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Census Research | Our Prairie Nest
Census Research

Censuses are the first records most people look at when getting started with family history, and with good reason. Censuses are widely available records that give us a snapshot of an individual, couple, or family every ten years or so. The types and frequency of censuses vary by country, state, and province. The most popular censuses are the U.S. Federal Censuses, followed by state, Canadian, and UK censuses, and veterans enumerations, just to name a few.

U.S. Federal Census

The United States takes a federal census, which means they account for every person in every town in every county in every state, every ten years. This practice of enumerating the population began in 1790 and has continued ever since.

The censuses currently available online at FamilySearch.com and other websites are 1790 through 1940. The 1950 census will be released to the public in April of 2022. Most genealogists start with the most recent census and work their way back through censuses to 1930, 1920, 1910, and so forth.

Not all U.S. federal censuses collected the same information. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect each decade:

1790-1840 Censuses

These census years offer the least personal information, but are still very useful in your research. From 1790 to 1840, the government collected the name of the head of household, who was usually male (though sometimes female), the number of people residing in the household, the age categories of those residents, and other bits of information, such as how many people were involved in agriculture.

Censuses are organized by state and town. Even if you can’t confirm between 1790 and 1840 whether or not William’s wife was Mary, and that they had four daughters by 1820, you can at least confirm that he lived in the town of Anywhere, USA and had five females in various age categories within the household. Who knows – you might find William and Mary thirty years later in…

1850-1870 Censuses

This is where many genealogists give a cheer, since the government expanded the census-taking to include the names of all people residing within a household, as well as their specific ages. You can also see a family’s street address starting here. This doesn’t necessarily mean the census records you will find are perfect – far from it! The censuses suffer from human error on three sides.

Sometimes the person giving the information was not accurate. This might have been because the person responding to the census taker’s questions was a child or distant relative or neighbor of the family, and did not know the precise ages of the members of the household. The census-taker might also have written a name down with a close, but incorrect spelling. Finally, if you are accessing a transcription rather than an image of a census, the transcriber might have misread or mistyped information. This is understandable, since the handwriting back then is very different from what most people are accustomed to now.

Still, these censuses are of huge help in documenting a family’s names, children, potential dates of birth, and residences!

1880 Census

If the censuses from 1850 through 1870 are a vast improvement over the previous decades, then 1880 is the year the census makes another leap forward in usefulness. As of this decade, census takers began asking for the birth places of the respondents’ parents.

Once again, this system is far from perfect. I have a great-great grandmother whose parents have been listed as being born in four different places over four different censuses (Maine, Massachusetts, Canada, and England and Scotland). Whatever the answer may be, I’ve learned I can’t rely on the census for it in this instance! As with the prior decades, take the information you find with a grain of salt. The person giving it might not be the one most knowledgeable about the family being enumerated at the time.

1890 Census

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Sorry, tiny researcher!

Sadly, the majority of the 1890 census schedules were lost in a fire at the National Archives. A few do exist and you can find them online at FamilySearch and other sites. However, those few remaining censuses are limited to small, specific areas.

1900-1940 Censuses

The census questions remained fairly consistent from 1900 onward. You will find various questions include age at first marriage, number of children a woman had, number of children still living, questions related to whether or not a person was a citizen or naturalized, and their work, just to name a few.

There are various other enumerations and special schedules too, including the 1890 Veterans Census, mortality schedules, and state censuses. The state of Massachusetts, for example, held a state census every 10 years. You can find the complete 1855 and 1865 Massachusetts State Censuses at FamilySearch. If these are available for the states where you are researching ancestors, these can be especially helpful for bridging the gap left by the 1890 census, as can local directories.

When most people join a subscription site for genealogy, censuses tend to be the major draw. However, you can find many federal and state census images free at FamilySearch.

UK & Canadian Censuses

Another set of censuses you can find both for free and pay are those from other countries, specifically Canada and the UK. These were also taken every decade and are available from 1841 through 1921. In addition to FamilySearch and pay sites, you can also find the Canadian censuses at the Library and Archives of Canada.

One last caveat about censuses: keep in mind not every family appeared every decade. I’ve researched families easily discovered in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 censuses, only to have them disappear in 1880. They were still alive, according to other available records, yet for some reason they were skipped or perhaps simply not at home during the 1880 enumeration. If you run into this problem, there are plenty of alternative resources out there to verify your ancestors’ existence at the time – vital records, land records, court and probate records, and much more. Censuses are one of many tools available to you in your genealogical endeavors!

Unexpected Southern Ancestors | Our Prairie Nest
Unexpected Southern Ancestors

As one works their way up my family tree, they will mostly find New England ancestors.  I grew up on the south shore of Massachusetts in Plymouth County, and so did the majority of my ancestors.  Though some of them were scattered throughout Massachusetts and other New England states, all lines converged in Plymouth County, where all 8 of my great-grandparents lived out their lives.

Many found their way to and from Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.  There were a few in New Hampshire. Some inevitably worked their way down from Nova Scotia into Maine and Massachusetts.  Even my recent Irish and Italian immigrant ancestors chose Plymouth County, Massachusetts for their home.

So you can imagine me as a 12-year-old first piecing together the family tree, under the assumption that everyone in my family had always resided in New England (or Italy, Ireland or Nova Scotia), then having those assumptions blown away when I discovered one line had not.

In my 20s, I was intrigued by my great-great grandmother, Georgianna Winsor.  She was born 6 February 1851 in Duxbury, Plymouth County, Massachusetts, daughter of William W. Winsor, who was one of the founders of Port Angeles, Washington. While what I dug up about William and his time in Washington was fascinating, but it still did not astound me as much as great-great grandma Georgianna’s ancestry through William’s mother, Martha Howett.

I never located a death certificate for William and have not found anything on him beyond 1866.  Therefore, I had no idea his mother was not from Massachusetts.  His birth record in Duxbury did not indicate as much.

It was more than 20 years ago when a generous Winsor cousin sent me a photocopy of pages 340 to 345 out of the History of the Town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, and a death certificate for Martha (Howett) Winsor that I realized my ancestry had an unexpected deviation from the mostly-New England history I knew so well.

Martha Howett, along with her sisters Charlotte, Elizabeth, and Lydia each married a Winsor from Duxbury, and came to live in Massachusetts.  The girls’ parents were Richard Howett and Lydia Sanderson of Tyrrell County, North Carolina.

Working my way back along the Howett and Sanderson families also brought me into Lower Norfolk County, Virginia, and Perquimans County, North Carolina – all very unexpected ancestral homes!

Often we think of New Englanders migrating out from the area, into New York state, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and beyond.  We see patterns of westward expansion from New England.  We don’t usually think about folks coming north to the area from the south!

Southern research is quite different than New England research. There aren’t vital records going back 300+ years. Most of what I’ve discovered has been through land and probate records. For example, I was able to learn that my southern ancestors owned slaves. Furthermore, those slaves were left in my 5th great-grandfather’s Will to his wife and children!

It’s been a learning experience, finding that I need to look at completely different set of records when researching my southern ancestors and reconciling myself to the fact that they were slave-owners (though the north was not perfect; for example, the slave trade thrived in Rhode Island well into the 1800s).

So if, like me, you discover your roots in some place unexpected, take a deep breath and get ready to learn. The records, culture, and so much more could change what you know about genealogical research and your family history.

My Ancestor the Lighthouse Keeper
My Ancestor, the Lighthouse Keeper

My great-great-great grandfather, William W. Winsor, has been a bit of a mystery.  He was the son of a Duxbury, Massachusetts inn-keeper, John Winsor (who shared grog with the likes of Daniel Webster and Henry Thoreau). William’s birth and marriage are documented in Duxbury, however he disappeared not longer after the 1860 census.

William Winsor is found in the 1860 census of Tatooch (Tatoosh) Island, Clallam County, Washington. The history that the Clallam County Historical Society and others have on William state that he, as well as Rufus Holmes, the first settler of Port Angeles (a name my fellow Twi-Hards will recognize) was a bachelor.  The kind and helpful research librarians could not find any information on William’s death, or anything beyond the histories I had located online already.

Rufus Holmes, William Winsor and Alexander Sampson, all of Duxbury, Massachusetts, were married with children.  So this was simply an error on the part of the people writing a history for Clallam County. Rufus Holmes left Duxbury to go to Port Angeles, purchased a schooner to begin shipping fresh halibut to San Francisco, and brought in his childhood friend, William W. Winsor, a first cousin to Rufus’s wife, Clara. The other Duxbury native they invited into their business venture was Captain Alexander Sampson. Captain Sampson kept a diary of his time in Port Angeles.

Most notably, William is mentioned in the diaries of James G. Swan, as well as his book Almost Out of the World: Scenes from Washington Territory on pages 23 – 29, 70, 74, 91, 100, 117, 118 and 121. He is further mentioned in Swan among the Indians: Life of James G. Swan, 1818-1900 by Lucile Sanders McDonald on pages 40, 87, 88, and 96.

The diaries of James Swan cover William Winsor quite a bit, as do court records in the area. By 1862, he was selling whiskey to the local Native Americans. He was prosecuted for it in Olympia sometime in September of 1862, and then he was seen in Victoria, British Columbia in November 1862.

He ran the Rough and Ready Saloon in Port Angeles, which was destroyed by the flooding in 1863.

In May 1864 he was in Victoria (British Columbia), and had refused to pay for a boat he had ordered from the Native Americans. In 1867, W. W. Winsor is mentioned in a court case for debt collection by Alonzo Davis against him in Jefferson County, Washington, which is next to Clallam County. This is the last record found of William at this point and it is not known what became of him after 1867.

This remains an ongoing research project for me and I hope someday to uncover what became of William Winsor.

Researching Plymouth County Ancestors | Our Prairie Nest
Researching Plymouth County, Massachusetts Families

When we think of researching our Mayflower ancestors, and their children and grandchildren, the first town that comes to mind is Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was, after all, the capital of the colony and the original 1620 settlement of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

However, our ancestors did not stay in one place once they settled here. They touched many towns, founding some and leaving a lasting impression on others. We’re going to look at those towns and the resources available in them, starting with Plymouth County.

You are probably quite familiar with the name Duxbury, especially if you are a descendant of Myles Standish. It was incorporated in 1637, and home to Mayflower passengers John Alden and William Brewster. You can visit the library at http://www.duxburyfreelibrary.org/ to learn more about their holdings.

Myles Standish purchased land from Massasoit and named it Duxburrow New Plantation. In 1656 it became the town of Bridgewater, my hometown. Bridgewater became home to many of the Pilgrims’ descendants, particularly those of Myles Standish and John Alden. This town has several resources, including many 17th and 18th century cemeteries, and the Bridgewater Public Library. Their historical room is open on Tuesday evenings and offers the following holdings: http://www.bridgewaterpubliclibrary.org/reference/historical-room/

Manomet is not a town, but a village within Plymouth where several Bartlett families, descendants of Richard Warren’s daughter, Mary, once lived. Here you will find the elusive White Horse Cemetery, which takes a little searching since it’s located behind houses in a modern neighborhood.

Marshfield was settled in 1632. Notable residents included Governor Edward Winslow and Peregrine White, the first English child born in New England. You can visit the Ventress Memorial Library to learn more about the town’s history: http://www.ventresslibrary.org/ventress/.

A town you won’t want to miss as is Middleborough, which was incorporated in 1669 as Middleberry. To this day, many Mayflower cousins still live in Middleborough and neighboring Lakeville. The Middleborough Public Library offers a wonderful Digital Library complete with indexes of the local newspaper, cemeteries, and vital records, just to name a few of their holdings. You can learn more at http://www.midlib.org/dlib/main.htm.

These are just a few of the prominent Plymouth County towns where you will find Mayflower descendants and resources.