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Overheard on the Message Boards: Joseph Phelps
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

December 19, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am trying to trace the parents of Joseph Phelps who was born August 15, 1813. Information I have says his parents were born in Connecticut and that Joseph married Isabella ?? who was born August 27, 1820. Approximately 1861, Joseph and Isabella left Des Moines Iowa and went to Centralia, Washington. Joseph and Isabella's children were:

  • James, born August 28, 1843
  • Henry, born June 23, 1847
  • Polly Ann, born September 16, 1849 (married Garrison)
  • Thomas, September 17, 1853
  • C. Louise, born February 19, 1855
  • Albert, born May 6, 1858
  • Lillian, born Jan 6, 1961, died July 15, 1861

Albert married Mary Catherine Pearson, November 1882. Centralia, Washington. They emigrated to Canada approximately 1902. Any information with regards to the above would be greatly appreciated. -- Teresa

A: Your message didn't indicate what records you had already checked, but I am assuming that you have found Joseph Phelps in the 1880 census since you have indicated that his parents were born in Connecticut. This would have been the first census in which such information was included. It is tempting to jump back to Connecticut and try to accomplish the research from that end, but instead you may need to exhaust other records first in the hopes of picking up additional information that would help you to better identify the parents.

Census records are certainly one record that should be exhausted. Information found in one census year is not always accurate. By working from year to year you can trace the accuracy of the information and see if you need to adjust the year of birth of an individual or expand your research to include additional states. Once you have exhausted the census records, you will then begin to look at the records that are available in the various counties in which you have found the family.

Combining census and county records help you in your research.

What the Census Tells Us

Based on the information you supplied I began by checking the 1850 Census. I found Joseph and his wife and three children living in District No. 4, Scott County, Iowa. The family was on page 187. Joseph was aged 38 (though this was a little difficult to read) a farmer, and he was born in New York. Isabella was listed as age 28 and born in New York. In addition to Henry, age 3, born in Iowa and Polly Ann, age 9/12 and born in Iowa, there was another child listed in the household. A boy, George, aged 5 who was born in Iowa. While your information lists a James born in 1843, he didn't appear in the 1850 census.

By 1860, the family had moved to Des Moines City, Polk County, Iowa, where they were found on page 58. Here Joseph was listed as age 45, still born in New York. Isabella was aged 39, also born in New York. Children in the household were George, age 14; Polly Ann, age 10; Thomas, age 6; Albert, age 2. All the children were listed as born in Iowa.

By 1870 the family was living in Washington, as you mentioned. I found them in Skookum Chick Precinct in Lewis County on page 156. Joseph is aged 56, born in New York. Isabella is aged 49, born in New York. Children include George, age 25, born in Iowa; Thomas, age 16, born in Illinois; and Albert, age 12, born in Iowa. Notice that in this census Thomas is listed as having been born in Illinois.

In the 1880 census, they are still in Lewis County, Washington. I found them on page 395C, Enumeration District 19. Joseph is listed as age 67, born in New York with parents both born in Connecticut. His wife, named Bell here, is listed as age 59, born in New York. Her father is listed as born in Ireland and her mother in New York. Two sons are also listed, Albert, age 22, born in Iowa and Thomas, age 26, born in Illinois.

By 1900 all of the children who were still alive had moved out of the parents' home and had families of their own. I found three households on the same sheet, living in Skookumchuck, Lewis County, Washington, Enumeration District 180, sheet 3B. First up was Albert, born May 1858, age 42, born in Iowa. He was listed with his wife Mary, 7 children and his father-in-law. It appears that Albert and Mary were married circa 1882. Next door to Albert was George, born March 1845, age 55, born in Iowa. He was enumerated with his wife Mary and their nine children. George and Mary had been married circa 1875. Two doors down I found Isabella Phelps, born August 1820, age 79, born in New York. She is listed as a widow and is living alone. She said that of the seven children born to her that only three are living.

I did not look for Polly Ann in 1900, so do not know if she is one of those who was still living. I also could not find Thomas in 1900 either.

What the Census Told Me

The biggest difference I noticed between the information you supplied in your message and what I found in the census records was that you have a son James, born 28 August 1843 that I never saw in the census. You also didn't have any indication of a George, and the census shows that George was born March 1845 in Iowa. His consistent appearance in the 1850, 1860 and 1870 census and his omission in 1880 when he had married in 1875 leads me to believe that he is indeed a child of Joseph and Isabella. Of course if this is the case, then including James, I now have 8 children. So is Isabella's total number of children as listed in 1900 wrong or is James not a child of Joseph and Isabella?

The other thing that I found interesting was that Thomas, in two of the three census years I could find him, is listed as having been born in Illinois. If you haven't done so already, you may want to see, perhaps through land records, if you can determine where in Illinois Joseph was in 1854. You might want to see if you can find Joseph listed in the Illinois state census, which has been indexed in the Name Index to Early Illinois Records, which is available on microfilm through the Family History Library

Unfortunately Joseph's death before 1900 means that the only census indicating the birth place of his parents is the 1880. As you can see from the census years, Joseph's age has differed with each year by a year or so, unlike his wife who only had one year in which she differed by a year. Also, Joseph's early death before 1900 means that it will be much harder to find any records of his death that offer insight into his parentage. The only two possibilities would be an obituary and cemetery records. The tombstone may offer you an exact place of birth, such as the town, which would help you in eliminating some of the 281 Phelps families in New York in the 1820 census.

Part of your problem is that Joseph was born in New York. Unfortunately his early 1800s birth means there is no birth certificate available on him, which would have supplied you with the names of his parents. Likewise, the state of Washington didn't begin to record death records until 1907. If you haven't done so yet, you will want to see if the county of Lewis has death records beginning before 1900. If they do, then you may find the names of Joseph's parents listed on that. If there is no death certificate, then you will want to look for an obituary. Obituaries often include the place of birth and may mention surviving siblings or his parents. Finally, in addition to the tombstone, you may find that there are additional records available through the cemetery. All of these avenues should be explored.

Another way that the census records may help you is to return to them and begin to look at the families on the ten pages before and after each entry of Joseph's for each year. Look to see who else was born in New York and see who else may have the Phelps surname. Compile all this information and then look to see if you can recognize any patterns or names.

Other Resources

Family histories are another option to you. Compiled family histories both published and through GEDCOM databases should be consulted. Unfortunately because the surname is a little more common, it does make it a little more difficult. You do have a year of birth and the given name of his wife to help you eliminate those found in GEDCOM databases. I mention these databases especially because there are often so many individuals with very little identifying information.

Published family histories should also be consulted. There is an impressive Phelps work that may help you in your research, and may in fact have your Joseph included. The Phelps Family of America and Their English Ancestors was compiled by Oliver Seymour Phelps and Andrew T. Servin. This two volume work is one of the most in depth I have seen on the Phelps family.

You will also want to search for additional Phelps family histories. Because of your connection to New York and New England, you will want to search the New England Historic Genealogical Society to see what other Phelps resources they may have. Some of them can be requested to your home, for a short time, if you are a member of the society. If you find that their library holds something that you need that cannot be borrowed to your home, you may need to hire a professional genealogists in that area to access the records in the library.

In Conclusion

You have some knowledge of the family and with the census records you have some options for additional places to check for records and perhaps even some records that you might not have considered checking. You need to see if you can identify siblings of Joseph, also, because it is possible that through their records you will learn where in New York Joseph was born and the names of one or both of the parents.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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 the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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