Thursday, August 4, 2011

Research Tip : Always Look at the Original Census Image

This topic sounds pretty "beginnerish", but I think you more experienced genealogists will be surprised how much this applies to your past and present research.  The focus of this blog is census images because I personally made one of those researcher "blunders" where I didn't follow through from transcription to image which ultimately cost me years in the research process.

Case in Point - In the 1980's and most of the 1990's, I traveled at least on a quarterly basis to the genealogical libraries in Fort Wayne and Lansing.  Preparation for such trips usually entailed making lists of certain books and resources to be consulted.  At the top of the list was always federal census, learning early on that census is #1 in the list of sources that should be checked for any U.S. families.  Of course, in those days census images were not on the internet, so I developed a strong right forearm cranking the microfilm. 

The key then, as it is still now, is in the indexes.  There were books of indexes available for most federal census states up through 1870, but beyond that point things got tougher and we had to rely on the Soundex.  Remember the Soundex?  This was a card index created under the Works Projects Administration (WPA).  This was done for 1880, 1900, 1910 (in 1910 it was referred to as the Miracode), and 1920.  However, 1880 was not completely indexed, including only those households with children age 10 and under.

The Soundex card typically included the surname, first name, age, birthplace, and relationship to the head of household for each person, along with the geographic location (see example).  Also included is the Enumeration District & Sheet Number, corresponding to the original census.

In my search for information regarding my Ranney ancestry, I searched for the Franklin Goodrich family (wife Jennie Ranney).  Because this family bounced back and forth between Southwest Michigan and New York state, I had to cast a pretty wide net, but found them in Clyde Township, Allegan County, Michigan.  I proceeded to hand-transcribe the information from the Soundex card. 

Thinking that I had harvested all of the useful information from this census for this family, I stopped there.  For years after that I continued the search for clues to the parentage of Jennie (Ranney) Goodrich with no success.

Now I know that I should have right then and there gone the next step to the actual census where I would have learned the following additional information:
  1. Gender and race of everyone in the household (only the head of household's information was on the Soundex card)
  2. Occupations
  3. Marital status
  4. Number of months of employment
  5. Whether attended school
  6. Birthplaces of mother & father
  7. Literacy
  8. Select handicaps such as blindness, crippled, deaf & dumb (which incidentally these things can lead to the special DDD (Defective, Dependent & Delinquent) schedules)
The most important thing that I missed was placing the family in context with surrounding households.  In this case, this was huge, because guess who was right next door? - Jennie sister's family and her parents!

You might ask why I bring this topic up now that we are immersed in the internet age.  The concept of looking at the original image still applies today.   Too many times while library patrons are using the Ancestry.com federal census databases, they enter a name, locate a likely person, view the record transcript page and stop there, never looking at the original image.  The transcript page provides only names and ages for members of the household, not even providing relationships to the subject of the search as the Soundex had - not to mention all of the other things not shown as outlined above.

Seasoned family historians have learned through sometimes costly mistakes to always follow up with original sources when collecting information.  Those of you who have stubborn brick walls in your research (who doesn't?), should go back through your notes and make sure that you have tracked each morsel of information back to its origins.  This practice is guaranteed to yield helpful results.

Semi-Nameless Picture of the Day
 Mr. Alnard, Mary Giffen's First Husband
From the collection of Jan Stockton
M1780

Can you identify the first name of the subject in this photo?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the five character catalog number with your e-mail.