Ancestor hunting online? Here are a few tips I wish I’d known before I started

I’ve been interested in my family roots ever since I had to write a report in 10th grade called “My Family Tree”. I remember that I took it seriously, interviewing both my grandmothers and taking notes like a reporter. I drew maps, created family trees and spent a lot of time and effort in writing my report, which earned an A and created in me a life-long fascination with learning about the past.

I became a subscriber of almost as soon as it was created, and have dabbled in searching for ancestors over the years. In 2014 I started searching in earnest, and have been writing a local history/family history book based on one branch of my family tree.

One of the biggest problems you’ll find in hunting ancestors, especially in online census records, is that Federal census records can be inaccurate. Names, ages, and dates of birth are often different from records you may have, and are sometimes different from census year to census year (done every ten years). You’d assume that a person’s age would progress on census records in ten-year increments, right? Not always.

The first time I encountered the age progression issue was with my great-great grandmother. In the census years between 1900 and 1940, her recorded ages were 24, 34, 36, 49, and 62. As well, she remarried, to a man named Sabato Lamanna, but he apparently went by the name Will Green (given he was an immigrant from Italy, I don’t know how that worked for him), and she went by May Green. But her real name was Mary. When my husband and I went to a cemetery in Hazleton, PA to look for her grave site, he asked me, “So, who are we looking for now?” Poor man, we’d already had a long day of cemetery hunting.

“Mary Lamanna”, I answered him as we walked away from each other to divide and conquer. “Or maybe May”. “May?” He nodded. “OK. Mary or May Lamanna”. He started to walk away again. “Or Green!” I shouted after him. After I confirmed that I wasn’t kidding, we wandered away from each other. “Mary OR May,” I muttered as I scanned headstones. “Lamanna OR Green”. Eventually we had to give up–it’s a huge cemetery. We’ll have to go back there sometime and find her, and Sabato OR Will, Lamanna OR Green.

Names can be troublesome in online searches as well. Spelling is sometimes an issue. You can’t count on a broad search on to automatically find your “Lewis Thompson” if his name is spelled “Louis Thomson” on the census record. Trust me, I know this first-hand. I was so frustrated, knowing he HAD to be there based on other research. It took looking through several pages of search results to find him.

Beware of other spelling issues as well. For some reason, the census taker in 1850 added an “e” to the end of Boyd for my great X3 grandfather. He was the only Andrew Boyd in that town, let alone the county at that time. Do you think he showed up in search results, with that extra letter on the end of his name? Nope. I ended up having to open the entire 1850 Federal census for the township he lived in and scanning down each handwritten page line by line until I found him, recorded as Andrew Boyde.

The worst name mutilation that I found was when I was looking for a man named Michael McMahon in East Union, Pennsylvania in 1910. I’d searched and searched for him and his family, to no avail. I broadened the years searched for date of birth, took out where he was born, and tried a couple of spelling variations and still couldn’t find him. I searched for his wife Sarah, and couldn’t find her either. I was almost certain they had to be there, because they were in 1900 and 1920. Where were they in 1910? Once again, I opened the whole census record, this time for East Union in 1910 and searched for Michael and Sarah McMahon and family, line by line, page by page. I finally found them. His name was written (and accurately transcribed) as Miskel Mickmanamen. His wife’s name was written down as Sariah. No wonder I couldn’t find them!

Of note to anyone else looking at census records on there is a way to add correct information on the search results page for each census record result. I added “Michael McMahon” as an alternate name to Miskel Mickmanamen’s search results page for 1910, so that anyone down the road won’t have to go through what I did to find him.

One more name mutilation story: I got a leaf “hint” recently from Ancestry on a great-aunt of mine. It showed a census record for someone named Ida Agren. I knew my Dad had an Aunt Ida, but I wasn’t going to assume that Agren was just a misspelling of my maiden name, Akren. I pulled up the census record to look at it. The Agren household consisted of Alex, Augusta, Hazel, Joe, Adolf, and Ida. My great-grandparents were, indeed Alex and Augusta, but I’d never heard my father talk of an Aunt Hazel or Uncle Adolf. I suddenly wondered why my grandfather Rudy wasn’t on this census record. Then it hit me. Could “Adolf” really be my grandfather, Rudolph Akren? Yes–this Aldolf just happened to be the same age as my grandfather. Then who could Hazel be? I looked at my notes for my grandfather’s family, and found my answer. “Hazel” (called a daughter on the census record) was actually a son called Basil.

So, if you have found someone in your searching who seems to be the right person but there’s a thing or two that’s not correct, don’t assume that it’s not the person you’re looking for. Don’t assume that it is, either. I have found more than one family tree on and memorial on that have clear inaccuracies. Do yourself and anyone else looking at your information a favor, and cross check. Do the family member’s names match with other census years? How about place of birth? You can look for city directories on that can back up a record that is questionable. Other good sources of information are newspaper articles on Chronicling America on the Library of Congress website and Obituaries written in the 1800s and early 1900s can be invaluable in providing information about family members, address, and a person’s life history, including places they’ve lived.

Don’t give up. Take it from someone who knows first-hand, persistence pays off.

1880 census record

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