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.
This right here is a lovely indexing project. Especially if you are researching ancestors in Troy, N.Y. and you have a sneaking suspicion that one of them might have belonged to the clergy. Or if you have an old Troy marriage or baptism record that mentions an officiating clergyman but not the name of the church.
The Troy Irish Genealogy Society (TIGS) announced this database last month. It’s an index of names drawn from the book Troy’s One Hundred Years, 1789-1889, by Arthur James Weise. At the TIGS page you can click on one of two Surnames buttons (A-L, M-Y) for an alphabetized list of clergy, the religious institutions in which they served, and the time frame.
One of the very best things about a database like this is that you don’t have to page through the entire original book if you don’t want to. Not to slam the long-departed Mr. Weise: Troy’s One Hundred Years is a thorough piece of work (if you like, you can read some excerpts here).
However, long-ago local histories can wear a reader down — and I write this as someone capable of whiling away an afternoon on Google Books reading century-old reports to the New York State Assembly. You can miss details in the thickets of precise accounts about who exactly was responsible for the pathbreaking drainage project on Main Street. And some of those details might be your ancestors.
Indexes like this help us not only as finding aids, but by reminding us of all the valuable information to be mined in similar histories. They’re well worth seeking out and combing through with a sharp eye, even if they’re not indexed yet.
Here’s the database link again: Troy, NY Churches and Synagogues, 1793-1890.
I am well aware that email listserves are old school. How very 1992!
But they have endured well into the Twitter age, and I’m glad. For the family researcher, lists occupy a vital niche between large, helpful institutional sites (Familysearch.org, library websites, archive repository sites) and the personalized, insightful world of genealogy blogs.
Email listserves tackle topics in a way that appeals to a casual visitor who’s on the trail of something too esoteric to be dissected in a Genealogy 101 guide. There’s just something about the format that encourages in-depth and very specific information — information that fills in the gaps left in many standard how-tos.
Lists that are specific to localities can offer a wealth of practical research details that you could never find in a book, and you rarely find elsewhere online. Streetwise researchers will clue you in to the realities behind the pronouncements on the county clerk’s website. (“Hey, these volumes are in a dank basement lit by a single bulb, so bring your flashlight and waders.”)
And unlike blogs (much as I love reading blogs), the listserves offer a range of diverse opinions and experiences on a question. To take another practical example: visiting urban cemeteries. Some urban cemeteries are peaceful oases of green. Sadly, other urban cemeteries require some advance planning if you want to make sure you, your camera and your wallet get home OK. Here, a locality listserve is a godsend. If I read six opinions of how to handle a visit to a cemetery I’m wondering about, and they’re all pretty much on the same page, I feel a lot better that I’m planning my trip appropriately.
Sometimes, a list reader will ask a question that never occurred to me before, but should have. Recently on a list devoted to Tipperary, Ireland, it was asked how likely it would be for rural Irish villagers to move from place to place in their lifetimes. Turns out, quite likely. A couple of erudite responses thoroughly demolished the romanticized image of Auld Sod peasants clinging steadfastly to their ancestral villages for centuries — a cliche that was coloring my view of my own research, although I hadn’t realized it.
Sure, the list archives on RootsWeb look kind of … basic. And before subscribing, you really need to gauge the traffic rate of a given list as well as your tolerance for handling it. (I only subscribe in digest mode; I can’t stand individual messages piling into my mailbox.)
But beyond the old-school interface are posts filled with useful tips. Yeah, I still love those lists.
Images of many counties in the New York State census of 1865 are available online at Familysearch.org. Which is great. They are not indexed. Which is daunting.
Right before the holidays I searched for my Watervliet Haigneys in this census. I ran into trouble when I noted that these 1865 pages didn’t seem to have street names or house numbers. They number the dwellings (and the families) in order of visitation. So House 1 meant first house visited. That’s it. Not No. 1 Chapman Street, or whatever. Just No. 1 House Visited.
It did not seem possible, therefore, to browse pages by street names, which can help when you know where the family lived but can’t locate them in an index. One can’t browse by guessing where the enumerator walked first. This was frustrating, because I knew from city directories where this family was living in 1865, but I couldn’t think of how to find them in the census, short of reading it page by page.
I googled around for any obvious finding aids for the 1865 Watervliet E.D.s — nada. Obviously I would need to call or write a local expert to see if they could help with this. Then the holidays rushed up and I forgot about it. Bad me.
Then New Year’s Day rolled around, and the whole house was sleeping off the holiday calories, and I had my feet up and my 17th cup of coffee in hand, thinking about this 1865 census.
I started thinking about those pages at the back of each census district count — the agricultural schedules, the mortality schedules, the sections listing who was serving in the military. This family was headed by a soldier in the U.S. Army. Maybe that would narrow my search. So I flipped to the back of one district listing, and that’s when I saw Section X:
This tenth section includes spaces for listing important places in the district, such as churches, schools and newspaper offices. And it occurred that if I could find a listing in a district for the church where my ancestors worshiped, I might not have a sure bet, but I would feel a lot better about slogging through 50-odd pages.
The page above lists the places of worship in Watervliet’s First Election District. It notes the presence of a Roman Catholic church, although not its name. However, the Reformed Dutch church listed below it is a few blocks from St. Bridget’s, the Roman Catholic parish where my ancestors went to church.
OKAY! We have a district to search!
What happened next was a New Year’s gift. Just for laughs, I started paging through the district in reverse order. I thought it would be more interesting. (This is the sort of thought that occurs after 17 cups of coffee.)
And there were my Haigneys, on page 46 of 53 pages. Sweet.
So don’t forget those back pages in that 1865 New York census. See if a church or another landmark rings a bell. Or look to see if your surname is on the military listings. It’s one way of narrowing a search in a big district. And it sure beats reading the whole city of Watervliet.
Via Joan Manierre Lowry of the NJ-GSNJ listserve comes this announcement:
The New Jersey State Archives has now added several more years to the death
records available on microfilm at the Archives. Death records from 1941
through 1946 are now available in the microfilm search room! Another 9
years will be coming soon. These are provided as a public service to
researchers and can be copied. (And, yes, they DO include the cause of
Remember, however, that these records are available for in-person use only
and the archives staff cannot assist with mail or email requests for these
records at this time. (Archives staff can only provide copies from those
records for which they hold originals. At the present time that includes up
If you cannot get to the records in person, remember we provide a list of
professional researchers on the GSNJ website: www.gsnj.org – then click on
“Professional Researchers” in the left hand column.
As Joan says — happy hunting!
Did I get you all depressed about failed church records requests last time?
Actually, I meant to end with a call to action, to be motivational and perky, but frankly the post got just too long. That’s bad form when I was lecturing about the need to be concise and focused. So here’s the second part:
How to make sure a records request has the best chance of being answered?
Legwork, legwork, legwork. Ideally, a long-distance letter to a church is a last stop, not a first — an attempt to confirm something for which you already have strong, detailed evidence. In a truly ideal world, you would present the staff with an exact date. What does the family tradition say? What do the census results look like? Look at city directories and vintage maps. What churches were present near your ancestors’ homes? Look at military records. I found birth and marriage dates listed in a Civil War pension file.
Newspapers are your friend. In big cities like New York they can be incredibly helpful in narrowing your search for a date and a place. Obviously, look at obituaries and death notices, but don’t neglect community news. You would not believe how often the Brooklyn Eagle wrote about Holy Name Society activities, church suppers and Altar-Rosary Society benefits. Newspapers also did writeups of big events like an anniversary of a church’s dedication. Often, these articles are supplemented with mind-numbingly long lists of the names of the church members who participated. If your surnames keep turning up in doings at a given parish, that’s a good sign. Please, please don’t assume your ancestors weren’t newsworthy enough to write about. You’d be surprised, as I certainly have been, time and again. If the search engine has a keyword feature (like Ancestry’s newspaper search engine), try using your surnames as keywords. I got a lot of leads that way, including an 1857 marriage date!
Be nice. Assume nothing. When writing the actual letter, keep in mind not a vision of neat file cabinets, but a box full of random pages like the one I described in my last post. Give the most accurate, focused date you have. Ask whether the records go back that far. Acknowledge that you’re asking something extra of an already busy person. You get the picture.
If at all possible, collect the record in person. Or get somebody to stop by for you. I’m convinced that I have shaken some records loose simply because I mentioned in my letter that I’d be visiting the area on such-and-such a date, and would be taking a picture of the church, and if they found anything I would love to stop by their office. Maybe that got my letter out of the “To Do — Someday” pile. If travel to the area is impossible, organizations such as RAOGK can pair you with a local volunteer who might be able to stop by the church for you. Or maybe a fellow member of a genealogy listserve might agree to be your good angel.
A donation is a nice idea. To be honest, I doubt that most donations come close to covering the cost of the time involved, but the point is the gesture of appreciation. (P.S. I assume you already know to put in a stamped, self-addressed envelope if you’re requesting that they send you a copy of the record. But in case you didn’t … yes, put that in.)