Maximizing 1850 and Later US Census Records

We are excited to offer this new class on using US census records. Virtually every US genealogist uses census records, but not everyone is aware of how those records can be maximized for what they do contain. There are limitations to these records, but there are advantages to them as well. If you’ve wondered if you are getting the most out of US census records, this class is for you.


This three-week session will look at US census records from 1850 through 1940. Topics discussed will include:

  • enumerator instructions and how information “got in the census”
  • organization of original records
  • working with family structure in 1850-1870 records
  • correlating a family’s census records over time
  • evaluating accuracy of census records
  • determining other records suggested by a family’s enumerations
  • crafting census citations

We will not discuss online census search techniques or database query techniques. Our approach is laid-back, down-to-earth, and informal while providing accurate information and analysis.


  • 4, 11, and 18 February (Mondays) from 8-9 pm central time
  • attendees who miss live session can view presentation later
  • handout included



Menlo Park, California, Seminar 4 May 2019

I’ll be speaking at the San Mateo County, California, Genealogical Society’s May 2019 workshop in Menlo Park, California.

The seminar will be held on 4 May 2019. Registration details are on their website.


  • Problem Solving Applied to Genealogy
  • Organizing Online Research
  • Researching the Entire Family and Beyond
  • Finding Barbara’s Beaus and Gesche’s Girls

I’m looking forward to the seminar. If you’re a regular reader in attendance, please come up and introduce yourself during one of the breaks!

If you’d like to have Michael present at your conference or seminar, email him at


The Apparent Spouse and the Apparent Children

US Census records before 1880 do not give relationship to the head of the household. The oldest male and female are often husband and wife–but occasionally they are siblings or there is another relationship.

If other records provide evidence that the oldest male and female in a household were married, remember that the children may not all be theirs together. Some could be his, some could be hers, some could be theirs, and some could have another relationship to one or both of the oldest male and female in the household.

Remember the pre-1880 US census indicated who was living in a household. That household may have been a married couple and their children (sometimes referred to as the “traditional household”) or another set of relationships. Those “non-traditional” households were not as unusual as some may think.


Breaking Down the Informant

If a document gives a clear informant, ask yourself:

  • what information did the informant know first hand;
  • what information did the informant know because someone told him;
  • would there have been motivation to lie;
  • what information might she have guessed the answer to.

If a document does not give an informant, ask yourself:

  • was there more than one probable informant;
  • who was the most likely informant;
  • how likely was the informant to know the information.

Always ask yourself:

  • were there any penalties for lying on the document;
  • how likely was it that the informant be caught in a lie;
  • was there a motivation for the informant to lie.

Inform yourself and think about the informant.


Genealogy Commonsense Bleach

Perhaps one of the best ways to easily catch errors in your tree is to look at the dates of vital events for the people involved. Do they make sense? Is the timeline plausible?

Genealogists should know, as they say, where babies come from. Aside from modern interventions, parents have to in the same place roughly nine months before the birth. They also have to be alive at that same time.

Triple check before you add someone to your tree and don’t just take someone else’s online tree as gospel.

Sometimes a simple dose of “genealogy commonsense bleach” does an excellent job of cleaning. There are more advanced tools that can be used to “clean your tree,” but “genealogy commonsense bleach” will remove the majority of the grime on your tree.


And the Two Were Merged Into One

This is not a sentimental post about marriage.

An estate document from the early 20th century apparently omitted one daughter of Adam Trautvetter from an an estate notice. Further analysis suggested that daughters Lena Salzer and Louise Buckert had been “merged” into one: Lena Bucklew. It is not known whether poor handwriting, bad hearing, or some other miscommunication resulted in the error. What is known is that the other children’s names are consistent with other records and this is the only document that replaces Lena Salzer and Louise Buckert with Lena Bucklew.

But it always pays to remember that any one document can be incorrect and that utilizing multiple documents will increase the chance that errors of this type are caught.


What Did the Author Leave Out?

Years ago, I discovered a lengthy article in a genealogical publication about an ancestor and his family. It was full of  complete references  to a variety of records: land, court, census, probate, etc. The citations were complete and made it easy to locate the original for comparison purposes. The author indicated that the ancestor could not be found in the 1830 census. The other enumerations were included and discussed. The thorough nature of the research initially caused me not to try and find the ancestor in 1830, but I went ahead and tried anyway.

There he was–name spelled correctly and found where he was supposed to be with a household structure that was just a little “off.”

I’m not certain if the author simply overlooked the entry or didn’t want to address the unexpected individuals in the enumeration.

But never assume a published account is complete. Anyone can overlook something, particularly if that item is unindexed and unpublished.

The author’s failure to even address the census entry (since it was easy to find), makes me wonder what else got overlooked–either intentionally or inadvertantly.


Genealogists Only Get Bits and Pieces

Family researchers usually research events long after they have happened. That makes genealogy research different, particularly when all the participants in an event are deceased. When researching information about the birth of an ancestor in 1823, the parents cannot be talked to, the child cannot be talked to, contemporaries of the person cannot be talked to. We are left with whatever records were created that reference the event and that survived to the present day. The evidence that makes its way to us is not necessarily the most accurate and not the most complete. It’s what had the best preservation or was fortunate enough not to be destroyed.

That’s why it’s important obtain as many sources as possible and determine their reliability as best we can.

And…genealogy research is not like a modern scientific study. We can’t just “run a new test” or “conduct a new survey or study” to see what happens.


That Secret No One Tells, You Never Thought to Ask, and Just Assumed Did Not Happen

Some secrets are difficult to uncover, especially if you have no inkling that they ever happened in the first place. If you do not ask, no one will volunteer the information. Sometimes if you ask, they still will not provide any information or say that the event never took place. And sometimes you do not even know specifically what to ask and the only “clue” you have is an inkling that there’s something you are not being told about a certain family member (and…your “gut” could be wrong). And it could be that there’s a “secret” about a family member that only a few other family members are even aware of and they have an unwritten pact among themselves not to tell anyone else.

If a great-uncle lived in Kansas for two years and returned home to Illinois, don’t assume that nothing happened in Kansas. He could have been in jail, gotten married/divorced, had a child no one talked about, or lived a mundane life that only generated bills and rent receipts.

Never assume that Grandma is telling you “everything.” Even if she is telling everything she knows, someone else may have held some details from her. Just because the facts Grandma told you are correct, does not mean that she’s told you everything she knows.

She may just hope you don’t find out that her brother was married in 1920 and divorced three months later. Or no one may have told her that her own father’s brother had a first wife with whom he had three children.


Write Your Own Stories

In addition to writing about the dead, write about yourself: your own life, your own experiences, your own philosophy.
Because one day you’ll among the dead yourself and don’t we all wish more of our relatives had written something about their life?