How Do I Know I Have the Right Family? by Michael John Neill

When families migrate from one area to another, it can be hard to determine if you have really located the same group of individuals. The difficulty is compounded if the last name and first names are relatively common. It’s important to be certain that the “true” family has been located and that one has not mixed up families with similar names. Male cousins bearing the same first and last name are particularly easy to confuse.

One quick way to track families in the post-1850 era is through population census schedules. The listing of all household members facilitates the matching process, and every-name indexes make the use of these records much easier than before, especially when the residence is not known. However, the first close match on the list of results is not necessarily the correct family. All matches to the search terms should be analyzed and eliminated based upon what is known about the family. What appears to be the “right” entry must be compared in light of other records to determine if there really is consistency.

On the other hand, searches of databases must not be overly strict, as this can sometimes eliminate potential matches. I generally perform a variety of searches for individuals I am seeking, including some using Soundex and wildcard functionality. Sometimes it is easy to determine if the correct person has been found (the person has an unusual name, the person is living in the right location, names, ages, and birthplaces of family members match up, etc.). Other times it is not possible to make a definitive decision that the desired person has been located. When families are eliminated, the researcher should keep notes as to why these families were stricken from consideration.

Generally speaking, when searching online census databases it is helpful to track the type of search that is being performed as it is being performed. Key elements in this tracking are

  • The first and last names that were put in the search box
  • Whether a Soundex option was used
  • Whether a search was performed with wildcards
  • What year of birth was used (and what range of years)
  • What birthplace was used

Reasons for tracking the search include:

  • It is impossible to effectively modify an unsuccessful search when one is not certain how one searched originally or how one searched last week.
  • Searching the same static database in the same way will typically produce the same results.
  • It is impossible to remember each combination of search techniques that was applied. The “correct” combination will always be overlooked. It’s Murphy’s Law applied to genealogy.

One quick and easy way to track your online searches is to make a spreadsheet with column headings for the various search boxes for the database being searched. This spreadsheet can be printed and written on while searching or those who are adept at toggling between computer windows can fill out their chart as they search. Personally, I prefer to fill out my chart of searches before I search, making certain no combination of terms was eliminated. Then I can use the chart to make certain I have conducted all the desired searches.

The Brices
An earlier column mentioned the family of William and Anne Brice and how they were tracked in census records from Illinois to Kansas to Missouri between 1860 and 1900. As an example, let’s look at how their entries were obtained and what leads me to believe I have the same family in four separate locations over four census enumerations.

Generally speaking, census enumerations on any family should not be viewed in isolation. (Space considerations do not allow us to include the complete analysis in this column.) Rather, other records should be utilized in order to determine if the tentative family structure and migration paths are supported by other documents. Wherever possible, obtain maps of all relevant areas to assist in viewing the family’s overall migration path. Search for reasonable alternate spellings before assuming the “actual” family has been located and consider if there are alternate situations that could explain the records that have been found. We should search to see what is found, not search to prove an already determined conclusion.

1860 Census–Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois
William Brice, age 21, born Ireland, married within census year
Anne J., age 22, born Ireland, married within census year

The reference to the marriage within the year caused me to search the
Illinois State Marriage Index. An index entry appears for William Brice and Ann Jane Belford indicating an April of 1860 marriage. It seems very reasonable that this is the same couple, especially since there were no other marriages in the index for a William and Anne Brice (or any reasonable spelling variant).

1870 Census–Chili Township, Hancock County, Illinois
William Brice, age 34, born Ireland
Ann, age 33, born Ireland
William, Jr., age 6, born Illinois
Mary A., age 4, born Illinois
Robert, age 1, born Illinois

Chili Township in Hancock County, Illinois, is close to Ursa Township in Adams County. The ages of William and Ann are consistent with the earlier enumeration. In both cases, William is a farmer (it is important to note any extreme inconsistencies with occupation as well). The ages of the Brice children are consistent with an 1860 marriage. The initial census search was conducted for a William Brice (and Soundex variants) born in 1838 in Ireland, plus or minus five years.

1880 Census–Bruno, Butler County, Kansas
William Brice, age 45, born Ireland
Anne J., age 48, born Ireland
William, age 16, born Illinois
Mary, age 14, born Illinois
Robert, age 11, born Illinois
Sarah J., age 9, born Illinois
James, age 6, born Illinois
John, age 2, born Kansas

The family structure is consistent with the 1870 enumeration. The ages of the parents are off slightly from earlier enumerations, but not so far off as to warrant any special concern. The initial census search was conducted for a William Brice (and Soundex variants) born in 1838 in Ireland, plus or minus five years.

1900 Census–Grant Township, Caldwell, Missouri
William Brice, age 62 (born March 1838), Ireland
Ann, age 62 (born March 1838), Ireland
Jno. H. M., age 20 (born Mar 1880), Kansas

An unexpected move of the family. However, this was the only “match” using our previous search terms that came even close to our desired family. Anna Brice’s death certificate (obtained via the Missouri State Archives website) indicates that she was born in Ireland on 28 March 1836, the daughter of Daniel and Mary Jackson Belford. This is the same maiden name for the “known” Anne Brice, wife of William. Further research needs to be done, but it appears I have the same family.

Wrapping It Up

  • Perform searches that are not overly narrow so that close matches (which maybe the right family) are not overlooked.
  • Constantly review information in light of already known information to be reasonably certain the same family has been located.
  • Track what you do, so search terms can be modified as necessary.

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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.

5 thoughts on “How Do I Know I Have the Right Family? by Michael John Neill

  1. thank you for a very informative article on how to search for families who moves every 10 to 12 years. I have been searching for 30 years but I still got a lot out of your recent article in Family History Circle. keep them coming. as always Maudie

  2. Very interesting article;very good advice for someone who has little experience in researching the census. However sometimes I feel frustrated with my searches because all the great hints are for the years 1850 and forward. I have found my various families(mine as well as my husbands)on all the census back thru 1850. So now where do I go? No one seems to cover the years BEFORE 1850 in detail to help those of us who need those years for our research. It would be nice if the same subjects were not repeated over and over. Thanks for listening

  3. TO : Mr. Michael John Neill

    Thank you for your artical “How Do I Know I Have the Right Family”, for over a year Ihave searched the census files and even traviled to Ireland to find the right ” John Bradshaw”but come way each time with the feiling do I KNOW I HAVE the right Familr.? The number of John Bradshaws living in New York in the late 1800’s could have made up a small town. I FOLLOW YOUR ADVICE AND TRY THIS SEARCH IN LOCATING THE RIGHT FAMILY.

    Thank you
    Tom Bradshaw

  4. Very good article. I am frustrated, though, with people who are stuck a rut with the census and won’t use the census to guide them to other primary sources such as deeds, wills, orphans’ court, probate court, etc. to prove their family’s movement and relationships. Perhaps an article addressing this would be nice.
    Thanks for all the help that you’ve given me and others over the years.

  5. I will try some of your suggestions, hopefully this will bring me some success on pre-1850 censuses.
    Keep up the good reports with good suggestions or ideas.

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