It’s tough to explain the satisfactions of genealogy to nonparticipants. And I completely understand their bewilderment. Why does anyone want to traipse around cemeteries cooing over tombstones? What exactly is so much fun about libraries?
But there’s one thing that everybody seems to get, even the most bored and impatient of listeners:
It’s really, really nice to find the lost babies.
That’s what I call those children who lived and died between census years, the ones who exist perhaps as a question mark on an old family data sheet, or — in the case of my great-great aunt Rose (Connors) Brant — as a statistical squiggle on the census returns.
Rose (1860-1914) had six children, six living, when she and her family were counted in the U.S. federal census in Jersey City in 1900. When 1910 rolled around, she was the mother of eight children, seven living, her youngest child being born in about 1905. On my genealogy program, Rose’s tally was four pink circles for the girls, three for the boys, and one Unknown, which, in Reunion anyway, is a white space.
Those white Unknown spaces sadden me to no end, and the mysteries they contain can stay unresolved for years, sometimes for always. Happily, this particular mystery occurred when civil registration for vitals was well under way in New Jersey.
At the state archives in Trenton, births for earlier years are filed by certificate number.To find one, you need to examine an index reel that is arranged by year and parents’ surnames. Since Rose’s two youngest surviving children were born in 1900 and 1905, that meant she could have had a child in between — or she could have had a child after 1905, but before 1910. I decided to try that earlier time frame first, seeing as Rose was already nearing age 40 in 1900.
And very soon I found her missing child — a little boy, born just before Christmas 1902, and dead of meningitis by September 1903. I was saddened at how brief his life was. But it still felt good to type a name over that “Unknown,” and convert the white tag to blue. It’s strange to think how a life can be reduced to a set of numbers scrawled on a census tally sheet — and satisfying when you can be the person who puts a name where there was once just a statistic.
Right here, from the 1930 U.S. census for Ward 6 of Jersey City, N.J., is one compelling reason to become a Census Nerd™.
Here is what the Ancestry.com index gave me for a gentleman named Philip Teitelbaum:
“Philip Deitelbaum [Teitelbaum]”, born about 1895 in New York, in the household of a father named Edward Holman in Jersey City, N.J. Clicking through to the image set for Ward 6, I found the beginning of the household, at the bottom of Sheet 13B.
|Holman, Edward, 46||Head||Ohio||Ga./N. Dakota|
|James, Julia, 46||Boarder||Georgia||Georgia/Georgia|
|Livingston, Elijah, 49||Boarder||Ohio||Tenn./N. Dakota|
So there is Edward Holman. Ohhh-kay. Let’s look at the rest of the family, which is continued on the next scanned image, Sheet 14A.
|Guthier, Dorothy, 8||Daughter||New Jersey||New Jersey|
|Ruane, Anna, 27||Servant||Irish Free State||Irish Free State|
|Schwartz, John, 12||Son||New Jersey||Poland|
|Schroder, John, 3||Son||New Jersey||New Jersey|
|Deitelbaum, Philip, 35||Son||New York||Czechoslovakia|
|Fulton, Joseph, 3||Son||New Jersey||New Jersey|
|Williams, Roger, 20||Brother||South Carolina||South Carolina|
|Robinson, Eric, 16||Niece||Georgia||Georgia|
What an enigmatic patriarch Edward is – born in Ohio, or New Jersey, or Poland, or Czechoslovakia; running a boardinghouse, and siring children with four different surnames! (Not to mention siring Philip, only 11 years his junior.)
This is either an early example of a family in the Witness Protection Program, or a terrific cast of characters in an abandoned novel by John Irving. (The World According to Holman? The Ward 6 Rules?)
Beguiling as those possibilities are, of course that is not what is going on here. What is actually happening is signaled by a line written by the enumerator at the bottom of Sheet 13B, right after Edward Holman and his two boarders:
“Enumerated by Elizabeth Finkel and Finished On April 9. Here ends District 368 Block District 9-10.”
Ah. If you hadn’t sensed it before (and gosh, I hope you did), now you know that Edward Holman & Co. on Sheet 13B are probably not connected to the group on the following sheet. And in fact, they aren’t.
That final sheet, 14A, with its wildly varying assortment of names and ages and relationships and birthplaces, represents a bunch of people connected only by one circumstance: Elizabeth Finkel somehow missed them on a previous go-round. But she wanted to make sure they were counted. So she carefully noted, next to each name, the sheet number and line number of the household where each of these individuals actually belonged.
Therefore, in the far left-hand column next to Philip “Deitelbaum’s” name, is the notation: “Sheet 10, Line 35.” Backing up to that location in the image set, we find:
|Teitelbaum, William, 60||Head||Czechoslovakia||Czechoslovakia|
|Teitelbaum, Rose, 57||Wife||Czechoslovakia||Czechoslovakia|
|Teitelbaum, Harold, 22||Son||New Jersey||Czechoslovakia|
Philip, age 35, born in New York of Czechoslovakian parents, is a much nicer fit for this family, isn’t he? (Also, note how one might have been tempted to erroneously conclude that the people on 14A were boarders in an establishment run by Mr. Holman — unless one stopped to notice stray marginal notations and ill-fitting ages/relationships.)
This is a great example of what makes an index a finding aid, a starting point, not an actual source. Indexes are compilations with varying degrees of accuracy. Mind you, not all indexing issues are as beautifully explicit as this one. But they can stall research just as effectively – unless you take that closer look.
Related: Turn That Page. Seriously.
I just noticed something irritating in the 1855 New York State census entry for my Connor great-great-grandparents of Watervliet.
New York State’s 1855 census form is really detailed in contrast to the federal returns of this era. For instance, it specified the relationships of each person to the head of household – something the federal census would not do until 1880. It also directed enumerators to list the number of years each person had lived in that particular city or town, an obvious advantage to those of us trying to establish when a person might have emigrated to the U.S.
I returned to the 1855 census form in double-checking events on a timeline for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connor (Conners/Conner/Connors). I had already noted that the enumerator had simply drawn a dash across the space asking how many years the family had lived in the town of Watervliet. It didn’t jump out that much, as I recall. Erratic compliance with the forms is pretty common.
But this time I looked harder at how the enumerator handled this question for the other families on the page. And, wow. In every other case he meticulously listed the number of years resident in the town, for every person. Not just every adult, every person. So a child of two was listed as having resided in the town for two years.
Some examples: Bridget Corbett, age 35, and her three children, all born in Ireland, had all lived in Watervliet four years. Lawrence Hart and his wife, Phoebe, born in Germany, had settled in Watervliet 14 years previously with their oldest child, Catharina. The couple’s four younger children were all born in Albany County, and had lived in the town for 14, 11, 9 and 5 years respectively, meaning that the Harts had a baby promptly after arriving in town.
Scottish immigrants Donald and Elizabeth Kay and their seven children had arrived in Watervliet en masse ten months before the enumeration date. And the enumerator wrote down “10/12” for every single one in the space asking for length of residency.
Not for the Connors family. For the question of how long they were residents of Watervliet, they got dashes. Zip. For every one of them.
So, Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence Jr., Census Marshal: What gives, buddy?
I want to be noble and assume he encountered an unavoidable enumeration difficulty. They weren’t home. Or maybe no one in the household could remember how long they had lived in Watervliet, despite Mr. Edward Lawrence Jr.’s valiant attempts to jog their memories, and he sadly drew a line across the space, pained at abandoning his usual detailed standards with this poor, benighted family.
No, forget it.
I do not feel charitable toward Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence, Jr. I think he had it in for my ancestors.
I think maybe Patrick told a joke Mr. Edward Lawrence, Jr. didn’t like, or one of the kids accidentally spilled something on his best enumeration suit. And I think Mr. Enumerator Edward Lawrence Jr. spitefully decided to leave out how long this Connors family lived in the town of Watervliet. Just to show them.
Mr. Enumerator: You, sir, are a scoundrel.
… When this happens:
1. Pour the cup of fresh coffee, shake the cobwebs out, start searching the 1915 New York Census for 142 West 126th St., Manhattan.
2. Use Stephen Morse’s invaluable One-Step Tool for finding New York Assembly Districts/Election Districts for 1890-1925.
3. Locate the relevant set of images at Ancestry.com. Excellent.
6. Page through the image set carefully, page by page, beginning to end, checking which image numbers correspond to which actual census sheet numbers (penned).
7. Realize that Image No. 3 contains Sheets 4 and 5, and Image No. 4 contains Sheets 8 and 9.
GUESS WHAT IS ON SHEETS 6 AND 7?
No, really, guess.
Now, the New York State Library in Albany says it has original manuscripts of the 1915 and 1925 censuses, so the missing pages would appear to exist in some form somewhere, which is something. And missing census pages do happen in microfilm sets. See this amusing post from Ancestry Insider about missing federal census pages. Well, at least I hope you find it amusing. I personally plan to amuse myself by banging my head into the nearest wall.
Modern census database searching is great. Many mis-indexed ancestors have been found by the ability to throw wild card variables into a tricky surname or, when all else fails, to abandon names altogether and search for characteristics like age, occupation and nativity.
But remember: Each page in a search result is just one possible piece of a family mosaic. Case in point:
I was scouring the 1870 index for the family of my great-grandmother Catherine Connors Haigney in Watervliet, Albany County, N.Y. By this point in my search I knew that Catherine’s oldest sister, Mary Ann, was likely to be married to a man named Bernard Connell in 1870. And there they were:
Excellent! (A bonus: They married in the census year, so the enumerator noted the month of their wedding, January. You can’t see it in this crop, but it’s there.)
Now it was time to check on my great-great-grandparents, Patrick and Bridget Connors. There was only one family in Watervliet in 1870 that included a head of household named Patrick, a wife Bridget and siblings whose names matched the known siblings of Catherine and Mary Ann. Up they popped:
Wonderful! There they all are, Andrew, Mary Ann, James … Wait.
Mary Ann? Seriously? But how could she be both the eldest daughter in Patrick Connor’s household and the wife of Bernard Connell? One finding had to be the wrong Mary Ann. Right?
I spent the next few minutes whimpering softly about what a rotten, horrible, deceptive world this is, where census indexes make us think we have a handle on a family, only to cruelly snatch our triumph away with the very next hit.
But soon I saw something that I should have noticed right away. See Bernard Connell and Mary Ann up there? See how they’re at the top of their page?
And see how Patrick and Bridget and their gang are at the bottom of their page?
Could these people just possibly be on adjacent pages?
You bet, Sherlock. The Connors and the Connells are, in fact, in the same dwelling, No. 727, but are enumerated as two distinct families, No. 902 and No. 903.
The Connors/Connell family group was visited by a somewhat persnickety enumerator in 1870, a year in which individual names were recorded, but relationships to head of household were not. Faced with the presence of Patrick’s married oldest daughter, the enumerator parsed the situation as precisely as he could. He listed Mary Ann first among Patrick’s children, and a second time as Bernard Connell’s wife. Then the entry happened to break across Pages 110-111.
There are not two 18-year-old Mary Anns in Dwelling 727. They are the same person whose dual identity has been carefully, if confusingly, preserved, a conclusion supported by other sources, including the obituary of one of Mary Ann’s daughters many years later. And, of course, these two Mary Anns appear as two separate census search results on separate pages, each seemingly valid, but contradictory. Only when the pages are read in sequence do they make sense.
It’s an elegant example of some basic census-research advice: Never simply zero in on one key name on a census page. Read up, read down and read adjacent pages. It’s the only way you’re sure you’re getting the whole picture.
My sister hates the signature whine her GPS makes when she deviates from the agreed-upon route:
For a piece of electronic engineering, it sounds remarkably petulant. However, sometimes redirECTing is unavoidable, as we could tell the GPS if it were in the mood to listen.
Particularly in genealogical research. Particularly when your original route is leading into a swamp.
For example: One of my great-great-aunts, Mary Ann Haigney (1872-1956), inconsiderately married a person surnamed Walker. Sorting through Walkers in directories, documents and federal censuses is not nearly as efficient as sorting through Haigneys, and I just don’t know as much as I’d like about them. I did have a bunch of newspaper clippings about Mary Ann, including her obituary and several society items about family parties mentioning visits from her son Edward and his wife, a grandson, and “Mrs. Geis.” I really wanted to confirm the names of Edward’s wife and son, and find out who the mysterious Mrs. Geis was.
But this year, I had a couple of super-strengths to put into the Walker search.
The first was the 1940 census. The second was the address book kept in the late 1930s and early 1940s by my great-aunt Anna. When I got this address book last fall and realized its value as a 1940 search tool, I felt like holding it aloft, superhero-style, and waiting for thunderbolts to explode out of it.
In the address book was a Brooklyn address for an “E. Walker,” whom I devoutly hoped would turn out to be Mary Ann’s son Edward. Using another awesome thunderbolt of genealogical power, the Unified 1940 Census E.D. Finder, I located:
Walker, Edward, head, 38
Walker, Frances, wife, 43
[redacted], son, 11
Geis, Caspar, brother-in-law, 58
Geis, Henrietta, sister-in-law, 49
[redacted], niece by marriage, 23
Identities for Edward’s wife and son! Plus, an explanation for Mrs. Geis!
Clearly, Caspar was Frances’ brother, and Frances’ maiden name was Geis. Fantastic. I decided to take a lunch break.
Astute readers will know that any time the word “clearly” appears in my text, things are actually not clear at all. Over a sandwich and tea, I recalled that phrase “by marriage.”
Wait a minute. Whose marriage? Was Edward linked to the Geis family through Caspar, or through Henrietta? I read through the entry again. Sure enough, it was a classic case of stopping too soon for a lunch break. There was a seventh name in the household:
Schemank, Mary, mother-in-law, 77
With that, I had the complete picture. As the full household list implies (and other documents eventually confirmed), Edward had married the former Miss Frances Schemank, not Geis. Henrietta (Schemank) Geis is one of Frances’ sisters (she had two, plus a brother). Caspar Geis, of course, is Frances’ brother-in-law, not her brother.
And I’m just glad my genealogy GPS redirECTed before I drove the car into a swamp.