Using Ancestry: Census Searching Reminders, by Michael John Neill

A recent Tip from the Pros on missing people in the census reminded me that all of us have occasional difficulties finding someone in the census. This week we look at some common pitfalls that may cause us to overlook that relative.

~ Are You Looking in the Right Place?
Are you absolutely certain where your ancestors were living at the time of the 1920 census? If your ancestors were extremely migratory, they may be in an unexpected place. It is possible that they lived in a place for such a short time that living family members have no recollection of the residence. Even ancestors who tended to “stay put” may have lived in a different location for a short time. A move west to “greener pastures” that did not go well might have resulted in the family moving back home. And if the move was a bad experience, it might never have been talked about again.

~ Was She Still Living?
One computer workshop participant indicated he was having difficulty finding an ancestor in the 1880 census. He provided me her name, date and place of birth, and dates and places of marriage (including names of spouses). I tried a variety of approaches based on name variations, language issues, etc. No luck. He then indicated he had an obituary for the woman that he thought might help. It certainly did. The obituary indicated the ancestor had died in 1875.

~ Do You Know All the Name Variants?
Searching often requires looking for names besides the “right” one. Elizabeth may have been enumerated as Betty, Lizzie, or any of a number of alternate names based upon her first name. Names in the census could easily have been based upon middle names and if the researcher is unaware of the middle name, searching can be even more difficult. Consider making a list of all spelling variants for your surname, including variations based upon phonetics and handwriting. Also bear in mind that in some cases individuals were enumerated using only initials.

~ Do You Have the Right Last Name?
One of my own ancestors was living with her stepfather and her mother in 1860 and is enumerated with his last name instead of the last name of her father. Until I knew the mother remarried, finding the family was difficult. They were “hidden” under the step-father’s last name. There are other last name issues as well. If your ancestor had a non-English name, it is possible that the 1870 census taker Anglicized the last name, translating it to the nearest English language word he could. If your ancestors emigrated from a country that practiced patronymics, your ancestor might have used his father’s last name as his last name or he might have used the patronymic form of his father’s first name as his last name. Consequently if your immigrant ancestor was the son of Swan Jonsson, he could be enumerated with the last name of Swanson (patronymic from father, “son of Swan”), the last name of Jonsson (his father’s actual last name), or Johnson (the Anglicization of Jonsson). Keep alternate last names in mind.

~ Have You Searched For Other Family Members?
Looking for a specific person can occasionally be difficult for a variety of reasons. Focusing only on that person may make the search needlessly more difficult than necessary. If you know the names of other household members, consider searching for them as well. For one of a myriad of reasons, they may be easier to find than the person for whom you are actually “looking.”

~ Are the Names Reversed?
It can happen with English language names–John Thomas, where Thomas is the last name, may be enumerated as Thomas John. With non-English names the confusion can be even more frequent. Panagiotis Verikios is enumerated as Verikios Panagiotis in the 1930 Chicago census. Apparently the census taker confused the first name and the last name–easy to do when you do not know the language.

~ Are You Entering Too Many Search Parameters? affords users the ability to create customized searches using a variety of database fields. However, just because the search interface has all those boxes does not mean that all those boxes have to be filled in. If you’re doing an exact search, the more boxes completed before searching, the more restrictive the search. If you typically fill in more than four boxes, consider omitting one from your search. Requiring too much match information may be why you are finding nothing.

~ Is the Last Name Mangled in the Census?
The 1920 census index includes the name Sabelouis Ferihotge. The Clayton Township, Adams County, Illinois, enumeration is admittedly very difficult to read. The name is actually Sartorius Trientje (again the first and last names have been switched). How do I know who this person is? The age, residence, and birth place are consistent with my ancestor, Trientje Sartorius. Her son Claude Sartorius is also enumerated with her, with information consistent with what I already knew about him.

~ Is the “Wrong” Occupation Really Correct?
Do not assume that your ancestor’s occupation never changed and that your farmer ancestor in 1860 cannot be listed as a lawyer ten years later. Occupations may change, what typically does not alter drastically is social or economic status. A day laborer in 1850 most likely is not a land baron in 1860. However, a day laborer in 1850 could easily be working a different type of job in 1860. A miller may become a baker, but likely not a banker. There are always exceptions, but keep in mind the reasonableness and likelihood of any changes in occupation or social status.

~ Are Soundex Options Catching All the Variants You Need?
Soundex options, where names that sound like the desired surname, give the researcher flexibility. However, the Soundex will not catch all variants. A Soundex search for the last name Trautvetter will return Troutfetter, Trautfetter, and Troutvetter. However, it will not return Trantvetter. This last variant results from a “u” that has been misread as an “n.” Since a consonant has replaced a vowel, the Soundex-based search did not bring back the last alternate spelling. Soundex usually does not catch variants where a vowel has been replaced with a consonant or vice versa. It may be that a wildcard search meets your needs or that multiple searches for several variants are necessary.

Generally Speaking
It is always possible that the census taker missed your ancestor. And if you cannot find your ancestor in a specific census a good general approach is to question everything you think you know about your ancestor in that specific year. If one fact is incorrect in the census, it may cause you to fly right past his name in an attempt to find him.

Michael John Neill is 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.

Michael John Neill will be presenting an all-day workshop at events in the following location:

  • 3 November 2007, San Antonio, Texas
    San Antonio Genealogical Society
    Visit for Michael’s website for more information.

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7 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Census Searching Reminders, by Michael John Neill

  1. I was recently asked to find a family by the name Walimaki that lived in Pierce County Washington in the 1910 and 1920 census. I checked the online index and the soundex at the library and no luck. I found a website online on the Walimaki family and it had some information on the family and an E-Mail adress, so I sent an E-Mail to the person that did the website. Turns out the Walimaki family was from Finland and used the English translation of their surname in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 census. (They were in Wyoming in 1900). I was then able to find the family very easily. The English translation of Walimaki is HILL, and they were in the 1910 and 1920 census with the surname HILL.


  2. I have also found spellings of names have hidden ancestors and where they were in a small town have ended up seaching whole censuses. The worst mistake was index Viney for King , I,ve also had Warren for Warner, Leoy for Levy. The most odd was a Jane Whitehurst who married a Thomas Simmonds creating 1/2 children as Whitest and 1/2 as Simmons on the census. I always look for an unusual sibling name on census or witness on mar cert to help if still stuck or seaching pages before and after parents .

  3. I was looking for my father’s side of the family,and couldn’t find it in the 1930 census. I knew they lived in Chicago, but no luck. I was looking for his mother’s name,as his father had passed a few years before, and she didn’t work. I was telling a relative about my bad luck finding them. And they reminded me that she had a thick Swedish accent, try using one of the children’s name. Which I did. And there they were. The census taker spelt her very different, it wasn’t even close; even the children’s name were spelt different. We have to remember that maybe our ancestor’s accent’s had a lot to do with how the census taker wrote things down.

  4. Another option in looking for missing ancestors it to pay particular attention to the syllables in the surname that may have been separated into intial & surname.

    A recent example has been my search for Daniel H. Segraves/Segraves of Warren Co KY who was found in the 1910 census as Daniel C. Graves – after looking for his sister-in-law who was living in his household in the 1900 census.

  5. I’ve found that using first name only searches along with birth year is a good way to find mangled last names, especially in small counties. If you search a specific census, you can even specify parts of counties.

  6. It was only in looking for my great-great grandmother that I found my great grandmother. Grt grandmother had remarried. Her new husband, I believe, went more by his middle name than 1st name. I guessing that the enumerator was confused by this and thought he was saying that he used it as his last name, because that’s how all were listed….including her children by her 1st husband and they had not changed their names. Thank goodness my g.g.grndmother was living with them and that the enumerator got her last name right or I think I’d still be looking for them to this day. Judy Rosen

  7. Actual immigrants from Germany, Russia, Greece, may keep some of the traits of their native alphabets in their handwriting after arriving here. A Tutonic D can easily be read as a C or T. A Cyrillic H looks like N. The Greek “Pi” looks like TT to an untrained eye. If the Census Taker asked the subject to write out the name, and elements of the old alphabet existed, the Taker could easily have misread, and so misspelled.

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