Records are excellent sources and references for you as you build your family tree. Not only will you potentially locate scores of ancestors in a particular place and time, but you will also be directed to other places where you can find even more information about your ancestors.
Yet, like many other types of records and sources, different types of records may present different potential problems. This article addresses those issues.
Problems with Census Records
Whenever you look at census records, you must be aware of the many problems that researchers have encountered while using census records over the years. With respect to using census indexes, it is important to point out that most often you will not always find the names of female members of households, or even on original records before 1850. This information was not collected by the census enumerators. All of the censuses after 1850 list the name of each individual in the household, however, the census was still generally indexed only by the head of the household.
It is also worthwhile to point out that you will find better luck searching for the woman's married name on post-1850 censuses. During that time period in American history, woman usually took the names of their spouses. The census enumerator would have recorded this name for the census.
There are also many duplications of names. To be sure that it is your ancestor who is listed, you may need to know more detailed information than is provided by the Index. Otherwise, you will find yourself recording false information about an ancestor or searching for the wrong records.
Census enumerators over the decades have given the records they have compiled a myriad of complicated and confusing "bloopers." These "bloopers" are nothing more than unintended mistakes, cultural phonics, and a host of spelling disabilities. All of these bloopers are coupled with individual inattention, negligence, oversight, and to some extent carelessness. To add insult to injury, these problems have been compounded by centuries of unprofessional archival storage and general public misuse. Recorded bloopers have literally invaded every area of record-keeping (not to mention extraction and retyping or key- punching) which has put a tremendous burden on present day paleographic-historical-demographers (those who use computers to index or transcribe census records). While there are many definitions that can apply here, we shall limit ourselves to the science of census interpretation and indexing. The final burden of proof in determining the correctness or incorrectness of a name in an extracted census index or record lies with the researcher himself. All too often the general public consensus has been to put the total burden of responsibility on the individual or organization doing the transcribing of the census materials. While this may be true to a limited extent, far greater emphasis must be placed on the shoulders of the individuals doing the research from census indexes and/or any other materials extracted from the original records.
It would be well to examine the various bloopers that comprise the body of recorded census materials. The lessons learned here may also be applied to reading and understanding other records. At best we will only be able to give you a basic outline of what pitfalls you may expect with census bloopers.
The Census Enumerators
We must look at the following factors. First, how well educated was the enumerator or census marshal? Scholastically, each enumerator had a different degree of intelligence, depending upon his or her degree of education. Therefore spelling for various languages might have been difficult.
Problems with Land Records
When looking for names of ancestors, it is a good idea to keep in mind that you may find the name of your ancestor in a land records index. Many immigrants into America became land owners. For a good amount of time, the U.S. government made it easy for people to own land by offering property to those who could make good use of unfarmed, barren land.
It is important to consider where your ancestor may have settled before jumping to conclusions that the person listed is indeed your ancestor. There are many duplications of names. To be sure that it is your ancestor who is listed, you may want to look for the actual land record. Otherwise, you will find yourself recording false information about an ancestor. Details about acquiring the actual land record can be found below.
In addition, you must realize that even if your ancestor owned land in the past, it is unlikely that you will be able to make any sort of claim for his property. Before staking claims, you should closely check the legality of the matter.
Details about the Database
The land records databases are built from information contained on the original copy of the land patent/certificate/document maintained by the Secretary of the Interior. Before the homesteaders, soldiers, and other patentees received their patent, some government paperwork had to be done. Homesteaders had to file applications, witnesses had to testify that the homesteader had actually lived on the land, and those purchasing the land were issued receipts. These documents are on file at the National Archives.
The National Archives welcomes researchers to use both original and microfilmed records. The reference staff can help you to plan your research and to locate and understand records. If you are unable to visit the National Archives, or its regional archives, you may obtain copies of documents through the mail.
Problems with Marriage Records
Marriage records make up an enormous collection. It should be noted, however, that not all counties are included for every state, and that dates vary by county.
In some cases the date listed is the date of the license rather than the actual date of the marriage. This is the case only when no date of marriage was given. It should be noted that both the last name of the man and the maiden name of the woman are recorded in these records. Therefore, researchers may find the maiden name of a woman when they limit their searches to marriage records.
Sometimes spellings may have been recorded incorrectly in the Index because the original text on the marriage certificate was difficult to read. In addition, some records may have been destroyed by fires, floods, or neglect, and so the names will not appear in the index.
You should realize that it's a good idea to go to the actual record, because you may be able to get even more genealogical information, such as parents' names, date of birth, location of residence, and previous marriages from the original record.
In a few cases, a marriage may be listed twice, but in two different counties. Its possible that records may have been overlooked, misspelled, or not available to the general public when the records were collected.
Every effort has been made to insure the accuracy of the data contained in this collection; however, it is still possible for errors to occur. The researcher is encouraged to use this material as a lead to obtain the actual records in order to insure complete accuracy in genealogical research. It has been found that a few entries have been truncated. For example, "Alexander" may be listed as 'Alexande'.
In addition, there are many duplications of names. To be sure that it is your ancestor who is listed, you may need to know more detailed information than is provided by the Index. Otherwise, you will find yourself recording false information about an ancestor or searching for the wrong records.
Problems with Social Security Death Records
Be aware of the following:
- The criteria for being listed in the index is as follows: the individual must have had a Social Security number.
- Some missing entries exist in the 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's.
- Missing data may occur in some entries when it was not supplied by the local Social Security Administration Office to headquarters.
- If you cannot find a particular individual, it is possible that the name may have been keyed in incorrectly. For example, the surname "Johnson" may have truncated to "Johnso."
- In some cases when an individual is a Jr or a Sr, the title was added after the surname. If this is the case, then it may be difficult to find the name for which you are looking.
- When searching for the names of female ancestors, try searching under their married name. It is unlikely that you will find a female ancestor listed under her maiden name.
- There are many duplications of names. To be sure that it is your ancestor who is listed, you may need to know more detailed information than is provided by the Index. Otherwise, you will find yourself recording false information about an ancestor or searching for the wrong records.
Problems with Family Pedigrees
Family pedigrees can provide you with an enormous amount of previously researched and compiled family information. It should be noted, however, that the information indexed was submitted by family historians and genealogists of every level of expertise, thus the quality of the information contained therein, should be evaluated for accuracy. One should avoid taking this information as pure fact about one's family. Instead, facts discovered in family pedigrees should be treated as stepping stones to further research with original records.
Problems with Cemetery Records
It should be noted that the information indexed was submitted by family historians and genealogists of every level of expertise, thus the quality of the information contained therein, should be evaluated for accuracy.
Because of conditions such as snow and rain, cemetery records vary in legibility. It often becomes difficult for transcribers to read the inscriptions on gravestones; thus, making it impossible to accurately record any information at all. The entries for cemetery records that exist will, therefore, sometimes be incomplete or inaccurate.
Differences in Names and Spellings
Single Name Factor
There are a number of reasons why we have people with only one name. Until the last part of the 19th century many ethnic cultures only had need of or used one name for a person. Many religious orders only gave their people one name. The main question is how do you deal with them when it comes to indexing. Most people would see this as an easily-solved problem. This is not always the case when indexing. When just dealing with a surname and no first name or initial the problem is not so severe. Given that you had the name Cunningham who was 31 years old, the head of the household and was a male born in Sweden, it would be indexed thus:
- Cunningham, ----- 31 male Sweden, or, Cunningham, male 31 Sweden
The following shows the ways in which you may find a single name indexed. This also brings in the concept of what is known as "double entering." We will use the following examples and show how double entering is done.
- Original Entry First Entry Second Entry
- Cato Cato, --- ---, Cato
- John John, --- ---, John
- Albert 21 ---, Albert 21 m Albert, --- 21 m
- Susan 34 ---, Susan 34 f Susan, --- 34 f
- Olga ---, Olga Sweden Olga, --- Sweden
Other single names will include those people who have titles of one type or another and are handles in the following manner:
- Major Adams Adams, Major Adams, --- Maj.
- Col. Jones Jones, Col. Jones, --- Col.
- Dr. Brown Brown, Dr. Brown, --- Dr.
- Gov. Boggs Boggs, Gov. Boggs, --- Gov.
Titles and Other Name Designations
The range of titles is almost endless. Hence, we will only give a few examples of the most common ways these are used in indexes. These would include military rank, occupational, ranking in the family, government stations, and many more.
Titles As Used in the Indexes
- Junior Hannah, Jacob Jun. Hannah, Jacob Jr.
- Senior Hannah, Jacob Sen. Hannah, Jacob Sn.
- The 3rd Hannah, Jacob 3rd
- The 4th Hannah, Jacob 4th
- infant/child Moriarty, Infant Moriarty, Child
- Major Smith, Aaron Maj. Smith, Aaron Major
- Lieutenant Busby, Thomas Ltn. Busby, Thomas Lt.
- Captain Wallace, John Capt. Wallace, John Cpt.
- Doctor* Morris, David Dr. Morris, David Doct.
- Lawyer Norton, Scott Lwy. Norton, Scott Law.
- Judge Ellis, Kelly Jug. Ellis, Kelly Jdg.
- Governor Thomas, Timothy Gov. Thomas, Timothy Gvn.
- Senator Bell, George -Senator- Bell, George Snt.
It needs to be noted that Doctor not only represented a title as far as an occupation but was also a semi-common name given to children as a "legal" first name in the 19th century.
Listing of Ethnic Names
This cover a very broad base of names. It would include American Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Spanish, and Mexicans to mention a few. Listing these people is not an easy task and it will take some patience on the part of the researcher to learn the method with which these names have been indexed. Here are a few examples:
- Intawba Intawba, Intawba Indian, Intawba, ---Intawba, -Indian-
- Chow Chow, ---, Chow
- Ching-Lee Ching-Lee, Chinglee,
- Hannamaimai Hannamaimai,---,Hannamaimai
People Listed in Religious Orders
Quite often the names of individuals in religious orders can be and are all to common and difficult to find. Frequently, those listed in religious orders take on names other than that which they were christened or they choose to use only one of their names. When given the following names this is how they might be indexed:
- Rev. Davis Davis, Rev. Davis, --- Rev.
- Rev.James Hanson Hanson, James Rev.
- Rev. Rector Hanson Hanson, Rev. Rec.
- Sister Anthony Anthony, Sister Sister, Anthony
- Sister Mary Sister, Mary Mary, Sister
- Father Johnson Father, Johnson Johnson, Father
- Brother John Brother, John John, Brother
- Pastor Jones Jones, --- Pastor Jones, Pastor
Nicknames and Variations
If you look around you today, it is more common to call an individual by a much shorter name that what they were given at birth. This only compounds the bloopers in census records. The following examples give the nicknames, how it is indexed and what the real name might be:
- Bess Thomas Thomas, Bess Thomas, Elizabeth
- Danl Jones Jones, Daniel Jones, Daniel
- Benny Smith Smith, Benny Smith, Benjamin
- Will Brown Brown, Will Brown, William
- Mousy Lee Lee, Mousy Lee, Annastastia
NEVER assume that all nicknames are short for a longer given name. "Bess," "Liz," "Ben," and "Freddy" are all very real given names.
Voluntary and Involuntary Information
This topic all-too-often opens a Pandora's Box or a "can of worms." It also gives rise to nightmares for many researchers. Several categories of bloopers comprise the quirks in this classification. We had a number of Germanic people who were afraid of the compulsive military service requirements from the old country and did not know the total scope of the laws in America. Therefore they often felt that if they divulged their correct names and ages they would be inducted into the U.S. Military Service. To avoid being located they would often use their "middle name(s)" and delete their first name or delete their surname and use only their christening names. In the true given name of Albert Martin Frederick Nass, the man can be found in the records under the following variations:
- Albert Nass Martin Frederick Albert Martin
- Frederick Nass Frederick Martin Martin Nass
- Albert Frederick
Since the enumerators were being paid by the number of names they gather they did not always take the data from a member of the household they were enumerating. Many enumerators traveled long distances on foot so when they came to an empty dwelling it was the common practice to have a neighbor volunteer the information.
With this practice of volunteering information the census enumerators avoided long walking distances back to get a few names for a few cents. This practice compounds the errors made on the "original" census manuscripts and thus perpetuated by indexers or researchers. Here are a few examples of the actual or true record as opposed to the recorded census information:
- Thomas James Baldwin M 28-years old born in Ohio
- Mary Francis Baldwin F 26-years old born in Ohio
- John C. Baldwin M 5-years old born in Kansas
- Bella E. Baldwin F 3-years old born in Kansas
- Rosella A. Baldwin F 2-years old born in Illinois
- Thomas D. Baldwin M 6/12-years old born in Kansas
This is what the neighbor reported:
- Thomas Baldwin M 31-years old born in Pennsylvania
- Mary Baldwin F 33-years old born in Maryland
- J. Baldwin M 9-years old born in Ohio
- Bell Baldwin F 7-years old born in Ohio
- Rose Baldwin F 3-years old born in Ohio
- Tom Baldwin Jun. M 2-years old born in Kansas
As you can see the information provided by the neighbor was somewhere within the realm of truth but not accurate by any means.
Americanizing of Names
Since the colonization of American in the early 1600's it was, and still is, a very common practice for immigrants who land on America's shores to Americanize their names. This has been done for any one of a number of reasons. A name Americanization most often gave the individual a new identity so as to escape persecution, and, some people just wanted to "melt" into the general population without being obvious about it. However, it was not until the mid-19th century or later that people were required by law to officially register their changed names in a court of law. It is not uncommon to find individuals listed under three or four names. We give the following examples:
- Edward Brown alias Ed Benson
- Jonathan Williams alias John Wilson
- Benjamin Green alias Benjamin Hanks
- Margaret Benson alias Sarah Timms
- Fredrick Johnson alias Aaron Carter
- Catharine Welsh alias Eliza Robinson
- James T. Lockhart alias Thomas Smith
The "F's" and "S's" Bloopers
It was the general practice several hundred years ago to write a double "ss" as an "fs." Often the single name with an "s" could have the "s" written like an "f." This practice continued down until the 20th century. It gradually disappeared or changed as records were recorded. It was replaced with what we now know as just the "ss" or "s" in some parts of the country faster than others. Examples of the "s" or "ss" are:
- Hanson was written as Hanfon
- Wilson was written as Wilfon
- Moses was written as Mofes
- Harrisson was written as Harrisfon
- Jesse was written as Jesfe
- Nass was written as Nasf
Bloopers by the Indexers
It would be a very foolish for any person, group, or organization to every claim perfection when it comes to indexing census materials. It would be callous for anyone to feel they are immune to making errors. The standard statement made by original indexers of the census is to the effect that: "...a complete, correct listing of all persons... has been a rather awesome task...some errors or omissions are inevitable...A.I.S.I. solicits corrections..." The following represents some correct names with possible typing errors:
- Jacobs Ajocob Jaocb
- Jones Jons Jonse Joens Mones
- James Jaems Jamse Jmaes
- Roberts Robrets Roebrts
- Morgan Mrogan
- Miller Mller Millr Milelr
- Thomas Thoams Tohmas Htomas
- Smith Simth Smtih Msith Wmith
- Walker Wlaker Walekr
Even with the above examples, occasionally you will find an enumerator who has actually spelled the name as an actual mistake or blooper. Therefore (as an example), when "James" is incorrectly spelled "Jaems" it is indexed by most people in two ways.