Have you tried searching for that ancestral last name by cutting off part of it? Perhaps “De Moss” was entered as “Moss.” Perhaps Van der Walle was entered as just “Wall.” Goldenstein might have been entered as “Golden.”
The list goes on. Consider what might have happened if someone dropped the first syllable or two of your ancestor’s last name.
Then try the same for the last syllable or two.
You might be surprised at what you find.
One of my “spare time” activities is finding well-known individuals in United States census records. There are several potential difficulties I face when trying to locate any of these individuals. One of the most common: the “right” name.
While most of us are not searching for celebrities in the census, it still pays to have the correct name. If grandfather was an immigrant, are we searching for both his birth name and his Anglicized name? Was there another name he took after he immigrated, perhaps one that was easier to spell or pronounce?
And is the name we have for Grandma actually her middle name? Is she enumerated under her first name in 1900, a name that perhaps we do not know?
And there is always the chance that our ancestor changed his name a little bit to escape the law, a creditor, or a former wife.
An ancestor of mine was John Rucker. In some records he is listed as “Captain John Rucker.” In some cases “captain” ends up being his first name. Of course, this makes a difference in how his name appears in an index or an online database.
Did your ancestor have a title? Is it making him difficult or impossible to find?
If you are looking for someone in the census and cannot find them, try reversing the first and last name. Perhaps the census taker did not know which name was the first name and which name was the last name. This problem can be compounded if the names are in a foreign language.
Remember that your ancestor might have been known by several different first names. This can be especially confusing when a researcher is “fixed” on one name. My great-grandfather was actually Frederick, but sometimes he was Fred and sometimes he was Fritz (the latter more in his younger years).
Another ancestor was John Michael Trautvetter. He went by one of several different names:
- Jahn (a German version of his first name)
- J. M.
Some nicknames are not quite as obvious. Sally was a common nickname for Sarah. If you can’t find your ancestor, learn nicknames that were derived from the original name. The ancestor might simply be hiding under a nickname.
Some census takers were plain lazy, some couldn’t spell, and some didn’t care.
After you have exhausted all the variations on your ancestor’s first and middle names, consider that they might have been enumerated with just their initials. Or perhaps their first initial and their middle name spelled out. I have seen entire townships where no one apparently had a first name and everyone was named with their initials. I have seen locations where census takers used initials for non-English names instead of trying to spell them correctly.
Maybe your ancestor was enumerated as J. Smith in the 1860 census. Now there’s a real problem.