Census records can help reveal family history

Census records can help reveal family history



CHESHIRE — Finding out more about your family history was made easier with Carol Ansel, director of the Godfrey Memorial Library in Middletown, in her February presentation, “What can we learn from the Census.”

Cheshire Public Library hosted the online program during which Ansel gave examples from her own family history using census records. The approach was a clever way to help people find their way as they researched their lineage. Ansel gave the audience some tools to use, and at the same time, offered a wider picture of America by spotlighting the country’s historical timeline taken from the pages of the U.S. census.

“You can really dig deep and find out a lot. It’s a fun exercise,” Ansel said.

The census was created in 1790 as a way to correctly record the population’s voting representation, and has since been done every 10 years, Ansel said. She advises using the free FamilySearch.org research tool and Ancestry.com, which is usually a subscriber service.

 The library’s head of Information Services, Bill Basel, noted that Ancestry.com is offering library patrons free access during COVID. Go online to the CPL website and use your library card number to get free access.  

In the first six decades, the census was essentially a head count, said Ansel. The 1860 census records the head of the household by name. All others were recorded with hatch marks. Females were an afterthought, she said.

Household members’ relationships to the head of household were listed in the census reports of the 1880s. “There’s more data, but it’s not always the truth, it turns out,” Ansel said.

In her family, Ansel’s grandfather – Henry Wilkinson – arrived from England in the mid-1800s. Elizabeth is his third wife. His first wife died, presumably a result of working in the mills. Another marriage in which the wife dies occurs, but the marriage produces a child, Albert. Henry remarries. This time he marries Elizabeth who was from Henry’s hometown in England. The child, Albert R., is Ansel’s great-grandfather. Following the breadcrumbs, Ansel shows there is now an Alice and Willie Dillon in the household. Who are they exactly? They are listed as niece and nephew. However, in the 1910 census, Willie Dillon shows up as head of the household. He’s married to a woman named Annie, and here is Elizabeth Wilkinson. She is his mother. 

“These were the children of Elizabeth, but for some reason they weren’t listed correctly in the earlier census,” said Ansel.

In 1890 the census became automated. The use of Hollerith punch cards made the process faster. The year also was the year the census “was lost.” First there was a fire, followed by heavy water damage which ruined most of the records, and finally, improper disposal of the records.

As the years went on, codes began to be more detailed. Ansel advised to really look at the fine print. For example, H is for homemakers; O means the home is owned; R means it is rented. One column had the dataset info to show if the household had a  “radio set.” That was the 1930s, so at that point, that was becoming the first mass media, said Ansel. Choices on ethnicity increased with the addition of Japanese, Filipino, Hindu and Korean. Additionally, homeowners were asked their country of birth, along with that of their parents and other family members in the household. You would choose from native born, foreign born, born at sea and non-citizen. At one time, in the case of naturalized couples, if they divorce, the woman loses her naturalized status. The census also collected data on the wars: World War I, the Spanish American War, Philippine Insurrection, the Boxer War, and the Mexican Expedition.

Ansel said amateur genealogists should know it’s okay to turn the pages and check out the neighbors and the neighborhood. In a more detailed study of her family, David Warren McArthur and Mary “Nelly” Elmira Crossman were married in 1865 and had six children. In the 1920 census, David was 50 and Nelly was 48, and the family lived on Academy Road in Boston. Their children included Ansel’s grandfather, Elvin Bond, and Edith, Hazel, Roy and a niece, Ruth Crossman. They rented their house. 

 By looking at more than just the one household, Ansel was able to see that half the homes were rentals and half were owned. There also was a boarding house in the neighborhood with almost a dozen individuals from Ireland. The McArthurs were the only ones from Prince Edward Island. It was pretty much first- and second-generation Irish, Canadian and New Englanders in the neighborhood.

In the 1930 census, the MacArthur family is now spelling its name with an “A”, said Ansel. “They were indeed of Scottish origin, but the Irish had first come to America with the potato famine and they had been looked down on by others in the country. (The MacArthurs) wanted to make it clear they were Scottish.”   

Now they lived on Parson Street. It’s a younger skewed neighborhood, they are the older family at this time, and they are no longer living next to a boarding house. Husband and wife, David and Nelly, are in the home with Roy, 23. There’s also the niece, Ruth, who is now 15 and a 19-year-old boarder, likely from Canada. This neighborhood more closely resembles a nuclear family. More women are entering the workforce but are still limited in what they do. It’s a blue-collar neighborhood. Transportation is becoming increasingly important. Roy is in the automotive industry, David is still a painter, Ruth is in school, Hazel has married a baker, Kenneth Mullin. Next door is the James MacArthur family, most likely David’s brother.

Ansel’s presentation can be seen in its entirety at tinyurl.com/gmlcensus


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