Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Census Index Name Game

A rose by any other name1…Roselyn, Rosella, Roseanne, even Katelyn…could still be your ancestor.
Let’s say you know your ancestor’s name was Rose. It’s quite possible Rose was a nickname, and her real name was Roselyn, or Rosella, or Roseanne.  Even with the correct surname, tracking a relative through the censuses can be confusing if you’re looking for a specific first name, but your relative is listed under another name.
There are basically two ways to look for an ancestor in the census records:
1)      Search the census indexes available through many subscription genealogy online databases,2 or
2)      Search the individual, handwritten census pages (online or via microfilm).
The index search is by far the fastest and easiest route, but it’s frequently complicated by errors. These indexes have been transcribed directly from the handwritten census pages, and are often transcribed incorrectly, resulting in misspellings or completely wrong names.
 For example, in the 1910 Federal Census my grandmother Ida Kniss is listed in’s census index as Ida Brairs. The index transcriber had mistaken a capital “K” for a capital “B,” a small “n” for an “r,” and so on. Because she was living at the time with her maternal grandparents who had a different surname, there was no other family member’s surname to compare it to, making her very difficult to locate using the index.
A similar bad transcription could have happened to your ancestor. Roselyn could have been transcribed as Katelyn, Rosey could have become Kasey.
I was able to find my grandmother only because I knew she was living with her maternal grandparents and what their names were. If I didn’t know that information, I would have had to search for her through the individual, handwritten census pages. That can be an extremely time-consuming task, depending on how large your ancestor’s community was and how much information you have. Add to that the legibility, or more likely, the illegibility of the census taker’s handwriting, and you could spend hours searching for your family.
The fairly small town of Chippewa Falls, Wis., where my grandma grew up had 10 wards in 1910. Each ward has its own set of census records, one with as few as 10 pages, one with as many as 27 pages.  Imagine trying to wade through the census pages for a large city.
If you decide to use the census index records to locate a relative, first check the names of the rest of the family to make sure you have the right family, and then check the handwritten census pages. You might see a different name than the census index transcriber did, because you know what you’re looking for.
If you are unable to locate your ancestor in a census index by keying in her real name, remember: transcription error is always a possibility. Think beyond the actual spelling of your ancestor’s name.  What are the most likely ways the given name or the surname could be misspelled? Always search with an open mind.
Discover your roots and watch the branches of your family tree begin to grow.
For more information on Family History Research services, visit
and click on Family History Research.

1Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, 1600;
2Historical societies or genealogy societies for some small, less populated counties may have indexes for certain censuses available online at no cost.