Thursday, December 8, 2011

Nearest Neighbor: Where to Look for Census Help

   Finding your ancestors on the census has gotten easier with the availability of indexes from Ancestry and FamilySearch.  Even so, indexes are not perfect.  Whether the transcription from the original census was wrong or the enumerator wrote it wrong you are in the same predicament, you can't find the record.  Sometimes all you need is help from the nearest neighbor.

   The nearest neighbor method works best when you know the address of the person you are looking for.  Perhaps you have two nonconsecutive census records with the same address or you have a City Directory record.  You could use the brute force method of looking at every line in that enumeration district.  I like to take advantage of the fact that the indexes can be faster.

   Look at the census records you do have.  Find a good neighbor.  A good neighbor might be one that owns the home.  They are likely to be in the same place for multiple decades.  If you plan to search forward in time look for a young, married neighbor. You need someone who will still be around in 10 years.  If you plan to search backward, look for someone older, old enough to have been the head of the household 10 years earlier.

   Search for that person in the index on the census you are missing.  If you find them, are they at the address you expected?  Find another neighbor if the first doesn’t pan out.  Once you have found the neighbor, look at the census image for your ancestor.  Expect to find their name illegible or spelled completely wrong.   Don’t forget that if the enumerator couldn’t get data for your person that day then the record could be on the last page as they went back to fill in the missing households.

   I have had situations where the person I was looking for was at address X in 1900 and address Y in 1920.  I used the nearest neighbor method and worked from both directions.

   What if I don’t have any census records at all?  If you are lucky, you may be able to find your family in a City Directory.  Jot down their address and look for someone else in the City Directory that lives on the same street or just around the corner. It is always good to plug the address you are looking for into Google maps to get a feel for the neighborhood.  Now use this newfound neighbor for your census search.

   This is by no means a sure fire method.  It can be faster than the brute force method, not that I haven’t resorted to that when needed.  The nearest neighbor method can be one more valuable tool in your toolbox.

   I’ve heard quite a few horror stories about transcription errors in the census.  Remember the index problems are not all transcription errors.  The enumerator could have written the name wrong or if they couldn’t contact your ancestor then it may have been the nearest neighbor who gave the wrong details to the enumerator in the first place.

   Good fences make good neighbors, but good neighbors solve brick walls.

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