March 7, 2015

The Search for our Ancestry (X)

Details, Details!
By Angelo Coniglio
When perusing individual census listings, note the township, county and state in which the census was recorded.  You can contact churches, courthouses or public offices in those localities for other records: naturalization, birth, death or marriage records, etc.
Questions varied over the years.  I’ve previously listed all the questions from the 1920 census.  Here are selected ones, with hints to look for when reading the census.
Address: Distinguish between house number (address) and the number indicating the order in which the census was taken.  Street names and house numbers identify the actual property where your ancestor lived, and can help to find churches, cemeteries, schools, etc., where  other pertinent records may exist.
Name: Remember that to search on-line or digitized census records by name, you may have to use innovative or imaginative spellings of the name.  Usually the head of household’s given name and surname are listed, with only given names for the rest of the family.
Relationship to head of family: Study the family members’ names and relationship to the head.  A woman with a different surname than the head may be listed as “mother-in-law”, thus giving you the “maiden” surname of the wife of the head of household.  When a surname listed for a “daughter” is different from that of the head of the family, it’s probably the daughter’s married surname.
Sex:  Errors here are not uncommon.  Young children with “foreign-sounding” names may have been attributed the wrong gender.  So your grandfather Andrea may have been incorrectly listed as a girl, or your aunt Carmen as a boy!  Use census information as a guide, not as gospel.
Age: The person’s age at last birthday. Infants’ ages may be given as years and fractions: 2 7/12 means the child was two years and seven months old at the time.  The date when the census was taken is at the top of the page, and by subtraction, a year of birth can be calculated.  Don’t be surprised if ages on the census are different than what was recorded elsewhere.
Marital status, including that of children, helps confirm previously found information.  Year of immigration and country of birth help in locating passenger manifests, which may list town of birth.  Notes reading al, pa, and Na stand for ‘alien’, ‘papers applied for’, and ‘Naturalized’.
Occupation is noted on the 1920 census, and also on many passenger manifests.  Matching a person’s name, year of birth, occupation and year of immigration, as given on a census, with the information on a ship’s manifest can corroborate that the records are for the same person.
Make note of the other names on the census, neighbors of your ancestor.  They may be his  relatives or friends, and research on their backgrounds may unveil otherwise unknown information about your ancestor, or ways to find it.
The censuses prior to 1920 and for subsequent years provided essentially the same information, with some variation.  The 1900 census, rather than giving a person’s age, lists the month and year of birth, while the 1910 and 1930 censuses list “Number of Years Married” or “Age at First Marriage”, from which you may determine whether the couple was married in the US, or before they came here, aiding in the search for a marriage record.
US Censuses carry meaningful data about our immigrant ancestors, especially censuses of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  They are a valuable source of information.   Depending on the state, you may also find information in the State Censuses, performed by individual states every ten years “on the fives”, as in New York, taken from 1825 through 1935; or the New Jersey State Census, every ten years from 1855 through 1915.  Unfortunately, many states did not take separate censuses.
Coniglio is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel (La Ruotaia), based on his genealogical research of Sicilian foundlings.  Order the book in paperback or on Kindle at Visit his website,, and write to him at