Change Your Perspective

Sometimes we need to forget we are a genealogist and

  • think about census taking as if it were our job
  • pretend we were the clerk that couldn’t understand your ancestor
  • imagine we are a semi-literate frontiersman collecting taxes
  • imagine you are a non-English speaker with a fear of the government who sees the census taker coming
  • think what it might have been like to have 4 small children, little money to spare, and barely able to afford a burial plot, let alone a tombstone
Remember, the research is about our ancestors and the people who created the records that we use–not necessarily about us.

Those Little Tics

In several post-1840 US Census records, tic marks are used to indicate a variety of things. In some cases, it is eligibility to vote, married within the census year, ability to read and write, etc. If you’re using a US Census after 1840, don’t ignore those tics, there may be clues hiding there.

Read Some History

This has been a tip before–but it bears repeating. When was the last time you read a history book? Actually read it and not just searched for a name in the index. Either a history of the place your ancestors lived or the time period in which they lived would be excellent reading material. If a book seems too much (and it isn’t), consider reading a few issues of the local newspaper during the time period of your “problem.” You might be surprised what you learn.

Try All the Newspapers

If your ancestor died during a time when there might have been an obituary or a death notice, search every paper that might have published something. In an urban area, consider the daily newspapers and suburban newspapers that might have included a notice as well–especially if the ancestor actually lived in a suburb. For rural areas, consider all nearby newspapers, ones in the county seat, and perhaps ones in the nearest “large” town, which could be 40 or 50 miles away–especially after auto travel became popular. Newspapers in towns where your ancestor used to live might also have published a notice as well.

And always consider ethnic or denominational newspapers, even if they were not published near your ancestor lived.

Trace Those Letters

If you are having difficulty reading the handwriting on a document or record, particularly one that is entirely in longhand, consider making an “extra” copy and tracing the handwriting yourself with a pencil. Getting a “feel” for the handwriting of the person may help you to transcribe those words or phrases that are giving you difficulty. This also can work with foreign language script as well.

Errors Can Be Clues

Even something obviously incorrect can be a clue. On a 1900 census enumeration my great-grandfather’s siblings indicated that their mother was born in Ohio. Every record indicated she was born in Illinois and there was no reason to doubt that. It turned out that her parents had lived for 2 or 3 years in Ohio before her birth and had been married there as well. Ohio was a clue to the family’s past, it just wasn’t where the ancestor was born.

Even errors can be clues, often because people remember the name of the place, but forget just how it fits into the family’s individual chronology.

Did Great-Grandpa Communicate with the Other Kin?

Remember that some families kept in contact more than others for a variety of reasons. Your great-great-great-grandfather in 1850 may have had a rough idea of at least the county where his siblings were living and might have been able to at least write a letter to them with that address and have them get it. Other ancestors might have had no idea where their siblings were located or any way to contact them.

It can vary from one family to another and one place to see evidence of it is in estate settlements or probate records. A Civil War pension for one ancestor indicates she knew where her scattered siblings were. Another indicates she had no real clue where her siblings were located.

Of course, that may also be because they might have provided testimony inconsistent with hers.

But not every family maintained the same level of contact. Don’t assume that they did.