My grandmother was born June Eileen Lavonne Nystrom and her husband called her Patty. I know this because my mom told me, and my mom knows this because her mom told her. However, when I first went searching for my grandmother in Census records, nowhere could I find someone who went by the name “June Eileen Lavonne “Patty” Nystrom.” It turns out she wasn’t really born with the names “June” nor “Eileen,” and “Patty” was just a nickname my grandfather made up. So, “Lavonne” –what I thought was her third middle name--turned out to be the name I needed to use to search for her.
Erroneous or confusing family lore is only one of the hiccups a person can run into when trying to assemble the bona fide facts of the family tree. When rifling through the censuses, misspellings made by the enumerator, faulty transcription efforts, and the variations in the names our ancestors used can throw off your search.
The United States Census is a body of statistical information about the people of our country, historically based on door-to-door interviews that took place federally every ten years (and certain states had their own censuses that can fill in the gaps between those ten-year spans). Initially established so that the government could accurately tax its citizens, today the Census can be a rich tool to provide us with facts about our ancestors—perfect for family-tree building. The Census is the first place I go to when trying to put the pieces together about an American ancestor of mine because there is simply so much information to find within it.
Happily, we can examine the digitized Censuses online via the Los Angeles Public Library’s subscriptions to ancestry.com (available at branch libraries and Central) and some via HeritageQuest (available from home with a library card). However, there are ample opportunities for mistakes to have taken place regarding these resources:
1. The enumerator (the person who went door-to-door and asked the questions) might have recorded the facts incorrectly. Enumerators were often just average Joes or government employees who didn’t know your relatives from Adam and Eve. And, sometimes, your relatives had unusual names (to the enumerator) or spoke with heavy accents. So, for instance, “Lavonne” becomes the hand-written “Lovone” in the 1925 Iowa state census.
2. The transcriber who looks at the physical census and types up what he/she sees so that we can search on the computer using keywords sometimes misinterprets the scrawl of the enumerator. Therefore, what I see as two words “La Vonne” on the hand-written 1930 census is transcribed in computer text as “Lavonne” (in this case, a happy mistake, since I was searching for the one-word name).
3. Our relations also made quirky changes to their names over the years or went by initials or nicknames. Therefore, Lavonne’s mother Lucy was recorded as “Lou” in the 1940 census.
Because there are so many ways we can let a valid record slip through our fingers because we’re looking in the wrong direction, it’s often helpful to search for the people AROUND your relative. If you’ve found a relation in one census but can’t find him/her in others, identify the people who lived with them in the census you do have and search for those people in earlier or later censuses. So instead of looking for your uncle Bob Smith, look for his wife Lucretia. You may find that Bob goes by “Robert” or “R.F.” in other censuses, but Lucretia is always “Lucretia” (or some variation on that more-unique name).
If, in 1910, your grandfather Joe and his brother Ebeneezer were 3 and 5 years old, focus on Ebeneezer in the 1920 Census and then check to see if he has a younger brother named Joe.
If you’re having trouble finding your great grandmother in the 1940 census, search for her using the name of one of her children who is not your direct relation. It could be that your great grandmother Isadora Blomfeld (whom you can’t find by searching for “Blomfeld”) is listed as “Izzy Bloomfield” and living in the household of her married daughter Betsy Jones (who is not your grandmother, but your grandmother’s sister).
Next-door neighbors are helpful, too. Enumerators went door-to-door and documented what they found out in the order in which they found it…so people listed next to each other in the censuses were most likely neighbors. If Binky Phelps lived next to Martin Handlewick in the 1910 census, but you can’t find Binky in the 1920 census, search instead for Martin in the 1920 census. Once you find him, look at the scanned image of the census and see who lives to either side of him. It could be you’ll find a Jonathan Phelps who lives next to Martin, and he matches the other facts surrounding the Binky you’re looking for (except he’s ditched the nickname by 1920).
Maiden names can be, of course, tricky, but families oftentimes continued to live near each other even after individuals have moved out of the house. If you see Elizabeth Patterson living with her parents George and Myra Patterson in 1920, but there’s no sign of an “Elizabeth Patterson” in the 1930 census, check where George and Myra are in 1930. You may see that next door there’s a young couple Henry and Elizabeth Chatsworth, and it just may be that Elizabeth Chatsworth is the married Elizabeth Patterson you’re looking for.
I started my personal tree just looking for direct ancestors and ignoring uncles and in-laws. This does keep things more simple, but there are many surprises I would have missed had I not expanded my perimeters. When you hit a brick wall and simply can’t find the relation you’re looking for in the census records, think outside the box and look for Ebeneezer!