A Census Search Trick for Hard-to-Find Ancestors

A Census Search Trick for Hard-to-Find Ancestors

Last week, I mentioned that I couldn't find my Norris family in the 1870 census, despite searching every which way for my third-great-grandfather Edward Norris and other members of the household. I spoke too soon. That night I went home and tried a strategy we often recommend in Family...

Last week, I mentioned that I couldn’t find my Norris family in the 1870 census, despite searching every which way for my third-great-grandfather Edward Norris and other members of the household.

I spoke too soon. That night I went home and tried a strategy we often recommend in Family Tree Magazine, including in our US Census Workbook (available in Family Tree Shop): Find a neighbor, then browse. And it worked.

One way to browse census records is to figure out which census enumeration district (ED) the person lived in, then page through schedules covering that ED. But the right ED isn’t always the easiest to find. This strategy worked better for me:

1. I looked in city directories for my ancestor’s address in 1870, or as close to 1870 as I could get. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Virtual Library has the digitized 1870 Williams’ Cincinnati Directory (as well as many other years) for free. Here he is (misnamed Edwin), at 368 Broadway, the same address where he died in 1890.

2. Now to find a neighbor to search for in the census. The city directory was a PDF on the library website. I hit command-F to bring up the Find window and typed 368 Broadway. Here’s a neighbor, Caroline Niehouse:

3. I searched the 1870 census for the neighbor. I got only four results, one of which was Caroline “Nichaus.” Here’s her family:

4. I started browsing the census pages—and then stopped. When I moved up the page, my ancestor’s household was just above Caroline’s. I recognized the first names and Edward’s occupation, stonemason:

The enumerator’s handwriting is lovely, but I don’t think I ever would’ve read “Norris” from this:

The family is indexed as “Nalas.” I added an annotation with the correct name in Ancestry.com, so it’ll be easier to find. “Nalas” family members probably were included in my results when I was searching for names, but Irish Edwards, Elizabeths and Catherines being quite common, I had a ton of results and didn’t click on these particular matches.

If you ever do need to find a census ED, One Step Web Pages by Stephen P. Morse has tools to help you find EDs for 1880 through 1940, plus 1870 in New York. (Scroll down to the Census section.) You’ll need to know the house number and street, and it helps to know cross streets.

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  1. These are helpful tips. I’m trying to locate a family cousin in some census records by using city directories to distinguish among three or four men in Boston with the same name, and I’ll have to see if this helps. This cousin, whom I remember fondly, was married briefly, had no children, divorced, became blind sometime before I was born and no longer worked, so there isn’t the usual array of spouse and children’s names and occupation to help confirm identity. He shows up in one census living with relatives (an aunt and uncle, I think) from another surname branch, and I suspect that he moved around, but within the same geographic area, near other family.

    One other comment: The neighbor’s surname on the census you show looks to me like Niehaus and not Nichaus. You might want to check that again and enter a correction online if Nichaus is an incorrect transcription. I do that regularly, too. Thanks for the post.

  2. This is absolutely wonderful! I’m bookmarking this blog post to find again! I have several ancestors who have a 20-year (or more) block of time where I cannot find them. I’ll print out what I do have for them and use these tips. Who knows what I’ll find? 🙂

  3. When I come across such beautiful (copperplate) handwriting, I get my oldest daughter to read it for me. She writes almost like that — and occasionally I can’t read her handwriting either!!

  4. That was a great find using out-of-the-box thinking.

    Remember that most of the US Census material we have access to was copied from an enumerator’s notes, not necessarily by the enumerator. The copyist can read and rewrite stuff very wrong and do things like reverse surname and first name of head of household. Erroneous surnames can creep in for a lot of reasons.

    On one occasion, a Civil War pensioner cousin replied to the Pension Bureau as to where he was enumerated for 1850, as he was trying to prove age for a legislated increase. His whole family was enumerated under a very wrong surname, and the Pension Bureau put a notation to this effect on the enumeration page in the National Archives!

  5. remember that the 1860 &amp; 1870 census were filmed twice and the second filming, which most sites use, left off the harder to film pages. because 3 copies were made of the 1850, 1860 &amp; 1870 census, try seeing if the state archives or historical society has the county or state’s original copy. i’ve even found the county copy at courthouses.