Using Ancestry: Finding James in 1870, by Michael John Neill

Working on another column required me to locate every census entry for an uncle of mine–James Rampley. While I had not specifically searched for his census entries before, I thought he would be relatively easy to locate. As sometimes happens, the easier something appears to be, the more difficult it is. My search for James reminded me of several concepts and concerns that occasionally are problematic even for “easy” families.

James Rampley was born in 1844 in Ohio and by 1870 was living in Illinois. The family was fairly non-migratory after their arrival in Illinois in 1847, and James should have been living in or near Walker Township in Hancock County. A quick search of the 1870 U.S. Federal Census at Ancestry for a James Rampley born in 1844 brought no results (the Soundex option was turned on and a five-year variation on the year of birth was chosen). I fiddled around with the search parameters with no success. I figured I was overlooking something and decided it best not to waste time altering the search parameters mindlessly.

It was time to get off the computer and think, time to put James in context and see if I was possibly overlooking something. In 1870, James was in his early twenties and unmarried. He was believed to have been a farmer all his life. Given that information, in 1870, he likely was working as a hired man, either in his parents’ household or in a neighboring household. While it was always possible he took off for greener pastures only to return later, I decided to concentrate on his “home area” first.

Specifying a Township
My search for individuals with a first name of James living in Walker Township resulted in no hits at all. This struck me as somewhat odd. It would have been highly unusual for no men to be living in an entire township with the first name of James. Something was missing.

Instead of wasting time trying to guess how “Walker Township” was spelled in the index, I decided to browse the 1870 census subdivisions of Hancock County. (They weren’t called enumeration districts in 1870.)

Users of the census collection at are reminded that they can browse the images for any census year by scrolling down past the search box until the list of states appears. Clicking on the desired state will bring up a list of counties from which the appropriate county can be chosen.

As soon as I saw the list for Hancock County, I realized why there were no index entries for a James living in Walker Township in 1870. Walker Township was not called Walker Township in the 1870 census. Instead of using the township name, the enumerator used the township and range numbers for that township and two others. Being familiar with the area, I knew Township 3 Range 8 was the one I needed. If you’re unfamiliar with the area you are searching, you might find this information on the USGenWeb site for the area, a local county genealogical or historical society website, or you could post a query to the appropriate county message board at

Still No James
Using that name for the township still did not produce any likely matches for my James. When I decided to look at his parents’ enumeration, I realized why I had not found him.

The census taker in the 1870 census listed his parents, James and Elizabeth Rampley, with two household members named John Rampley–one aged twenty-eight and one aged twenty-three. I knew the family did not have two sons named John. One was an error. The twenty-three-year-old was the correct age to actually be their son James. A quick search located James and Elizabeth’s 1850 and 1860 census entries and my hunch that the 1870 census contained a naming error was confirmed. There were not two John Rampleys in the household of James and Elizabeth. One was actually James.

Some Reminders
My search for James reminded me of a few things.

  • Put them into context. When searching for anyone in any record, put that person in the context of their lifespan and their own chronology. Are they likely single, living at home, married with children, or living with adult children? What was their occupation? Would they likely be living at home? Would they have had to move to look for work? All these questions impact where a person might have been living and how a search for that person should be conducted.
  • Know the area you are searching and be familiar with the names of geographic and political areas within that area. 
  • Consider how a person would be enumerated if one fact about that person were listed incorrectly. Genealogists frequently do this with ages and misspellings. But when a person has a name as “easy” as James (and no middle name) we sometimes fail to contemplate that name being listed incorrectly. Each fact can be misconstrued in a census entry or a database entry. Keep this in mind when performing database searches.
  • Track your database searches as you do them. Note how you “tweak” parameters and alter search terms in your attempt to find that desired person. Performing the same search over and over is not an effective search strategy.
  • And if all else fails: search the census manually–page by page–in the area where your relative lived. In some areas this may be time consuming, but those of us who began our ancestral searches in the days before indexes are probably familiar with this approach. Once in a while we need to return to it. Manual scanning gives us an idea of the neighborhood and may help us to find relatives disguised as neighbors.

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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 [email protected] or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.



4 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Finding James in 1870, by Michael John Neill

  1. I’ve tried to browse using Ancestry Library edition and the most narrowed down that I got was to state. Do you need to be in the census section specifically? At the time I was trying to see what databases were available that would cover a specific county.

  2. Also don’t forget to search by the simple initial “J” in a case like this. I have had an entire family enumerated by their initials, so searching for each child’s name also did not yield any hits. When the author said there were no James in the town, my first reaction was that the enumerator did the whole town with initials! Fortunately, that was not the case here.

  3.’s search results can often be unpredictable. Recently I was looking for a particular female, using every variation of her given and surname, and a 5 year age range, even eliminating the known state of birth, with no results.

    I finally did a surname search for the state and county, and up she came. Why? It’s happened more that once.

    I have also seen the name “James” transcribed often on as “Janes”

    Also, looking for an age can be off up to 30 years. Yesterday I was looking for a family and elminated the age restriction for the husband. He was 26 and given as 56 in the index.

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