Diving into Census Records

This week my Digital History classmates and I started putting in some serious time on Heritage Quest to get our PEAK project research going. Along with some class time used to search for couples, we’ve each put in time outside of class to try to get this initial phase of our project done. This week, I’d estimate I spent at least 5 hours outside of class on Heritage Quest (besides what I’m planning to do this weekend). I’ve spent most of that time looking through the 1920 census, and I’ve learned some strategies and tricks to speed up the process. However, there’s still some sticking points and unique issues that I run into that keep the process from becoming tedious and too easy. Let me share some of what I’ve seen with you!

First, the triumphs. I’ve found it’s usually easiest to focus on finding the husband first, if only because his name stays the same his entire life. I first search his name in 1920. Once I think I have a good match for name and county, I look for that same person in 1930 to see if his spouse’s name matches what we have recorded on our Clay County marriage licenses. Usually there will be a good match that’s pretty easy to find. Then I go back to 1920 and look for the wife. If the birth dates, names, and counties of residence are consistent with what is expected from the 1930 data, I’ve got a match! This is the ideal scenario for finding our people on Heritage Quest. However, more often than not there will be some complicating factor that makes the process a bit more difficult.

There’s been a variety of complications I have run into as I search. Probably the most common issue is being unable to find a good match in the 1920 census. Oftentimes, I can find the couple I need in the 1930 census, but one or both partners seem to be nonexistent in the 1920 census. Sometimes this is an easy issue to understand; if an immigration year is 1920, it’s probable that they were not recorded in the 1920 census. However, sometimes the issue is more puzzling. Perhaps the person’s residence was missed in the 1920 census or the census taker really butchered the spelling of their name. These factors can make it nearly impossible to find the person I’m looking for. When I’m faced with this kind of roadblock, it’s helpful to think of possible misspellings and look for plausible people with those names. Whatever the issue I’m running into, it’s best to keep in mind why I’m having that issue. Was the person even in America in 1920? Is it possible their name was misspelled? Did they use their middle name or a nickname instead of their first name? Thinking through possible reasons helps me adjust my search strategy.

I want to leave off with perhaps my greatest triumph in searching thus far. I spent a lot of time looking for a man named Clarence B Bernhardson in the 1920 census. He has a fairly unique name, so I thought it would be easy to find him. However, my initial search didn’t turn up anybody with a name even remotely similar to Clarence with the last name Bernhardson in Clay County. His last name is really distinct, so I removed “Clarence” from the search to see if his name was just misspelled in the census. Again, no good results. However, a result for somebody named Clara Bernhardson caught my eye. Clara was listed as the head of the household with a gender of male. Hmm, that was suspicious. Clara is not typically a male name. When I examined the actual census document, I saw the problem. The census taker had written “Bernhardson” too largely and had to squish the first name into the box; “Clarence” became very cramped to the point that it looked a lot like “Clara.” I’d found my person! It took multiple searches and some logical thinking, but I was able to find a good match. It’s those kinds of searches and triumphs that make our PEAK research, and genealogy research in general, so exciting.

Clarence Bernhardson in the 1920 census (highlighted in yellow)

If you have any questions about how our research is going or have tips to help us out, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear any strategies you’ve come up with.

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