Thursday, August 21, 2014

Finding That Lost Family in the Census

One of the challenges we have all faced in researching our family histories is locating those sometimes elusive ancestors in the various census records. It is becomes particularly frustrating when you are positive that you know exactly where they are but they don't show up in any of the searchable indexes. So what do you do? I will be using Ancestry as the online tool for some of the examples but the same approaches work with other sites also. The case study this time was posted on the Ontario Genealogy group on Facebook.

First of all, create a time line out of all the records you have that surround the date of the census. What you are attempting to do is to place the family or person on the ground at a specific time. Use birth, marriage, and death registrations, newspaper articles and city directories (or anything else you have on them). Record the following details if they are on the documents:
  • the specific date of the event from the records you have
  • the exact address if it is given. Of course, sometimes only the city is recorded
  • possible name variations
If you are very fortunate you will have a document or two that records where they were the year of the census and the year or two following. Why a year or two after? Maybe they moved in the year of the census and they might be found in the new location.

So let's look at the family of George Haney that was supposedly living in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada when the 1921 census took place. We know he was born about 1889 in Ontario. It was also known from various documents surrounding the 1 June 1921 date that the 1921 Census of Canada took place that they were living at 24 1/2 Oak Street.

Approach 1: Name searches with wildcards

Make use of the wildcards and filters within Ancestry search feature. In this case, replace the vowels with question marks '?' and put in some other identifiable details such as the date and place of birth and use an exact matching keyword of "Niagara Falls" to restrict it to that area. Why replace the vowels? well a cursive 'o' and 'a' can often look the same to transcribers. The resulting search returned the following:

Search results from Ancestry for H?n?y of Niagara Falls in the 1921 Census of Canada
Ancestry search of the 1921 Census of Canada using wildcards
As you can see, there is a Geo Honey living in the Niagara Falls sub-district, Welland district born about 1890 in Ontario. Looks promising and when you view the image you find that he is living at 24 1/2 Oak Street.

Approach 2: Address search

For some of the census enumeration returns, especially for those of cities, they will record the street address. This is most commonly seen in the United States Federal Census enumerations but in 1921 Canada also recorded that information.

So let us search using an exact match for the street "24 1/2 Oak" (I left off the "Street" or "St" since I don't know how it was recorded in the census) and also restrict the municipality (you can do that for the 1921 census) to an exact match of "Niagara Falls":

Image of Ancestry search results using the street "24 1/2 Oak" and municipality "Niagara Falls"
Ancestry search of the 1921 Census of Canada using Street and Municpality

As you can see there are several "Honey" family members at that address. Again, looking at the image itself and carefully looking at the writing you can see that it appears that the name is transcribed incorrectly.

Approach 3: "Old School" manual browsing

So you still can't them? Time for "old school" research.

1. Try looking up the address on Google Maps (or Bing Maps, your choice). However, you may not find the address since over time street names do get changed or disappear due to developments in the area.

2. Still can't find the address on a current map? Look for older maps or city directories that will hopefully indicate where in the city or town the street was at that time.

3. No old maps or directories handy? Then look for clues in the records you have. In this case it was known that a person in the family went to "Maple Street School". Doing a search for that school reveals that yes it did exist (always nice to have confirmation of that fact) but it is no longer there. However, there is a Maples Street Park and in the park they have this monument to the school:

Picture of Maple Street School memorial in the Maple Street Park, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
Maple Street Park, : accessed 21 Aug 2014, "Maple Street Park Memorial"
Now looking at your favourite map of Niagara Falls, Ontario see if you can find Maple Street Park in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

4. Finally we can go browse the 1921 Census of Canada and look through all the images one by one. But don't panic yet as we don't have to look through every single page. We will narrow it down just a little bit further. Unlike the earlier censuses taken in Canada, Library and Archives Canada hasn't made available the list of districts and sub-districts for the 1921 on their web site and neither is it available in the "About 1921 Census of Canada" section on Ancestry. However, because of your extensive knowledge of the area (you did read up about the area first, right?) you know that Niagara Falls is in Welland county at that time so the odds are it is in Welland district in the 1921 census. Of course it doesn't necessarily hold true for all the places. For a large city like Toronto you need to know if the location was in the north, east, south, west or centre part of that city.

Next you have to find the right sub-district. There are 10 sub-districts for Niagara Falls (City). Fortunately each sub-district is described by the streets that comprise their borders. A little more research and it appears that sub-district 31 may be the right location:
Polling Division No. 3 - Being all that part of the City lying between a line running west from River Road, through the centre of Queen Street to Victoria avenue, north through the centre of Victoria avenue to Maple Street, west through Maple Street produced to Stanley avenue and a line running west from River Road through to centre of Morrison Street produced to Stanley avenue
We can now look through the individual pages to find any references to Oak Street to make sure we are in the right sub-district. A mention of Oak Street is found on image page 12 so we just might be in the right place. A little further along on image page 25 (census page 24) there they are once again:
Image of the 1921 Census of Canada, Ontario, Welland District (138), Niagara Falls City (31), p 24
1921 Census of Canada, Ontario, Welland (138), Niagara Falls City (31), p 24; RG 31; digital images,, ( : accessed 21 Aug 2014)

But what if you still can't find them.
  • Could they have been visiting friends that day? 
  • Maybe, and it does happen, the pages have been lost or misfiled. 
  • Possibly they just moved away for a few months and are living somewhere else and then came back ... after the census of course! 
  • The family was in transit and were just missed by the enumerator
  • Could the enumerator have accidentally forgotten to go down that street?

[Oh, if anyone does come across an Alexander McKinlay (born 1889 in Scotland) with wife Isabella (AKA Bella, born 1886 in Scotland) and son Samuel (born 1915 in Ontario) that should be living in the town of Peterborough (or surrounding townships ... Peterborough was a smaller place then), Ontario drop me a note. I've used all these techniques and have even gone through all the images for that area and still no luck in finding him or the family.]

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