Digging deep

I have found over the years that most family historians are so intent on pushing back to the next generation that they often do not stop to see what their family tree is telling them about the generation they just identified. Additionally, with the advent of “type in a name” research, many family historians are content to find the record and move on to the next record, or the next suggested record, without ever stopping to ask why or how their ancestors ended up recorded in a particular document. After all, the records that genealogists use to trace the family connections were not created with genealogical research in mind. Family historians have found ways to pull family information out of vital records, military draft cards, census records, passenger ship lists, and more to aid them in tracing their family back through the generations.

Recently, NEHGS took its bi-annual tour to Washington, D.C., where, with my colleague David Allen Lambert, I assisted 20 attendees in finding resources at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Library, the National Archives (Archives I), and the Library of Congress. We took their research interest sheets (filled out ahead of the trip) and helped to guide them to the best resources of these three repositories. This is always an interesting trip for the NEHGS staff genealogists because of the variety of records participants want to access and the family stories the attendees are trying to document.

During the tour in Washington, I commented to a few of the attendees who had consultations with me that I was not a “surface girl.” As the week progressed they began to understand what I meant – I was suggesting they dig into migration patterns, turn their attention to books that detailed the changes in immigration (such as E.P Hutchinson’s Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1795–1960), or read up on subjects pertaining to bodies in transit (deceased persons who may have been transported to other towns or states for burial). Many times, I asked the questions “Why?” or “How?” Why did their ancestor move from New England to Minnesota? Why did they not believe that the information found in a record was accurate? How could they prove or disprove something?

During the tour in Washington, I commented to a few of the attendees who had consultations with me that I was not a “surface girl.”

While the attendees were getting their orientation to the DAR Library, I confess to poking around some of the nearby shelves of books. I love to see if there are books on topics of interest that I either don’t already know about or which have only recently been published. As many know, I adore digging into the immigration of those who came from the mid-1800s to the start of the quota years (the early 1920s), so I was thrilled to see that one of the shelves near me was all about immigration – and I discovered some books of interest. Once I locate such books, I search online booksellers to see if I can get my own copies, and such was the case this time.

One book that caught my eye was After Ellis Island: Newcomers and Natives in the 1910 Census, edited by Susan Cotts Watkins (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1994). I was able to find a used copy for a reasonable price and ordered it immediately – and waited rather impatiently for it to arrive at my doorstep upon my return from our trip.

The 1910 census revealed that 14.6 percent of the total population was foreign-born, which, when the book was published in 1997, was even higher than that of the 1990 census. Also, 1910 was the year of the Dillingham Commission Report, which published a statistical review of immigration 1820–1910 and a distribution of immigrants 1850–1900. The purpose of this report was to try and close the door on immigration. And since I have a PDF copy of the Dillingham Commission Report, I was curious to see if a look back at the 1910 census from the 1990s would reveal anything different.

While I have just begun to read Watkins’ book, one of the first things that caught my eye was mention of the “creation of a national random sample of the manuscript schedules of the [1910] census.” Referred to as the Public Use Sample (PUS), it took a sampling of households, 1 out of every 250 in the census. This was accomplished long before the digitization of the census records that makes them searchable on websites such as AmericanAncestors.org. Appendix A of the book – I never seem to be able to read a book in order – was “An Introduction to the Public Use Sample of the 1910 U.S. Census of Population,” which gave many interesting tidbits about the original enumeration, the data mined from the sample, and the way it was handled. The Appendix mentioned the census being copied onto 1,756 reels of microfilm, and detailed the method used to pull the samples and handle errors by the enumerators. And the final sentence of the appendix stated: “The 1910 Census Public Use Sample is available from the ICPSR at the University of Michigan.”

You guessed it. I wanted to find that sampling report and see what it looked like – what else it might contain that would lead me to better understand the rest of the book. I found it with a Google search of “1910 census public use sample.”

This took a couple of clicks to find exactly what I was looking for, but eventually I located the right web site (https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/ICPSR/studies/9166) and proceeded to download the daunting sounding “DS1 Wave 1 Rectangular File.” And in this I found an equally daunting titled PDF file “09166-0001-Codebook.” Yes, I expected the men in black suits and ear pieces to pile out of our elevator and whisk away my computer for such a file.

Among the early pages of this Codebook, I discovered a reproduction of the 1910 Enumerator Instructions that were printed and given to approximately 70,000 enumerators along with all the rules of recording, who to omit, and how to record information. These instructions could explain why your ancestor was listed from a country other than the one you expected based on what countries existed at the time, especially in the always changing eastern European countries.

Among other things, I discovered that enumerators in large cities were given two weeks to canvass and record their assigned district. Those in rural areas were afforded a month. I also learned that under the column asking about marital status, we should never see more than an M1 or an M2 — as the M2 was to identify those who were on their second or more marriages. Most of us probably never gave that M2 much thought, other than we expected to find a second marriage. Now I may go back and look at some of my ancestors and see if I need to look for other marriages.

Among other things, I discovered that enumerators in large cities were given two weeks to canvass and record their assigned district. Those in rural areas were afforded a month.

As I finished giving my lecture on naturalization records to the Washington, D.C. tour attendees in the middle of our week there, I suggested they put aside their families and simply play in the records for a little while. The nerd in me loves to make time to do this, and it is through this never-ending quest to dig deep that I find a better understanding of the records in which our ancestors are recorded, offering clues which may help direct me to the next steps in my research.

So, dig deep family historians. Don’t be satisfied with just the name on the document. Find out why the document exists … who knows what it may tell you about your ancestors and why (and how) they were recorded.

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Senior Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer. Before joining American Ancestors/NEHGS in 2006, she ran her own genealogical business for 18 years. She was a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of twelve books including the award-winning The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy, Finding your Famous and Infamous Ancestors and Digitizing Your Family History. She is the editor of the 6th edition of the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, available in our bookstore. When she isn’t researching and writing about family history, she spends her time writing about ice hockey, covering collegiate to NHL teams and a couple of international teams. Her work has allowed her the privilege of attending and covering the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

7 thoughts on “Digging deep

  1. Oooooh, resource scavenger hunts! Fun!

    Currently, I’m scouting out every book I can find on Scots-Irish migration patterns to the Blue Ridge mountain area in the 1700s, in preparation for a genealogy trip there. Amazing what’s out there! WorldCat and archive.org are two of my favorite places.

  2. Excellent advice! It took me 3 years to solve the mystery of my gg grandfather Amos Marshall.
    During my search, I had found a land record in Eaton county, Michigan.
    When I requested that land record, the wonderful clerk at the Eaton Rapids county clerks office pulled a few extra records for me! She went out of her way…on a trip to Charlotte….to get Seth F. Marshall’s WILL…which enabled me bust through the question of WHETE IN OHIO my gg grandfather Amos came from! Not only that, this angel told me that the land record had a notation about Cleveland, OH. She also sent me an 1859 newspaper article about land parcels with tax or something needing attention from the owners, which listed both Amos and Seth F. Marshall.
    I found a S. F. Marshall AND an Amos Marshall living several doors apart in Cleveland during the same year that the land record had been signed by them! Since only the initials S. F. were listed, I wondered if I could find another way to prove it was them. I found a tax record for Seth F. Marshall…and BOTH of them were listed as WATCHMAKERS!
    I find it interesting that they are both listed as “pedlar” sic* in the Buffalo city directory…and in the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser ONE TIME as JEWELER , both at 2 Green St.
    I have been looking for watchmaking articles…and for information about the peddlers.
    They traveled between Chardon and Cleveland, OH. ..Eaton Rapids, MI and Buffalo and Cattaraugus county in NY….until Seth died in 1856.
    This one family has taught me to look for any and every record I can find…and that I had better think outside the box when it comes to this group of wanderers!
    Amos and family eventually pulled up roots and moved to Kansas, then to Missouri. ..and my grandfather’s siblings ended up in Missouri, Illinois, Oregon, Washington state and California. ..while my grandfather was the only one who went to Kentucky!
    Happy Easter and happy hunting!

  3. I too love digging deep. I’m a trained historian, so it comes naturally to me. Lately, rather than adding branches and leaves, I’ve been concentrating on investigating the areas my ancestors lived and the historical events they experienced. Doing this has helped me bring more colour to the posts on my FH blog and, even better, given me a much deeper understanding of the lives they lived. I hope those on your tour took your advice and delved into the history and geography of their ancestors, rather than just focussing on adding names to their database.

  4. Thanks so much for this blog post, Rhonda. Creating their stories, enriched by context, makes them real and more relevant to our current lives. The more we read and learn and grow ourselves , the more connected we all become.

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