Each week in the Rhonda's Tips column, I answer questions from people like you. These are but a small section of the many messages that arrive each week. I see many of the same questions over and over again, because people get stuck on similar problems or make the same sorts of mistakes as they are learning how to research.
One mistake that I see quite often is when a researcher jumps from one census to another that is several decades earlier. For example, if the 1900 census shows that James Dawson is born in 1848 in Massachusetts and the researcher then jumps from 1900 to 1850 in the census, a fifty-year gap of possible records and research has been skipped. The researcher knows only what has been found in the census record. This is not always the most accurate of information.
Census is just one record we should check.
Do You Know the Census?
The census is just one of many records used by genealogists. They are often fraught with errors too, something that many forget to keep in mind. The census enumerator did not have to talk to an individual in the household. As the enumerator canvassed his assigned area, if a family wasn't home, he could talk to a neighbor and see if they could answer the questions. Therefore, there are problems when relying on just the census for information.
How often have you been looking at the census page questioning the age as it was listed in the census for that particular year? How often has the place of birth of one or both of the parents changed from the 1900 to 1910 census?
These are examples of just those entries we know to be inaccurate. There are probably others that as yet you have not uncovered as being inaccurate.
And there are other limitations to the census. Prior to 1880, the individuals listed in the household were not listed with their relationship to the head of the household. We all assume that the children listed in the household are the offspring of the head of the household and the woman who appears to be his wife. In some cases we are incorrect. We won't know that though if we jump from census to census without taking the time to look into the other records that are available.
Missing Out on So Much
Often when you cannot find a family where you think they should be, you need to go back and examine the records you have used. Usually you will find that you have jumped because of information found in the census. The 1880 census for Ohio said the individual was born in Pennsylvania. The census must be right. So why can't you find them now?
If you haven't searched all the available records in the Ohio county for this ancestor, it is probable that you don't have the complete picture. Land records may indicate that the ancestor didn't come from Pennsylvania after all. The death records for the children, those other children of the family -- the siblings, may tell a different story than the story you got from the death record of your ancestor.
The temptation to jump is so prevalent, especially if the census records and indexes are easily available to you, more available than some of the other records. While you shouldn't ignore the census records and the indexes, you will find that your family tree is held together by a thread when your research is so heavily relying on census work.
In today's online research, this is never more true. Subscriptions to online databases offer us a quicker method of searching census records, including in some cases the ability to view the original census page online. We can view this information from the comfort of our home. We sometimes forget that there are other research avenues that should not be overlooked.
So, the next time you find yourself beating against a brick wall, look back and see if you jumped from place to place without exhausting all the records in each of the localities. If you go back and look at the records you missed, you may find the clue you overlooked before that answers the question of why you can't find them.
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.