25 June 2008

Using the Census to Find my Irish Chains

Using the Census to Find my Irish Chains --from Ancestry's Website--29 Sept 2006

by Michael John Neill

Families rarely migrate in complete isolation. The ties of family and
friends are not always obvious to the researcher several lifetimes
later. The difficulty with most families lies in finding those
connections that led to migration. This week we see how the databases
at Ancestry, along with some detective work and analysis, can allow
us to begin discerning those connections.

A Little Background

Brothers Samuel and Joseph Neill were both born in County Derry,
Ireland, in the 1830s. They immigrated to New Brunswick, Canada, in
1864--Joseph, with his wife Anne Bryce (Brice), and Samuel, as a
single man.

Samuel married Anne Murphy in St. John in 1865 shortly after his
arrival and the marriage record is the earliest documented existence
I have of Samuel's wife, Anne. All later extant records on Anne
Murphy Neill only indicate that she was an Irish native.

In the late 1860s, both Neill families left Canada and moved to West
Point, Hancock County, Illinois. West Point was not an urban area
where jobs were plentiful. It was hoped that a better understanding
of the family's migration might lead to information on the origins of
Anne Murphy Neill.

Census Review

I began with a careful review of the 1870 through 1910 census entries
for both Samuel and Joseph Neill. My intention in reviewing entries
was to:

  • determine if I had overlooked any clues in the enumerations,
  • determine a timeline for migration from Canada to the United
  • determine if there were neighbors who were also Irish immigrants
    (by reading at least three pages before and after the located

My review of the census entries indicated the Neills likely came to
Illinois around 1867. There were a few other Irish families living
nearby, but they did not settle in a neighborhood that was heavily
Irish. These other families will be researched to determine if their
Irish origins are geographically close to the Neills or if these
families spent time in New Brunswick before settling in Illinois.

Searching the Census Index in Other Ways

The census indexes at Ancestry offer additional
search options that should be explored. Instead of searching for
names, I could search for other natives of Ireland living in the same
area as the Neill family. I could perform searches for individuals
with a birthplace in Ireland born within five years of 1835 in an
attempt to locate other individuals roughly the same as Samuel and
Joseph. All census indexes at Ancestry for censuses 1850 and later
provide this option. A search of the 1910 census could also include a
year of immigration in an attempt to find other Irish immigrants who
immigrated in the same time frame as Joseph and Samuel. The database
interface affords me search possibilities that never existed several
years ago unless I read the census one page at a time.

A Warning

There is one potential pitfall to such searches. A search of the 1910
census for natives of Ireland living in Hancock County, Illinois, who
immigrated in the 1860s (performed by searching for an immigration
year of 1865 plus or minus five years) does not locate Samuel Neill
even though he is enumerated in the 1910 Hancock County census. The
reason is simple: the year of immigration on Samuel's entry is left

Using the Ancestry search page to locate immigrants from the same
country as your ancestor who came over around the same time as your
forebear is an excellent way to generate additional research leads.
However, one must do it with the following things in mind:

  • The year of immigration could be incorrect in the census entry,
    either for your ancestor or for the others who might have immigrated
    with him.
  • The year of immigration could be omitted completely for some
  • Places of birth could be completely incorrect or vary slightly
    from what you think is correct, Prussia or Hanover for Germany, etc.

Searches of databases are frequently made under the assumption that
our ancestors gave the correct answers, that those answers were
written legibly and that the reading was transcribed correctly. This
assumption only causes a problem when the researcher fails to
acknowledge it.

Before madly entering search terms, think about what you are trying
to locate and the best way to go about finding it. Then keep a record
of the different ways in which you have searched so that searches are
not repeated and new searches can be developed if necessary. In the
case of Samuel Neill, the best search was simply to look for other
Irish natives born in the same decade who were living in the same
county. This did not result in an unmanageable number of hits for any
census year. Samuel's residence near the county line also warranted
performing a search in the neighboring county. Geography must always
be kept in mind.

A Connection

Similar searches were conducted in the 1870 and 1880 census in the
county where Samuel lived. The number of entries in both cases was
small enough that all the names could be manually scanned. Particular
attention was paid to any names in townships that neighbored the
township where Samuel lived from ca. 1868 until 1912. There were a
handful of other Irish immigrants living relatively close to Samuel.
However, the entry for one Irish native stood out: William Brice.

The connection was easily made. Samuel's brother's wife was Anne
Brice. William Brice and family lived in the township due east of the
Neills, most likely within five or six miles. Of course, it might
easily have been coincidence that a William and Anne Brice were
somewhat near neighbors of someone with whom they shared a last name
and a country of birth. One could not immediately conclude they were
related to Joseph's wife Anne Brice Neill. However, the entry was
worth following in other census years.

Back to the Census

Searches easily located William and Anne Brice in the following
census records:

  • 1860 Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois
  • 1870 Chili Township, Hancock County, Illinois
  • 1880 Butler County, Kansas
  • 1900 Caldwell County, Missouri
How did I know it was them? I performed Soundex-based searches of the
Ancestry census database for a William Brice, born in Ireland within
five years of 1838. These were the only entries that were relatively
consistent with the family structure of William Brice in 1870 when he
was a neighbor to the Neill families. Further research on William
Brice needs to be conducted in order to determine if he is related to
Anne Brice Neill. If this William is related to Anne Brice Neill, it
looks like he was what brought the Neills to west-central Illinois.
(Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois, is relatively close to West
Point, where the Neills settled.) Unfortunately at this juncture,
direct connections to Anne Murphy Neill have not been discovered.

Things Worth Remembering

  • Census records can provide a tentative outline of a family that
    should be documented with additional records.

  • Searches of census records without using names, focusing on
    places of birth, ages, etc., may result in the location of unknown
    extended family members.

  • Tracking experimental search techniques is important so that the
    same searches are not conducted repeatedly.

In an upcoming article, we'll see how the migration trail and
extended family discovered thus far are only the beginning.

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