Now What: Census Stumper

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium
Q. Can you explain the absence of some family members from federal census reports, when their obituaries indicate that they were residents of the city during that time?

A. Although census takers occasionally missed people, it’s possible that the obituaries are wrong. Grieving people may forget or confuse the dates when a deceased person lived in a particular place. Look for other sources, such as court records or city directories, to double-check the information.

But let’s assume the obituaries are correct. Why wouldn’t you be able to find your relatives in the census? They may have been counted, but are playing hard-to-get. And locating them may be just a case of learning to play along. For example, the enumerator could have misspelled the surname so badly that you simply don’t recognize it. Have you checked every conceivable spelling of your name? For example, Mitcham might have been recorded as Machun, Mecham, Meekin, Maikin, Machen or even Meachon.

Expand your search to include phonetic spellings, particularly at the beginning of a name. For instance, Ghoggin might have been spelled Goggin. If your name begins with an H, the H may have been dropped and a vowel used in its place, such as Yaeger or Ager for Hager. Search the Soundex — an index that groups similar-sounding names — to find such variations. Microfilmed Soundex indexes exist for 1880 and later censuses; you can search any online census index by Soundex code. For more information on Soundex, see <>.

It’s also possible that the census taker got your relative’s first name wrong, or listed his middle name instead of his surname. My grandfather appears on a census as Byron, although his first name was Herschel. If you find someone with the right surname but the wrong first name, don’t discount him — he may be yours. Confirm it in other records.

If you’re sure the family lived in a certain city at the time of the census, try to track down the listings for neighbors or other family members. You never know — your relatives may have been living in another household.

Lastly, don’t confine your search to where you think your family should be. Expand into nearby areas. County names change and boundaries migrate, so check records for all possible counties.

An excellent resource for locating hard-to-find ancestors in the federal census is The Genealogist’s Companion and Sourcebook, 2nd edition, by Emily Anne Croom (Betterway Books).
From the October 2004 Family Tree Magazine