On April 1, genealogists and family historians celebrated the release of the 1950 US Census. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch are indexing the original images to provide a searchable database. My grandpa Watson was an enumerator in a southwestern Wisconsin district. He had the most legible handwriting I've ever seen in a census, and he documented detailed information. Yay, Grandpa Watson! He never dreamed that 72 years later I'd be sharing my pride on this thing called the internet.
The federal census is released every ten years and is one of the most important genealogical documents. If a census is missing, a researcher must be creative and determined to fill in the twenty-year gap. Last month, I provided census substitute resources for Ireland. The country’s pre-1901 censuses—except for a few 1821-1851 fragments—were destroyed in 1922 during the Irish Civil War when a fire ravaged Dublin’s Public Records Office. I guess we should be thankful that the 1890 US Census was the only one lost in a 1921 fire at the Commerce Building in Washington, DC. Sadly, it was stacked outside a fireproof vault. Less than 1 percent of the census survived. If you’re feeling lucky, you can search for your ancestors in 1890 at www.familysearch.org/search/collection/1610551TBD.
The following are a few of the resources—besides church and civil vital records—I’ve used to fill in the gap from 1880 to 1900. Be sure to check a research site’s card catalog for many other documents.
Not all states conducted a census, and if they did, the years were inconsistent. A state census usually provides a lot less information than a federal one. For example, the 1895 Wisconsin Census lists merely the head of household’s name, country of birth, and number of persons living at the residence. Despite the lack of details, a state census can still help you locate an ancestor and identify his neighbors, who were possible relations.
City and County Directories
Outside of a federal census, I have relied on city and county directories (worldwide) more than any other resource. You can find these directories online and at local libraries or historical societies. Most directories include front matter with information about government, civic, and religious organizations, and often note the names of members who held positions. An alphabetical residential section provides the head of household’s name, occupation, and work and home addresses. A bonus, the 1871 Chicago directory listed a person’s country of origin. Sometimes you can search by address and identify neighbors and people living at your ancestor’s residence. A back section lists businesses by specialty and often includes the owner’s name.
When a person no longer appeared in a directory, they’d likely died or moved. A widow often listed her name after her husband’s death until she remarried, such as: Mary (widow of John), address. She may have been listed prior to his death if she’d operated a business out of the home, such as milliner or piano teacher.
Historical newspapers often include engagement, marriage, and death notices, as well as obituaries. However, don’t forget to check out the local gossip column. To determine how a Michael Coffey was related to my Coffey family, I reviewed twenty-five rolls of microfilm for newspapers from 1880 to 1905. I scrolled through the gossip columns until I came across a snippet about my Coffey boys traveling to Iowa to visit their “uncle” Michael. Yet knowing that newspapers sometimes printed incorrect information, I searched until I found another notice referencing their “uncle” Michael. My Coffey wall came tumbling down.
Wills and Probate Records
People often overlook these records, which may provide the deceased’s death date and location, occupation, land ownership, itemized belongings, family members' names and their places of residence, and much more. I once came across a will that listed over twenty heirs to an estate. Most of them shared the deceased’s surname and several who didn’t turned out to be married daughters or other relations. I’d hit the genealogy jackpot.
This is a great resource if your ancestor lived in a city. Many rural locations didn’t conduct registration until recent years. A voting district usually documented a person’s address, birth location, term of residence in that county and state, and whether he was a naturalized citizen. If naturalized, it noted when and where the process took place, including if it was at a state, county, or city courthouse. Knowing the precise location can help locate naturalization papers. When a person stopped voting can help pinpoint his death date. Sadly, women weren’t allowed to vote at that time.
These records include land deeds, grants, mortgages, taxes and more. They could be housed at regional or state archives or county courthouses. Land records are a great resource for discovering ownership transferred to other family members. For example, an 1872 tax roll listed the number of acres my Patrick Coffey owned, as well as the location and valuation. In 1880, Mrs. Coffey was listed rather than Patrick, so he’d died sometime between 1872 and 1880.
1890 Veterans Records
Along with the 1890 census, separate schedules were taken for Union Civil War veterans or their widows. Thankfully, these documents were stored separately from the 1890 federal census. The records survive for Union states in alpha order from Kentucky to Wyoming. Other helpful documents include the Civil War pension index and homes for disabled veterans’ admission and discharge records.