Tips from the Pros: The Value of Browsing, from Michael John Neill

Don’t get me wrong, I love the “point and click” way in which individuals can be located in the census. It can save an inordinate amount of time when looking for an individual when the location is unknown. However, looking at only the “hit” on the census page can cause the researcher to miss clues about the ancestor and his or her neighborhood.

Looking at the place of birth for the neighbors can indicate whether your ancestor is in the majority or minority when compared to his neighborhood and indicate the ethnic mix of the neighborhood.

Looking at the occupation of the neighbors can also provide clues about the type of neighborhood in which your ancestor lived. Is it working class? Middle class? A mix?

If the census is recent enough, looking at the place of birth for the parents of the heads of household can tell you if the family lives in a neighborhood composed primarily of “children of immigrants” from a specific area. If the heads of household are born in the United States, looking at only their place of birth may cause you to overlook this cultural clue.

Even pre-1850 census searches may benefit from this browsing technique. Look at the names next to your ancestor on the census–do they appear to be roughly alphabetical? If so, the census taker may have attempted to alphabetize the names, thus destroying any clues as to neighbors. And scan through the entire township or district. You may find something like what I found in Franklin County, Ohio, in 1830: all the single men listed last.

Seek only the ancestor’s name and you may find him or her (if you are lucky). Seek the neighbors and others on the page and you may learn more than you expected.

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