Ah, the census. The glorious census. It’s such an important document in genealogy, I would venture to say even a foundational document. But its flaws are many.
Those who rely on only the census to reconstruct their ancestral families do so at the risk of recreating a family inaccurately. Take for example the case of my ancestor Lydia.
Lydia Wilson married Daniel Waters 23 July 1879 in Somerset County, Maryland. The couple and their young son John appear there in 1880 (image above).
By 1900, Daniel presumably died. Lydia was enumerated with new husband Edward Cottman, and their daughter Mamie. Lydia’s sons Cranston, James and George, surnamed Waters, also appear. (they are mistakenly marked as boarders).
In 1910, Lydia and Edward were enumerated with James (marked as a stepson) and Mamie:
In 1920, daughter Mamie remained in the household with 67-year-old widowed Lydia:
All told in these four census records, we count four children.
However, the careful examiner of the 1900 and 1910 censuses will notice that Lydia birthed six children, six of whom are living.
Who are the other two children? Would you have noticed or missed that?
Well, lucky for us, Lydia left a will. In that will she names all six of her children: Mamie, George, [John] Cranston, James, Fannie and Allena. Of course, that record is not online.
Deed records for Lydia’s land also reveal the names of her children. For the most part, those records also are not online.
But which kids were fathered by which of Lydia’s husbands?
The 1900 census enumerates Lydia’s three sons with the surname “Waters” and her daughter Mamie as a “Cottman.” If we assume that those names are accurate, that still leaves us daughters Allena and Fannie to properly place in the family.
Lydia’s daughter Fannie Waters married Rev. Fred Gillis. The couple migrated to Smyrna, Delaware, as mentioned in Lydia’s will.
Is that marriage record online? No.
Lydia’s daughter Allena was trickier. Like her sister Fannie, she is never enumerated in the household with her mother Lydia. And the reference to Allena “Waters” in Lydia’s will could easily lead one to believe that she was the daughter of Lydia’s husband Daniel Waters.
But she wasn’t.
Allena married Emory Graham Waters. The couple appears in the county censuses through 1940. They married in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1903.
Thus, Allena’s married name was Waters. Allena’s maiden name was actually…..Wilson.
Recall that Wilson was Lydia’s surname prior to her marriage to Daniel Waters. But….did Lydia have her out of wedlock? Certainly not impossible, but let’s take a closer look.
Original Record Provides Important Clue
I often emphasize the need to examine original records. We should never be satisfied with the indexed records we find online and in books. Always strive to retrieve the original record and examine it for yourself.
By examining the original marriage record for Lydia and Daniel, I noticed Lydia Wilson was marked as a widow. That’s an important clue that implies two things.
Lydia had been married before her marriage to Daniel Waters. And, Wilson was not Lydia’s maiden name.
Original records in Somerset County recorded no previous marriage for Lydia. So I researched all of her children. I retrieved the records of their marriages, deaths, land purchases, etc.
And finally, only in daughter Allena’s Delaware death certificate did I find what couldn’t be found anywhere else. Her mother’s first husband was named Alfred Wilson. I finally discovered their marriage in Baltimore City.
This previous marriage is hard to discern because Allena, an only child, was not living with her mother in 1880.
I found Allena living in Philadelphia in 1900, working as a servant. Perhaps this is why she married there:
This example illustrates the folly of depending on census records to tell you the complete story of a family.
The census must be used in conjunction with other records. And those other records are mostly not online.
You’ve got to to obtain copies of records from archives and vital record repositories. That involves writing away and paying for copies. Better yet, go in person if the place is local.
The census records alone for Lydia’s family would have us believe Lydia had two husbands and four children.
But reasoning through the evidence helped us to properly orient Lydia’s family, and uncover her first marriage.
By the way, Lydia’s maiden name was….. Bowser. I eventually found her marriage record in Baltimore.
And of course, that wasn’t online. 😉
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
This is such great advice. Having worked in libraries/museums for years, I try to spread the word about the great hidden iceberg of info that is not yet digitized but still available if only you llook/ask. This is a perfect case study for that point!
Thank you for your comment. Computers have made people forget about the wonders awaiting them in our brick-and-mortar repositories, and I also hope this post reminds everyone of that fact;)
Great website!! Looking for info on the Peakers and Hynsons in Big Woods and Galena Md. Lewin Peaker is my great-grandfather.