Genealogy is more than a hobby. It is a relentless drive to find your own personal history. It is a drive to reach back in time and connect the past with the present and to know that you are a part of unbroken chain of history that links you to every era of time. To take up this mantle one must be part detective, part librarian and part story teller.
In the end, all of the dates and names and facts can only tell you so much, unless you weave them into a narrative that tells the story of your ancestor’s lives, transforming them from names on a page into living breathing men and woman. In the series, Discovering Your Roots, we will show you how to tell the story of your family.
Census Records are one of the first stops for anyone researching their family history. But most people miss the hidden gems of information that can be gleamed from even the most mundane report.
Like any good detective hunting a mystery, the key to piecing together the story of your family history lies in continuing to ask questions.
It is important to remember, when reviewing these records that every Census report was written by hand. That can be taxing on even the best penmanship. While many census takers did thankfully print, many others wrote in cursive. A good tip to remember when trying to decipher handwriting is not to stare to intently at the words you cannot make out. Find letters or adjoining words that you can make out and then use an online search engine (such as Google) to decipher the rest.
City, County, State and Month/Year of Census
Most of us think of this portion of the census as basic information that is hardly worth a second thought. That could not be further from the truth. This information can lead to important discoveries about your relatives and provide invaluable context.
- Research the City
In this case: Fairhaven, Massachusetts is a smaller town just outside New Bedford, one of the countries leading textile centers. Jobs in the textile industry were prevalent, although often low paying and dangerous.
- Pay Attention to the Dates
Unless you are looking at a birth or death certificate, you should always consider birth and marriage years as fluid. The Census could have been taken before the exact day or month of a birthday or anniversary. Human error could have caused a census taker to write down the dates incorrectly. Use this information as a guide. If you later find a record that shows a different year of birth, absorb all of the information and weigh it accordingly.
Place of Abode
While an address may not always be listed on the Census report it is a vital piece of information.
- What if you can’t read the Address?
Even if you cannot read the street name, all is not lost. Scan further down the page or the pages immediately before and after to find a street that you can read. Use an online map (such as Mapquest or Google Maps) to search for a street address you can read. Then search surrounding streets for a name similar to the one you cannot quite make out. Also remember that street names changed over time, what once was Market Place may now be Broad Street and what once was 1st Avenue may now be main Street.
In Our Example: The next street listed on the Census Page is Alden Road. A quick check of Google Maps shows that Alden Road is near a street named Morton Road, which certainly fits the decipherable letters in our street name.
- Does The House Still Exist?
Most cities and counties maintain online property assessor databases. These provide basic information such as year built, number of bed and bathrooms, square footage, whether the home is a single or multi-family dwelling and often a photo of the home. Call the Property Tax Assessor’s Office for the area where your relative lived and ask how you can obtain all of the records for that particular address. You may be richly rewarded for your efforts. You may even be able to locate a document that bares your relatives signature.
In Our Example: The house does still exist according to Fairhaven property records. The home was built in 1920 and is a 3 bedroom home, single family home.
- Who Are The Neighbors?
Unlike today’s world, previous generations often remained in the same areas, surrounded by family. Take the time to see who is living near to your relatives. Even if you do not recognize the names, they may provide valuable information about previously unknown relatives or simply the neighborhood demographics.In Our Example: We see that this is an immigrant neighborhood filled with 1st and 2nd Generation Americans, mainly from Portugal, but also a few from Poland and Ireland as well.
Name and Relation
Here we see that the household consisted of three people, Charles Czarkowski, his wife Yvonne and their son Wilfred. Many time you will also see individuals listed who are not family members but who resided in the home during the time of the census. These could be boarders, butlers, cooks, servants or others. Their position within the household should be indicated the “Relation” column. Remember that “household” does not always mean “house.” Several families may reside in a single home, but they may also be listed as separate “households” for Census purposes.
Home data can tell you a lot about the standard of living and financial circumstance of your relatives. It can also provide a potential new avenue of investigations. If their property value fart exceeded their reasonably expected income, the next logical question is where did the money come from.
In our example: We see that Charles and Yvonne are renting a place from the Kacimier & Nellie Stirk for $10 a month. The Stirk’s are also from Poland.
Personal Description and Education
Charles & Yvonne are a young couple. He is 24 years old and she is 21. They have a 11 month old son. From the “Age at First Marriage” column we can deduce that the couple have been married for about three years.
Some Census records also list the number of children born to a woman and the number that are have survived.
Place of Birth, Mother Tongue and Citizenship
Every good detective always looks for the next clue to lead them forward, and this section is where you will find some valuable clues. This lists both the place of birth of the individual and their parents, telling you where to look in earlier records and how to narrow down possible parents.
Here we see that both Charles and Yvonne are 2nd Generation Americans, meaning their parents immigrated to the U.S. but Charles and Yvonne were born here. From this information we know that Charles’ parents are from Poland and Yvonne’s are French Canadian. If we can find Charles and Yvonne living with their parents in earlier Census records, we will discover their parent’s names and vital information. From that we may even be able to locate ship passenger manifests and other immigration records.
Occupation and Industry, Employment and Veteran Status
Remember what we found out about regarding the history Fairhaven and New Bedford? Its role as a textile capital helps to place Charles’ occupation as a “weaver” in a “Cotton Mill” into context. We also learn here that Charles has been working despite the onset of the Great Depression. As of 1930 Charles is not a veteran. He was too young to have served in WWI and Hitler will not invade Poland for another nine years.