Using Ancestry: Using the Census to Find my Irish Chains

by Michael John Neill

Families rarely migrate in complete isolation. The ties of family and friends are not always obvious to the researcher several lifetimes later. The difficulty with most families lies in finding those connections that led to migration. This week we see how the databases at Ancestry, along with some detective work and analysis, can allow us to begin discerning those connections.

A Little Background
Brothers Samuel and Joseph Neill were both born in County Derry, Ireland, in the 1830s. They immigrated to New Brunswick, Canada, in 1864–Joseph, with his wife Anne Bryce (Brice), and Samuel, as a single man.Samuel married Anne Murphy in St. John in 1865 shortly after his arrival and the marriage record is the earliest documented existence I have of Samuel’s wife, Anne. All later extant records on Anne Murphy Neill only indicate that she was an Irish native.

In the late 1860s, both Neill families left Canada and moved to West Point, Hancock County, Illinois. West Point was not an urban area where jobs were plentiful. It was hoped that a better understanding of the family’s migration might lead to information on the origins of Anne Murphy Neill.

Census Review
I began with a careful review of the 1870 through 1910 census entries for both Samuel and Joseph Neill. My intention in reviewing entries was to:

  • determine if I had overlooked any clues in the enumerations
  • determine a timeline for migration from Canada to the United States
  • determine if there were neighbors who were also Irish immigrants (by reading at least three pages before and after the located entries)

My review of the census entries indicated the Neills likely came to Illinois around 1867. There were a few other Irish families living nearby, but they did not settle in a neighborhood that was heavily Irish. These other families will be researched to determine if their Irish origins are geographically close to the Neills or if these families spent time in New Brunswick before settling in Illinois.

Searching the Census in Other Ways
The census indexes at Ancestry offer additional search options that should be explored. Instead of searching for names, I could search for other natives of Ireland living in the same area as the Neill family. I could perform searches for individuals with a birthplace in Ireland born within five years of 1835 in an attempt to locate other individuals roughly the same as Samuel and Joseph. All census indexes at Ancestry for censuses 1850 and later provide this option. A search of the 1910 census could also include a year of immigration in an attempt to find other Irish immigrants who immigrated in the same time frame as Joseph and Samuel. The database interface affords me search possibilities that never existed several years ago unless I read the census one page at a time.

A Warning
There is one potential pitfall to such searches. A search of the 1910 census for natives of Ireland living in Hancock County, Illinois, who immigrated in the 1860s (performed by searching for an immigration year of 1865 plus or minus five years) does not locate Samuel Neill even though he is enumerated in the 1910 Hancock County census. The reason is simple: the year of immigration on Samuel’s entry is left blank.

Using the Ancestry search page to locate immigrants from the same country as your ancestor who came over around the same time as your forebear is an excellent way to generate additional research leads. However, one must do it with the following things in mind:

  • The year of immigration could be incorrect in the census entry, either for your ancestor or for the others who might have immigrated with him.
  • The year of immigration could be omitted completely for some immigrants.
  • Places of birth could be completely incorrect or vary slightly from what you think is correct, Prussia or Hanover for Germany, etc.

Searches of databases are frequently made under the assumption that our ancestors gave the correct answers, that those answers were written legibly and that the reading was transcribed correctly. This assumption only causes a problem when the researcher fails to acknowledge it.

Before madly entering search terms, think about what you are trying to locate and the best way to go about finding it. Then keep a record of the different ways in which you have searched so that searches are not repeated and new searches can be developed if necessary. In the case of Samuel Neill, the best search was simply to look for other Irish natives born in the same decade who were living in the same county. This did not result in an unmanageable number of hits for any census year. Samuel’s residence near the county line also warranted performing a search in the neighboring county. Geography must always be kept in mind.

A Connection
Similar searches were conducted in the 1870 and 1880 census in the county where Samuel lived. The number of entries in both cases was small enough that all the names could be manually scanned. Particular attention was paid to any names in townships that neighbored the township where Samuel lived from ca. 1868 until 1912. There were a handful of other Irish immigrants living relatively close to Samuel. However, the entry for one Irish native stood out: William Brice.

The connection was easily made. Samuel’s brother’s wife was Anne Brice. William Brice and family lived in the township due east of the Neills, most likely within five or six miles. Of course, it might easily have been coincidence that a William and Anne Brice were somewhat near neighbors of someone with whom they shared a last name and a country of birth. One could not immediately conclude they were related to Joseph’s wife Anne Brice Neill. However, the entry was worth following in other census years.

Back to the Census
Searches easily located William and Anne Brice in the following census records:

  • 1860 Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois
  • 1870 Chili Township, Hancock County, Illinois
  • 1880 XXX, Butler County, Kansas
  • 1900 XXX, Caldwell County, Missouri

How did I know it was them? I performed Soundex-based searches of the Ancestry census database for a William Brice, born in Ireland within five years of 1838. These were the only entries that were relatively consistent with the family structure of William Brice in 1870 when he was a neighbor to the Neill families. Further research on William Brice needs to be conducted in order to determine if he is related to Anne Brice Neill. If this William is related to Anne Brice Neill, it looks like he was what brought the Neills to west-central Illinois. (Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois, is relatively close to West Point, where the Neills settled.) Unfortunately at this juncture, direct connections to Anne Murphy Neill have not been discovered.

Things Worth Remembering:

  • Census records can provide a tentative outline of a family that should be documented with additional records.
  • Searches of census records without using names, focusing on places of birth, ages, etc., may result in the location of unknown extended family members.
  • Tracking experimental search techniques is important so that the same searches are not conducted repeatedly.

In an upcoming article, we’ll see how the migration trail and extended family discovered thus far are only the beginning.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) ( He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

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6 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Using the Census to Find my Irish Chains

  1. 1. 1st sending – – said my add. was incorrect = = ??

    2. APPRECIATE “your” valuabel “search assistance”.

    3. BUT – – using Ireland as birth place… also, brings up persons born in ICELAND !! – – (someone, needs to add Iceland as a country. !!!!!)
    Thank you.

  2. I have been watching for postings of Irish records for a couple of years now, and am constantly disappointed. When I saw this article, I thought ‘Oh, at long last, something’, but was again disappointed. Is it possible that Ancestry is not aware that Derry (for example) is part of the ‘Six Counties’ and therefore, the census would belong to Great Britain – NOT Ireland?
    When I first saw that Ancestry was publishing Irish and U.K. records, I was interested, but they always seemed to be British records rather than anything Irish.
    I would be grateful for a list of any Irish records available. I did have a Census subscription with Ancestry a few years ago, but was unable to use it, so I am reluctant to pay another subscription unless I am sure it will be of use to me.
    Thank you for your help.
    Yours sincerely,
    Margaret O’Keeffe,
    Galway City,

  3. This is a very useful article on exploring chain migration issues. I have used the same censuses to track a family immigrating to the Cincinnati area – my Ecuadorian wife’s ‘German’ ancestor: Herman GRUNAUER Newman. John’s analysis is much more elegant than mine of course.

    He is interesting for two reasons:

    (1) in the LDS’ IGS he appears as marrying in Peru around 1870, and dying in Cincinnati in about 191x. He only stayed in USA about 7 years, and is mis-spelled in the Census.

    (2) He founded a prolific line of GRUNAUERs that populate an area of Ecuador. There are more GRUNAUERs in Ecuador than anywhere else in the world now – including Germany.

    Through identifying his relatives who stayed in America after his departure to ‘Peru’, I was able to ascertain the German-Prussian hometown of all of them.

    Question: Why is doing my in-laws so much easier than my own lines?

  4. Once again, a helpful article, even if I’m searching for ancestors who moved from Prussia to Chicago(and probably changed their name in the process)!

  5. Another caution should be made. Not all people made it into the indexes. I have had a few difficult searches where finding an ancestor was accomplished by ignoring the fact that they existed and looking for someone else. One ancestor was cleary written in the census but missed entirely in the transcription for the indexes. I only found them by looking for their daughter whose married name I happened to know. And, lucking out because the two families were together at the time.

    Just because you find only one person to match your criteria does not logically conclude that there are no others.

    Thank you for the informative articles you write.

    Shayne Moon

  6. Help! I was confussed before by my Irish relatives but Margaret O’Keeffe’s note about the “Six Counties” census belonging to Great Britain just left my brain numb……..I’m looking for Gallagher families between 1820 and 1850 who migrated to the US. Would their counties be part of the Six Counties? How do I find out, why don’t you do an “item” on this in the Ancestry Weekly? All help is appreciated.

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