Thursday, October 3, 2013

Using Census Data to Find Grandma

We, the Sullivan descendants, have a family lore about Grandma and Grandpa’s life.  We have birth and death dates, a few notes written by Sullivan siblings, and Sulli Cuzzin stories to accompany photos posted on our family Facebook page.  But how do we know any of these second hand stories are true?  How do we know what Grandma and Grandpa’s lives were really like?  Collecting as much information as possible from as many sources as possible is the first step in documenting our family story.  The second is confirming the facts of the story.  That means finding the family in vital records, in newspaper clippings, on plat maps, in cemeteries and any other documented sources we can find.  This part is both fun and frustrating.

One very useful source is the US Census.  The census is taken every 10 years and has been since around 1800. Census documents are kept private for 70 years before being released publicly.  The most recently released census is 1940, too early for any of the Sulli Cuzzins to be recorded.  The 1950 census will be released in 2022.  I hope I live that long!
1900 Census for Andrew Bednorz Family, Buffalo Township, Cass County, ND

Sadly, there are only 6,000 records remaining of the 62,000,000 records gathered in the 1890 census.  The original records were damaged and some destroyed in a 1921 fire in the Commerce Building in Washington, DC.  The remainder were destroyed by act of Congress in the 1930s.  That 20 year gap can be hard to fill in.  However, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, there were State censuses taken in 1895 and 1905 which can help fill in the missing information.

Finding people in the Census is not always an easy task.  Census takers wrote the information by hand, sometimes in illegible handwriting, often misspelling names.  For that matter, people changed their names seemingly at will.  Grandpa Sullivan appears in census documents as William, Augustine, or Wm A.  Grandma was listed in various census documents as Marie, Mary, Marree, or Josephine.  Bednorz was spelled Bednor, Bednar, Bednarz….well, you get the picture.  Then there are the indexers – people who read the census to create an index of the names found, making the information searchable in a database.  Without an index, you would have to page through all the documents for a town to look for your ancestor’s name.  Not too hard in 1850, but the population was significantly larger in 1940.  Indexers make mistakes too.  For example, Marie was indexed as Mance in one census.  But with some idea of where families were at a given time, some creative searching, and a lot of patience, you can be rewarded with a snapshot of the family at a given moment in time.  

Nancy and I have been working at finding out about the early lives of Grandma and Grandpa - Marie Josephine Bednorz and William Augustine Sullivan.  Check out the next post for what we've found so far for Marie.

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