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Where did the children go?


There are some U.S. states that give researchers more problems than other states. Lately I've been researching my Pennsylvania ancestors. Before 1900, Pennsylvania gives me a lot of trouble. Here's an example of one of my problems.

In 1857 my 3rd great grandfather, Simon George, died Indiana County, Pennsylvania. At least we can say that he disappears from census and other records by 1860. But Simon is not my problem, at least not for today. What bothers me is that Simon left behind a 33 year old wife, Lydia, and four small children: Jacob, age 10; Sarah, age 8; Ann, age 6, and Susan Jane, age 5. I can't find any trace of Lydia or her children in the 1860 US Federal Census. My mind doesn't seem to want to let go of missing children so here's f I'm doing to find them.

Start with what you know

I started with what I do know for sure - that the family lived together (Simon, Lydia and the first two children born by 1850, Jacob and Sarah) in Brush Valley, Pennsylvania in 1850. It would make most sense to start by searching the 1860 census for the family in Brush Valley also, but 10 years is long time for a mother with four young children. I carefully looked for every Lydia without a surname (in case she got remarried) and with four children matching the names, Jacob, Sarah, Ann and Susan. No results. Strike one.

I also know that Jacob, my 2nd great grandfather, lived in Burrell, Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1870 with his new wife. Perhaps the family had moved to that town which is the next town over? I searched for every Jacob George in Burrell and all of Indiana County in the 1860 US Federal Census. Strike two.

Get on to a different website

Next, in an attempt to find different information, I decided to use a different database site. In an unusual move I chose My thought was, if I could locate one of the family members in a cemetery maybe by searching the same cemetery I could find the rest. FindaGrave has a handy feature that lets you search the same surname in the same cemetery making searching very easy. You can also then switch over to searching any name in the cemetery.

Jacob George, the son, died in 1909 and is buried in Greenwood cemetery in Indiana, Indiana County, Pennsylvania. There are many Georges buried in Greenwood cemetery. Unfortunately, none of them are his siblings or parents. A general search of for the father, Simon George, in Indiana County, Pennsylvania came up empty. Strike three.

Broadening Out the Search

I was beginning to think that the whole family was hiding behind a new husband's surname not just potentially Lydia. Sometimes census enumerators wrote all the children down with the surname of the head of the household. They weren't helping descendants and future genealogists!

I focused in on Jacob, the only son, and my direct ancestor. I constructed searches with varying information such as a last name and a birth year. And then simply Jacob with a birth year (plus or minus a few years). I had to carefully scan every entry looking to find the other members of the family - mother, Lydia and sisters Sarah, Ann and Susan.


There in the 1860 US Federal Census I found Jacob Murphy born about 1847 listed in the household of Jacob Murphy, head, in Brush Valley. Ironically you might think they were father and son because of their sharing the same name. The rest of the household had wife Lidia (lesson to me to be more careful to look for misspellings!), Sarah, Ann, Susanna and one year old (what looks like) Bullian Murphy. I would imagine the name were really William Murphy but the enumerators Bs and Ws are clearly different on the page. So it appears that Lydia George got remarried to Jacob Murphy sometime between 1857 and 1860.

Post Script

I was relieved to finally solve the mystery of Lydia and her family in the 1860 census. But one mystery leads to the next. As quickly as they are found, they disappear. Jacob Murphy, Lydia and 1 year old son disappear and are no where to be found in the United States in the 1870 US Federal Census. That's another mystery for another day. Some day I will discover when and where Lydia died.

Lessons to Learn

Today's genealogy databases and search engines are very good but they can't make up for errors written into the census. If you are having difficulty finding your ancestors get creative with the spellings of their names (or "loosen" up the search parameters so that you don't search for "exact") or consider that, like in my case, they were hiding under a different surname. Any time there are mixed families in one household this can happen. Not just with second families but also with households that contain grandparents and grandchildren with different surnames. In this case, stop focusing on the surname and search instead for the first name and a birth date.

How would you have solved my dilemma? What tricks do you have up your sleeve for finding missing ancestors in a census record?


Marian Pierre-Louis is the Online Education Producer for Legacy Family Tree Webinars. She hosts the monthly evening webinar on the second Tuesday of each month. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Her areas of expertise include house history research and southern New England research. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.


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Excellent work! You were diligent and it paid a point. I hope you learn the rest of Lydia's story.

I have noticed that many of my ancestors are missing from the 1870 Census but re-appear in the 1880 Census. Recently a professional genealogist stated in his lecture to our society that there were many problems with the 1870 Census and that after that census the Federal government had direct oversight of how the census was carried out. I suggest that you continue to search for these people in the 1880 census and other state censuses. Also, land deeds should give some idea as to where the family went.

Could the odd name Bullian be Killian, a quite common Irish name?

Thank you Nigel! I hadn't considered that. I'll give it a try.


I use or to search for newspaper clippings on the family name. I've found some valuable information to has solved some of my brick walls.

Here are two possible scenarios --
1. Since Lydia had small children, she felt felt rushed that day and gave the children's names quickly, and the census taker was rushing to keep up. She gave William's name as Bill, and then clarified that his name was William, but the census taker had already written "Bill." The census taker had little choice but to write over the error, resulting in a combination of the two names.
2. It was the census taker who was in a hurry. He wrote the children's names as soon as she spoke them, with the same result.
At any rate, the fact that all the children were listed under the second husband name, suggests that SOMEONE was in a hurry!


I like your theory! That could very well explain it!


Since we're talking about which surname was used, here's a related story. I was searching for my grandmother's record in the 1930 census. She had been married twice. I searched both surnames -- Brand and Clarke -- unsuccessfully, so then searched the census for the entire little town, page by page. I knew the family had lived in this town for decades before and after 1930.

She may have given the census taker both surnames before giving everyone's given names. At any rate, here is how the census taker listed them:
Brand Clarke, Mary E. [the mother]
Brand Clarke, George P. [the oldest child], etc.

Then whoever indexed the census left out the space betweeen the surnames, resulting in:
Brandclarke, Mary E., etc.
I learned from this to not forget to use an asterisk as a "wild card" to find names that might have been spelled differently -- even if the names are easy to spell, as these were.

Loved your story, Marian. I've had so many similar situations. Sometimes I'll go back to a problem YEARS later to find that newer postings have solved some of them. That's no good if you need the information right away, though!
Jeanne Johnson

The Pennsylvania death certificates don't start until 1906, but they are unusually well indexed on Ancestry, by parents' and spouse's names as well as the deceased. If your targets lived long enough to die in Pennsylvania after 1905, you might get lucky.

A search tip for findagrave: If you use FaG you need to spell the name exactly as it is on the website. But you can also search it through familysearch and get a broader response. An example is the surname Healea. This is all you will get in FaG but going through familysearch will get Healea, Healy, Haley etc.

I had a similar issue with my paternal great grandfather: he appeared in the British 1861 Census as a 2 year old and then vanished until he appeared in Australia, getting married, in 1886. I couldn't find him in the missing 25 years, anywhere! There were other factors involved but the short story is that, after several years of 'shelving' him, I decided to run a random search of the 1871 Census - his first name was Josiah and I thought it was rather unusual so that became my search parameter. Bingo! I found him in a boarding school in the next county. His surname and birthplace had been transcribed incorrectly from the school's records: Mason had become Maton and his birthplace of Syston was just a jumble of letters and the result was unsearchable.

I have found US Genweb and Rootsweb to be very helpful. Chronicling is free and allows searches by state and name. Amazing, previously unknown facts have shown up. It takes a while to look through but might just pay off.
Genealogy libraries contain microfiche and films with records not yet available on the internet. Good luck.

The 1860 & 1870 census were filmed twice. Which census were you searching? Pages that were faded and hard to read with the first filming were not filmed for the second filming. Don’t know which filming you are looking at? The first filming, done in 1950, has both pages per frame; the second filming, done in 1967, has one page per frame.

I do a great deal of research in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. has a wealth of scanned newspapers for Indiana, Pennsylvania that cover many years, starting in the 1800s and on into the mid 1900s. I have found that by searching for a surname, I often find a death notice or obituary for a person that names his or her siblings. It is also a way to find marriages before the county was required to record them. Visits to parents from out of town relatives often give clues to the residence of all parties. Small town newspapers loved gossip!

Mary Lou Duncan

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