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A Genealogy Mystery: Answers lead to more Questions (Part 2)

Last week I introduced you to S. Ada Miller and her mysterious political card. This week I want to talk a little bit about the research process and how to start researching with few clues.


As I mentioned previously, the clues from this card include:

  • Ada’s name
  • The city Ames, Iowa (she may have lived here at the very least she has a connection to the city)
  • A possible son and daughter.

But in all reality, all I really know is her name. I also guesstimated, based on the children’s photos, that she was alive around 1910-1920.

The first record I chose to search was the U.S. Census. The reason why is probably obvious. The U.S. census is easily accessible, it covers the early 20th century, and it places a person in time and place. Finding her in the census might also verify her location, her occupation, and a possible husband and/or children.

The 1910 U.S. Federal Census

I decided that the 1910 census would be a good place to start. As I searched, I found a result for the 1910 US census for a S. Ada Miller living in Ames, Story, Iowa.[1] While she is not listed with an occupation (she has a border living with her so it seems that her occupation is probably tied to that) she does have two children living with her, a 7-year-old son named Lisle and a 5-year-old daughter named Ruth. This census also reveals that she is a 43-year-old widow who was born in Iowa to parents born in Indiana.

1910 census closeup

This appears to be the S. Ada Miller I’m looking for and she does have two children. Assuming those children’s photos on the card are her children, the children in the census appear to be younger than those shown on the card leading me to hypothesize, that she didn’t run for county recorder until closer to 1920. 

So we have her in 1910, the next step is to exhaust other census records. I’ll go ahead and take a look at the 1920 census.

The 1920 U.S. Federal Census

In 1920 Ada is in Ames, Story, Iowa and she appears on the census as Ada Miller (no S). She is living with one child, her daughter Ruth (age 14). No mention of her son Lisle, who technically would be about 17 and may have left home. Although Ada once again is shown as having no occupation, she does have four lodgers living with her so that indicates once again that she is earning a living through boarding people in her home.[2] However, that doesn’t preclude she could also be the county recorder.

Once again, she is not listed with an occupation. Perhaps she is a county recorder after the census is taken, between the years 1920 to 1930. I think it’s important to mention that it’s not unusual for a census to show women as having no occupation when they really do but maybe I still haven’t found the year she was a county recorder. Unfortunately, a search of the 1930 and 1940 census came up with no results for her.

Ok, so maybe we now need to look for a possible death. If I’m not finding her in the census, it could be that she has moved out of the country, changed her name or used a different name (we know she has an unknown first name that starts with an S), was mis-transcribed in the indexing process, or is dead. Let’s try to determine if she has died prior to 1930.

I went ahead and tried a search on the Historical Records collection at FamilySearch to see what I could find and sure enough, one of the records available for S. Ada Miller was her death certificate. The death certificate confirms that she died in 1923 (hence why she is not in the 1930 census). She died of “grippe” or the flu. And her occupation on her death certificate? County Recorder. So now I’m wondering if she was elected sometime between 1920 and 1923.[3]

Record-image_ (3)


Where’s Lisle?

There is much more to learn about Ada from this death certificate and it gives us more clues about her life including her husband and her parents’ names. One thing I noticed is that it’s not immediately clear if the informant on the death certificate is a family member. What I do know is that it’s not her son or her daughter. Which makes me wonder where they are.

Ada’s son Lisle is not in the 1920 census. So where is he? Some of the Legacy blog readers know the answer, because they did some research.

Lisle was dead by 1920.[4] At 16 years 5 months and 22 days he succumbed to an accidental gunshot wound to the neck. His mother was the informant for his death certificate.[5] I can only imagine the heartbreak this would have caused her to bury her high school-aged son. As you know, a few years later she would also be dead. Daughter Ruth would be the sole survivor of this family at the age of 17 years.

Lyle E Miller death via FamilySearch


Ada Miller, County Recorder

There’s much more we could do to fully research this family. We could trace her back in the census and find her marriage and birth. We could search for her daughter Ruth and find out what happened to her. But I’m going to stop there for now. I want to go back to one of my original questions. If you recall, I wanted to know if was Ada a county recorder. Her death certificate seems to verify that. However, I want to know more. What else can I learn about this part of her life, if anything? Let’s explore that next week.

Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s blog post. For those Legacy readers who are following along…what facts about Ada’s life did you uncover? What questions do you still have?


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.


[1] 1910 US census, Story County, Iowa, population schedule, Ward 3 Ames, Enumeration District 203, p. 1A, dwelling 109, family 12 S. Ada Miller; digital image by subscription, ( accessed 25 May 2021).

[2] "United States Census, 1920", database with images, FamilySearch ( : 1 February 2021), Ada Miller, 1920.

[3] "Iowa, County Death Records, 1880-1992," database, FamilySearch ( : 14 December 2020), S. Ada Miller, 23 Oct 1923; citing Death, Nevada, Story, Iowa, United States, page , offices of county clerk from various counties; FHL microfilm 1,403,710.

[4] "Iowa, Death Records, 1904-1951," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 18 October 2019), > image 1 of 1; State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

[5] The death certificate lists his name as Lyle not Lisle. However, his birth record (an index on FamilySearch) lists him as Lisle. This is a great example of being flexible about names.


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It occurs to me that this would be a fun weekly group research activity, except we could all submit our own female brickwall and then "crowdsource" the research process and results. It would be a great way to learn the research process and help each other out with our own personal brickwalls.

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