Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Validation: Using the Census to Track Names and Confirm Relatives

The census is usually the easiest place to start family history research, especially if you know where your family lived during a specific time period. On the other hand, not everything in the census is going to be correct or the same from census to census, so you will need to find other documentation to resolve conflicts and prove this is the family or individual you’re looking for.


Names, both first names and surnames, can be misspelled or just plain wrong in the census, and yet it can be the correct person or family. Check the rest of the names and birth years in the family. If they are the same (or similar) to those listed on previous or future censuses, you probably have the same family.

Here are three of many examples of wrong name, right family I’ve come across in doing family history research:

In the Mecklenburg church records and on a Hamburg passenger list, a client’s great-grandfather’s sister is named Frederika. In one and only one census, she is listed as Bridget, with Frederika’s birth year. Everyone else’s names are the same as they were on the other records.

Born in 1858, my great-grandfather Augustus Kniss is listed in the 1860 Census as Albert Kneiss. His name is correct in the 1870 Census. Comparing the two censuses, his birth year stays the same and his siblings’ names stay the same. In looking back at the 1850 Census, his father’s and older siblings’ names and birth years are the same as in the 1860 and 1870 Censuses.

Another client’s grandfather appears in the 1900 Census (the first census he is in) not only listed under the wrong first name, but listed erroneously as a she. In the 1905 Minnesota State Census, he is listed under a totally different name than in the 1900 Census, but at least he is listed as male. By the 1910 Census, he is listed under the name he went by for the rest of his life. His birth year (1900) is consistent throughout the censuses, as are his father’s and siblings’ names and birth years. His mother, on the other hand, is listed under a different though similar name in every census.

Locating and tracking names through the census is one of the first things you should do when trying to find an ancestral individual or family. Keep an open mind.  Look for consistency in family members’ names, birth years and place of birth. This is one of several steps you should take to help you validate your findings. 

Discover your roots and watch the branches of your family tree begin to grow.

For more information on my Family History Research services, visit and click on Family History Research.