of my paternal great-grandfather. My efforts produced the sister of my great-grandfather visiting relatives in Suffolk. For each parish I did the following:

  • Selected the census year from the full list of the UK census. (Be sure to do this because you need a search box that permits the inclusion of the country of birth. To do this, go to the main UK census page. Do not use the search box, but rather, scroll down, select the census year and location desired, and use the next search box that appears.)
  • Selected an exact search.
  • Left the fields for names blank.
  • Chose county and district. (You could also search the whole county.)
  • Inserted only one personal detail, a birthplace of Canada.

Results to searches such as these are fascinating, not only because you may turn up people who belong in your charts, but because is it interesting to see the names and birthplaces of a surprising number of people; for example, seventy-six people residing in the county of Suffolk in England in 1871 were born in Canada.

Review your files, work one census and one step at a time, and see what new information you can find in the census databases. Many of us try to stick firmly to research in Canada or the U.S. until no more can be done. Think again and take a break; ideas like these just might turn up something.

Sherry Irvine, CGRS, FSA Scot, is an author, teacher, and lecturer specializing in English, Scottish, and Irish family history. She is the author of Your English Ancestry (2d ed., 1998) and Researching Scottish Ancestry (2003), and she is a contributor to several publications. Since 1996, she has been a study tour leader, course coordinator, and instructor for the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. Recently she served a two-year term as president of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Online Classes
Sherry Irvine has teamed up with Helen Osborn for a new series of
online courses. For more information, visit:

Sherry’s Calendar
01-04 June 2006
11th Australasian Congress, Darwin, Northern Territory


15 thoughts on “Using Beyond Border and Ocean-A Different View of Census, by Sherry Irvine

  1. I would like to know where Sherry obtained the 1851 Scotland census. It isn’t available in Ancestry is it?

  2. i am trying to track down my great grand father james henry langley from sussex he married florance mable ashby in 19o4 i would like to know more about where his rootand hers roots come from
    plus im also trying to trace the honniball family from my mothers side from holborn i know that my granfathers mother was jessie honniball but what was her madim name before that and how did her husband die

  3. I wish I could afford a subscription to Ancestry. But like my grandma use to tell me “if wishes were horses beggars would ride” let me know if you ever have a free time without signing up for any thing.

  4. Laura,

    Do you visit an LDS Family History Center with any regularity? They have the Ancestry Library subscription for free access, at least in the US (I don’t know where you are, of course).

    Cheers — Randy

  5. Laura, Also check for Ancestry at your library.

    Good luck.


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  7. Is there any differnce between to which individuals can subscribe and the Ancestry Library Edition. If so, what are they?

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  9. Why is it so hard to break a wall down? Been trying to find David Q Burns born Oct 10,1806-09 in Vt. His parents have to be somewhere.

  10. This is for Ruth Mesarch (item #10). Have you checked in New Hampshire, I don’t know the dates but there were a number of boundry disputes and state lines changed several times so they could end up in a NH or maybe even Maine census. The Canadian, Maine, NH and Vt borders were also disputed. I found one family member who lived in Vt., after a fire in Vt. she actually died in a hospital in NH so the death certificate was in NH not Vt. She was buried in Vt but church records for that period were missing so there was no record of her death in Vt. Good Luck.

  11. My Scottish ancestors name was TRAMEL. They settled in North Carolina. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks

  12. If Betty Boucher reads this thank you for the info you sent me on where I might look. Sorry it took so long to get back to you. Been busy and looking for Daid Q Burns has been put a side and yes still looking for his parents.

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