Sunday, April 18, 2010

Census Basics

A few weeks ago, I filled out the census record for my family and it represents the sixth census in which I am listed. Having viewed census records since I began my immersion into genealogy in 1978, I have taken a keen interest in the census wondering if my descendants would ever be looking for me. I was a bit dismayed by the lack of information the average census record contains; however, I do know a select group of households will fill out longer and more detailed records. I had the opportunity to submit the long forms both in 1990 and 2000. Statistically, I suppose I was an anomaly in this regard and was hoping we would get to do it again – especially since my educational level increased in this decade.

Alas, this was not the case and there are only a handful of questions for each person. I suppose for my descendant's benefit that there would be more information available to those who may want to know more about my family in the future. While the census is one of the important primary records for genealogical research, I must remind myself that the census was not designed to be a genealogical document. It is to be a count of the number of people in the United States and this information plus the statistical data is helpful for realigning congressional districts, allocating funding for certain localities, and providing a statistical snapshot of our country at this point in time.

When I began my search of primary documents for genealogy in 1978, I am fortunate that the staff in the Pennsylvania Department at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh provided help in pushing me in the right direction. Some of the other records that they encouraged me to peruse were city directories, the obituary file, and local newspapers. Thirty-two years later, I am still searching these documents. For the purpose of helping budding genealogists, I have put together a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the various census records.

What kind of information can I find in the census records?

Not all censuses asked the same questions; however certain censuses provide the following information that might be important to your research:

  • the name of everyone living in the household (1850 onwards);
  • the nativity of all persons in household (1850 onwards);
  • the exact age of the household members (based on the official census date; 1850 onwards);
  • the occupation of household members (1850 onwards);
  • the relationship of these household members to the head of the household (1880 onwards);
  • the nativity of the person’s parents (1880 onwards);
  • the street address of house (1880 onwards);
  • the person’s month and year of birth (1900 only);
  • the total number of children born to a mother and the number still living (1900 & 1910);
  • the year of immigration and citizenship status of all household members (1900 onwards);
  • the mother tongue of all persons in the household (1920 and 1930);

I noticed that the censuses before 1850 are not listed in the above figures. Why is this?

The earlier censuses (1790-1840) only listed the head of the household by name. While all members of the household are counted by their respective sex, they are listed under age categories that are not exact, but in a series of ranges (i.e., “under five years of age”). The head of the household is not distinguished in this counting - so it is sometimes impossible to tell which age group the head belongs.

Are there other interesting data in these records?

Yes, certain census records have information regarding home ownership, household wealth, information concerning disabilities, number of months worked in the previous year, if attended school, and literacy.

I noticed that my ancestor’s last name varies in spelling from census to census. Does this mean that the family changed the spelling of the name?

While that is certainly a possibility, it probably can be explained by other factors. These could be among the following: the person giving the information (perhaps a landlord) wasn’t sure of the spelling of the name, perhaps the census taker was careless and wrote the name as he thought it was spelled, or the household member was illiterate and the census taker was responsible for the name’s spelling. While people did in fact change spellings, there may be other reasons a name is spelled differently in a census record.

I noticed that my ancestor’s age varies from census to census. Didn’t the family member know that person’s age?

The information that was given to the census taker is only as good as the person providing the information. Even a person may be confused on his or her own age. While this seems somewhat ridiculous in our day and age, there are times when we momentarily forget our own ages or when a family member may not remember his or her own age.

In the past, knowing one’s own exact date of birth was not as important as it is today. In addition, census age information is based on the official census date. For example, John Doe may have turned 30 on July 28 and the census information wasn't gathered until August 17; however, the official census date for that year is June 1. What age would be listed? Based on the information, he would appear as being 29.

These dates occasionally changed and are as follows:

Census YearAge by Date
1790-1820First Monday in August (various dates)
1830-19001 June
191015 April
19201 January
19301 April

I noticed that my ancestor’s place of birth varies from census to census. Didn’t the family member know that person’s nativity?

There are three possibilities for this one.

  • a person may or may not be aware of the nativity of his or her spouse or parent;
  • a parent may forget where a child was born. As strange as it sounds, I’ve seen an example of this. My step-father’s father was listed as being born in the US; however, records from Sweden indicate that he actually was born there and not here.
  • the name of the locality changed. Throughout the 19th century the map of Europe changed frequently and countries were often reckoned by its current name. For example, I have an ancestor whose locality changed during the various censuses.
Census YearLocality

The above represents my family’s ancestral origin in Hesse-Darmstadt. The locality differences can be reckoned in the following manner. The 1850 entry of Germany was listed because the Grand Duchy of Hesse was part of the German Confederation. Since several Hessen states existed, the 1860 and 1870 list the province by its capital and then by its name.

Following the unification of Germany in 1871, the 1880 census listed the constituent states as being Prussia – the largest province in the German Empire. Much like the USSR was referred to by its largest state Russia, the German Empire was referred to as Prussia – even though Hesse-Darmstadt was never a part of Prussia per se. Finally, Germany was listed again in 1900 and 1910 reflecting the name of the German Empire to which Hesse-Darmstadt was a part.

This occurs somewhat with border changes in the United States as well. In the 1870 census, persons who were born in the counties that seceded from Virginia in 1863 to become West Virginia are listed as being born in Virginia. These same individuals are listed as being born in West Virginia in later censuses.

Can a person be listed more than once in any given census?

This is quite possible and I've seen it a number of times. This is caused by a person being counted in one district and then moving to another district and taking part in a count there.

Then can a person be missed in a census?

Yes, this happens as well. This could be from moving or being missed by the census taker. There appeared to be several of these cases in my family, but I was able find some of my missing family members. In my next installment, I'll provide some hints to help you find these missing relatives.

Are there any censuses that are missing?

The majority of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire; however a large portion of the Special Veterans census has survived for certain states. While part of Kentucky is missing, the remaining portions of Kentucky and the states that follow alphabetically remain. Only a handful of localities of the 1890 Federal Census still exist. Since the Special Veterans census deals with specific information, I will discuss it in a future installment.

Why does (and other sites) only go up to 1930?

The federal privacy laws require documents like the census be closed to the public for a period of 72 years; therefore, the 1940 census will not be released until 2012 and the 1950 will become available in 2022.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 5 - Brooke Shields

Friday night, I finally saw the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TV. I’ve been watching it on Hulu of late, but had the chance the fifth episode with Brooke Shields when it aired. It was another interesting show that help her explore the personality of her grandmother as well as trace her father’s roots back to Italy and then to France where she was related to Bourbon royalty. Like the other shows, I found several things to which I could relate. Here’s the show in case you missed it.

Family Feuds

As we learned from the opening minutes of the show, Brooke had an overwhelming disdain for her maternal grandmother due to her strained relationship with Brooke’s mother. While I have never had animosity towards an ancestor, there were those in my family that did. In 1978, I traveled to Akron, Ohio to begin my search. It was the city that my grandfather’s three full siblings had migrated to in the 1910s and 1920s.

The first to travel west from Pittsburgh was my grandfather’s sister,  Her husband had taken a job at Akron's Pittsburgh Plate Glass operation and this necessitated a family relocation. I knew that my grandmother had some difficulty with her sister-in-law, but never knew much about my great aunt's personality until I met her two eldest children -- her daughters. Her children clued me in on a number of strained family relationships that their mother had with others in the family.

Probably the greatest negative feelings she had were aimed towards her own father. At the time, I only knew his name: Newton French Owston and that was it. Others with whom I had met that year had helped me piece together what had happened. When my great-grandmother died at the age of 39 in East Hartford, CT, my great-grandfather, a railroad engineer, couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn't) take care of his four children. They were Martha (aged 19), George (aged 15), Charles (aged 13), and Ovington (aged 8).  Another child, Essie, had been born to the couple but she died of scarlet fever at age two.

The details of what actually occurred between the children and their father are not known, nor will they probably ever be. They were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, Sarah Ann Merriman, in McKeesport, PA. According to probate court records, Sarah became their guardian and there were accounts set up in the children’s names. Martha was only under guardianship for a short time due to her age, but the others would continue until they reached the age of majority.

While I cannot prove it, I believe that Newton, their father, must have contributed to their account, as there was money for the children’s care; however, the source of this funding was never revealed in the documentation. While I have heard that he never saw his children, I believe he must have as records indicate that he knew Martha’s surname from her first marriage – a marriage that only lasted nearly eight years due to her husband’s accidental death.

According to Martha’s daughters, she never forgave her father for “abandoning” her and her siblings. It wasn’t long after his first wife’s death that Newton remarried. While I have not yet discovered an exact date of marriage for Newton French Owston and his second wife, Mary Agnes Donovan, this was another point of contention.

Needless to say, only one child reconnected with the father and that was the youngest, Ovington, who visited him in 1927 and 1928 just prior to the father's death that resulted from an accidental fall. 

Back to Newark, NJ

The starting point for Brooke's understanding of her maternal line was in Newark, NJ where her mother and grandmother had originated. This reconnection that occurred with a look at public records would help Brooke find some meaning in her own grandmother’s attitude.

In my searching in 1988, a key turn of events was my visiting the Essex County Courthouse in Newark, NJ and finding a name and address in a will from 1948. The lady was my third cousin once removed and she had a wealth of information about our elusive common ancestor, William Owston. This information allowed me to take my ancestry across the ocean and provided several other missing links.

Childhood Mortality

The information Brooke discovered in Newark was that her grandmother had two younger siblings of which Brooke was unaware. One of these children died infancy. In addition, Brooke's great grandmother had died young and Brooke’s grandmother, being the oldest, had to become a mother to her younger brother and sister.

Tragically, the younger brother died from an accidental drowning at age 13. No doubt, this experience of losing a brother had a profound effect upon her grandmother who was the boy’s surrogate parent. Brooke began to empathize with the plight of her grandmother and how this somehow contributed to her grandmother’s own attitude.

The loss of a child is a terrible event and I can only imagine how it must affect a family with the loss. Both of my grandmothers lost children. My dad’s mother lost two: her first child, Roy, who was two months and five years of age and her fourth child, Gertrude, who was 4 months old. I really don’t know how it affected her, but I am sure it did.

My maternal grandmother lost her fourth child, Johnny, who died at age three from an accidental poisoning. Being that she was the only grandparent that I knew, I am well acquainted with this story. My mom said she never smiled in a photo after her brother died. My oldest brother who was her first grandson became her favorite and no doubt due in part to his uncanny resemblance to her little boy. The experience changed her forever.

A Change of Nationality

As Brooke was aware, her father’s family came from Italian aristocracy; however, as she delved into her paternal ancestry, she found a brick wall. Through original documents, genealogists were able to assist her in discovering that her family actually originated in France and was well documented there.

In my maternal lineage, my great-grandmother was born in Germany. While she learned English here, the family spoke German at home until World War I. Tracing my second great grandfather’s family, the Maneval line is well documented and can be traced back to Embrun, Dauphiné, France. The patriarch of the family, Pierre Maneval (or Manevalle) was one of numerous Vaudois or Waldenses that escaped from persecution by settling in the former Duchy of Würtemberg, which had become a Protestant haven.

In the 1690s, Victor Amadeus II, the Duke of Savoy, and grandson of Brooke Shields ancestor Christine Marie of France, turned on the Waldenses (and my ancestors) and hastened their retreat into Switzerland and eventually into Würtemberg. Because of Pierre's relocation due to religious persecution qualifies him as a Huguenot and allows his descendants to apply for membership in one of the several Huguenot societies.

Royal Blood

In the final segment of the episode, it was revealed to Brooke that she had a royal bloodline stretching back to the Bourbon dynasty of France. It was also mentioned that she had several canonized saints in her lineage.

It really makes me wonder how many of us with European ancestry have royal blood. I would say that with as many ancestors we would have that most European descendant has a King or Queen in our background. A couple of years ago, I found that three of my ancestral lines that collapse into two and eventually one descend from John de Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and son of King Edward III of England.

As I researched this line from Edward III, I could count a total of 60 kings and queens in my ancestry through and including Edward III. This included Capetian and Carolingian dynasties of France and hence the eventual same ancestors as Brooke Shields. Our common ancestor is Louis IX of France, which is my 28th great grandfather (several times) and that makes Brooke my 29th cousin. I won’t be waiting an invitation to her home and neither will I be waiting for the opportunity to ascend the throne of a European kingdom.

In addition, much was made on Brooke being descended from a canonized saint. Specifically, the saint was Louis IX or St. Louis. As stated above, St. Louis is my ancestor as well and there are seven other known canonized saints in my ancestry – some of these Brooke also shares. I still contend that royal blood in at least one ancestral line is probably not that unusual for the typical European descendant, but it does provide us some bragging rights. Now, back to practicing drinking tea with my pinky raised.


While Brooke Shield’s search for her ancestors is fascinating, it is not unlike most of us in our search for who we are. I think this is what is banking on with the sponsorship of this program. If Brooke Shields, Matthew Broderick, Lisa Kudrow, Emmitt Smith, and Sarah Jessica Parker can do it, you and I can as well. There will be a 3 week wait for the next episodes; however, NBC is running the Sarah Jessica Parker show this coming week.