Census search: When to do it?
I’ve been feeling like the “chicken or the egg came first syndrome.” Should I find all surnames on the censuses first or list the ancestors, then review the censuses? I did some early census research of the New Hampshire town’s in the 1790 Census. I found information on the surnames I was searching, but it didn’t really give me a sense of belonging. Later when I would look for a particular ancestor’s name I was having problems finding them on the internet census links. I knew they were in a certain town during the census year, but I still could find them.
What is a person to do? Well I decided to list the ancestors from my grandparents to the first ancestor to arrive in America. I knew that I would need verification of each generation. How can I do that when the early censuses only listed the head of household, the number of males and females of certain ages? I made a trip to my local library reference desk to find out some answers. My best resource turned out to be a link to Heritage Quest, an online database of historical and genealogical information, census records and family history publications. It is provided by the New Hampshire State Library for local library use. It can be linked to from your home computer through your library using a password and user name. There is no cost to you. You can access it anytime, which was a positive for me. I found the best way to research the census was in the browse mode. The downside to that is you have to go page by page to view, which takes time. The upside of that is that page to page viewing gives you much more information.
I found many more people with the surnames I was looking for, than when I did the search my typing in the name. There were several reasons why I couldn’t find those ancestors names:
- Whoever transcribed the names to the database didn’t always read the names correctly. Have you ever tried reading letters from people with poor handing, faded letters or food, ink or coffee stained letters? Well that is what it is like when you read the old census forms. Stearns and Stevens looked very similar. The old type handwriting made it very difficult to distinguish the letters L, F, T or S, C, H from each other.
- Many names were written in shorthand or abbreviate, i.e., Nathaniel was written as Nath with a raised a. Sometimes it was the first three letters of the name only.
- When the page was copied the categories they were making didn’t show, making it hard to know what each number was for.
- Ink bleed through was another problem noted when reading the checks or numbers for each person.
I will be posting the census information by year and town in my future post. I have made the best effort toward accuracy by reviewing the information on each census at least three different times before posting. I am only researching the Stearns, Fletcher, Chase and Nelson surnames and the household they are listed in. I well post censuses from 1790 to 1900 at this time. I started with Hopkinton, Hillsborough/Merrimack County, New Hampshire because that is how I found a missing link for the Chase surname. It is also the reason I feel that the ancestor’s link should come before the census link, when researching the family surname.
To answer the question when to do the census search, I would say, as stated above, after the generational links have tentatively been made. Others may not agree with my choice, but I found that it made my search much easier when linking and verifying my ancestral family. I found mother’s and fathers living with their children, grand children and even siblings. If I hadn’t known the family links, I wouldn’t have found the correct person. Also knowing the number of children and adults, the ages and gender helped when reviewing the earliest censuses that have no other name than the head of household. The later 1800 census also listed the number of children for the woman living and dead. This provided another resource on finding lost family members you didn’t even know you had. I would then research both birth and death certificates using the parents names.
I hope the census information I will be posting in the upcoming weeks will save you some leg work. The towns I will be doing first will be Hopkinton, Warner, Merrimack, Sutton, Weare, and New London, New Hampshire. These are the towns that my line lived in. I will also be researching Rowley, Chelmsford, Concord, Salsibury, and Westford Massachusetts. These towns were where the original ancestors of my line first arrived in the colonies during the Great Migration of the 1600’s.
You can download blank census forms, free of charge at the following links:
Census Form Links
Other Genealogy Blank Form links: