We all know about the federal census records. Here in the U.S. this census was taken every ten years beginning in 1790. They are all indexed and easily accessible. But are we remembering to use the state census records in our research strategies? They are not all indexed or easily accessible, but that is changing.
As you may know, I've been looking for John Williams (my 3rd great-grandfather) for years. I've got a lot of things working against me:
- His name - John Williams
- He was born in New York City
- He was born in either 1845, 1851, 1852, 1853, or 1854 (different records of the same person give this conflicting information)
- He may have been "orphaned or shifted around beginning at age 10" according to family records
- He used the alias of Edward Riley to enlist in the Civil War (this has actually been an advantage...)
Recently, and through a series of serendipitous and educated research strategies, I may have found the right John Williams family in Brooklyn, New York. They've been pretty easy to trace through the federal census records as I've now found them in 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880.
I've have also found them in the 1875 and 1892 state census records which are now indexed and online for free at FamilySearch.
This morning as I thought to look for them in the 1855 New York state census, I quickly thought to myself, "I've found them in all these other censuses. They've always lived in the same place and provided me with the same information. What else could I find in 1855?" I'm glad that this somewhat negative self-talk ceased and I continued the search.
Expecting to locate them in Brooklyn (Kings County, in the southeast corner of the state) as I always have, I started my search there. Surprised that I didn't find them, I removed the location of "Brooklyn" from the search parameters and instead of searching for John Williams Sr. (too many results), I searched for his wife, Ellen. They were listed as living in Buffalo (Erie County), which as the crow flies, is nearly 300 miles northwest of Brooklyn.
Why on earth would they be in Buffalo? The census said they had been living there for three years. So in 1850 they were in New York City. In 1855 they were in Buffalo. And in 1860 they were back in Brooklyn. I don't yet know the answer to this, but take a look at everything I was able to add or update to John's timeline because of this state census:
- For the first time, instead of just the state of birth for their first child it listed the city of New York.
- Same for the second child.
- It stated that they had lived in Buffalo for three years so I was able to add a new Migration event.
- I now know that their third child, Elizabeth, was born in Erie County. Previously I had recorded it as just the state of New York.
- It listed the fact that both John and Ellen were "aliens" meaning, they have not yet been naturalized. Because the 1875 state census listed them both as being naturalized, I have now narrowed down the time frame of their naturalization to between July 2, 1855 and June 1875. I'm looking forward to pursuing these records next.
- Finally, I was able to add the census event.
Tip: knowing where an ancestor lived on a certain date is crucial to genealogical success. Knowing this, now you know where to look for their records. Hence, the importance of using Legacy's custom events to create the person's timeline. Click here to watch the webinar on Timelines and Chronologies.
1865 state census
This state census may finally have the clue I've needed to break down this 30-year brick wall. But it is the only of the censuses that is not yet indexed. The reason it may provide the missing link is because it provides information on soldiers' military service - at least their regiment and company. The census enumerators' instructions were to record the soldiers' information even if they were not then living at home. I already know that my John Williams Jr. served in New York's 90th regiment, companies A and K. If this census provides the same information for John, then I have connected my known John Williams Jr. (died in Minnesota) with this John Williams Jr. living in New York.
You won't find information like this in the federal census records. Other state census records I've used have provided information on religion, exact birth dates, exact birth places, and more.
How to find state census records
First check Legacy Family Tree's Research Guidance system. Since Research Guidance is built-in to Legacy, AND because you have recorded dates and places of your ancestor, it knows which records to suggest for you. In the example below, Legacy provides 81 suggested sources to find this person's birth. Five of these customized suggestions are the New York state census records. Each entry provides information about what you would expect to find in the record and where the record is located. Some even provide clickable links.
Next, check http://www.censusfinder.com. It's pretty good but I noticed that it doesn't include the 1855 New York state census.
Of course give Ancestry.com a try. They have many state census records available.
And for those records that are not yet online, consult Ann S. Lainhart's book, State Census Records to learn more about how to locate them.
Download Geoff's Legacy family file
If you are curious to see how I have entered all of this information into Legacy (events, sources, etc.) I have extracted this family from my personal family file and created a small backup file below for you to download.
After downloading the file to your computer, follow these instructions:
- Open Legacy 8 and go to File > Restore File. Click Yes.
- Browse to locate the file you downloaded (it is called johnwilliams-2014-01-24-11.41.15-am.zip) and click Open.
- Click Save.
This is what you will see:
Click on the Chronology tab, or open the Individual's Information screen, view the events (and shared events) and take a look at the sources. Maybe it will give you an idea or two that you can apply to your own research. Or if it gives you an idea about how I can knock down this brick wall, I'd of course love to hear from you!
Step-by-step instructions for applying your research to Legacy can also be found in the new Legacy Family Tree - Unlocked! Techniques, Tips and Step-by-Steps for Using Legacy Family Tree to Record Your Genealogy.