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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 4/4/2002


Finding My 1920 People, Part I

By the time this article appears in the Ancestry Daily News, the 1930 census will have been released to the public. Thousands of genealogists will have located various family members on the recently released microfilm and Ancestry.com will already have posted images from the census on their Web site. For many, the location of an ancestor in the 1930 census will not be easy; most states do not have a Soundex. Even when indexes do exist, there will be occasional irregularities arising from phonetic difficulties, handwriting issues, and human error. Those who cannot find their ancestor in an index will still need to manually view the census for the desired location. Failure to locate a relative in the index does not mean the person is not listed in the census.

This week, I'll discuss my attempts to locate some of my children's ancestors in the 1920 census. Even though it has been released for ten years, I still have a few families that I cannot find.

I will be honest. I had it easy with my own ancestors. They were all farmers in rural Illinois, most living on farms still owned by family members today. Finding three of my grandparents in the census was accomplished by simply viewing the census microfilm for the township where the family farm is currently located.

Locating one grandmother was somewhat more difficult, but not a significant problem. My paternal grandmother's family moved between several tenant farms in a four-township area that was split between two counties. While the family moved several times during my grandmother's youth, the moves were concentrated in a ten-mile radius and locating them in 1920 was relatively simple. Locating my wife's grandparents was not as easy.

My Wife's Grandmothers
My wife's grandmothers were both living in cities, one in Rock Island, Illinois, and one likely in Chicago. When I located my wife's grandmother in the 1920 Rock Island census, I did not have access to the 1920 Illinois Soundex and did not want to view the entire census for the city of Rock Island. I needed the residential address for my wife's grandmother's family in 1920. The Rock Island city directory for 1919 was used. The father, Henry Mortier, was quickly located in the directory. Armed with an address, my search of the census was significantly easier. Had I not located the family this way, I would have located a 1920 directory address and tried that as well.

Using a city map, I located the property on a map as close to 1919 as I could obtain in the library. Unfortunately, the map I had was not a map of enumeration districts. The enumeration districts for Rock Island in 1920 followed the boundaries of the city's wards and the ward was listed as part of the description on the top of each census page. I only had to page through a few enumeration districts before I located the family. Had I had access to maps of the enumeration districts, I could have used those to locate the family more easily. Note: Mapquest can be used to find the residential address when city maps are not available. However, one should determine if there have been street re-numberings between the time of the census and today (as Mapquest and other sites have modern maps).

Locating the other grandmother has been significantly more difficult. In fact, she still has not been located.

The grandmother, Anna, would have been approximately eight years old at the time of the census. No birth record for Anna has been found and her age in 1920 is not precisely known (census takers do make mistakes even when ages are known). Her mother and stepfather have been located in the Chicago area in 1920. Anna's three siblings are living with their mother and stepfather, but Anna is not.

Anna's likely natural father, William Apgar, has also not been located in the 1920 census. Family tradition indicates she did not live with him after her parents' 1921 divorce gave the mother sole custody.

Several searches for Anna were conducted both using the Illinois 1920 Soundex and the Illinois 1920 Census Index at Ancestry.com, using a variety of names variations. Searches were conducted using all three possible surnames of Anna:

  • Apgar-for her natural father
  • Verikios—for her stepfather
  • Demare/Desmarais—for her mother's maiden name

    All Apgar families listed in Chicago in 1920 were viewed in hopes of locating an Anna of the right age living in the household. All Verikios and Demar households in Chicago in 1920 were searched in a similar attempt. No reasonably close entries were located. The household of Louis Demar in Chicago, likely Anna's maternal grandfather, does not contain a child that could be Anna either. Family members told me, before I ever began searching the 1920 census, that for a time Anna stayed with a "neighbor family" when she was a young child. If this took place at the time of the 1920 census, she could easily have been listed with this family using their surname. If this is the case, I likely will not find her in the 1920 census unless I can somehow ascertain the name of the family with which she was living.

    My Wife's Grandfathers
    One grandfather was easily located listed with his parents in Illinois, living on a farm, which his father rented. While the last name was Johnson, the first name was known, as well as the county of residence and the father's age and place of birth. This simplified the process greatly when I used the Illinois Soundex. The family was living in the county I suspected, but not in the township I had originally searched.

    The other grandfather should be living in Missouri in 1920, but has not been located either using the Missouri 1920 Soundex or by manually searching the census images for those townships and villages in Missouri where the family is known to have lived for some time. Now I'm simply waiting for the indexes at Ancestry.com to be released for Missouri in hopes that I will locate Ola Lake (aged approximately 13) and his father Grandville in the 1920 census. If I can't locate the father-son combination using the indexes, I'll have to go back and make certain I have not overlooked any possible areas of residence for this family.

    Getting A Residence
    Those with urban families utilizing un-indexed census records must determine at least an approximate residence for the family being researched. There are several ways this can be done. The most often used approach involves the use of city directories. These sources were created every year (or almost every year) and allow for a fairly detailed tracking of residential addresses. Death notices, death certificates and other records may also provide a residential address as well.

    Those with rural ancestors generally do not have directories to aid them in their search. In rural counties and in less densely populated areas, enumeration districts often follow civil township lines. In sparsely populated areas, it is not difficult to search several townships in short order. Those searching for farm families in unindexed census records should determine if any county plat books (which show property owners and the acreages they own) are available for years close to the date of the census. These books may or may not contain an index. Those whose ancestors lived in small rural towns or were migrant or tenant farmers will not be able to use such finding aids. County or small town directories might have been published, but not with the regularity of metropolitan city directories. Some additional location techniques include:

  • Analyzing places of birth or children.
  • Analyzing burial places of family members.
  • Death locations of family members.
  • Analyzing every located document for a residential clue.

    For your rural ancestor, try and determine what town the family lived in or near and remember that in some really small villages there were no such things as street numbers or addresses as there are in more urban settings. Obtain a county map showing the location of towns and townships. This will then provide you with a framework within which to search the census records. Start with the closest township to the known or suspected residence and work your way out to the surrounding townships in a circle.

    My People in 1920
    I decided to "re-search" the 1920 census for all my children's ancestors using the 1920 census indexes at Ancestry.com instead of the Soundex or manual search techniques. Some of my searches were as simple as entering a name in the box and choosing the appropriate state. Some of my searches were not.

    Next week, I'll discuss the searches I had to use to locate various family members in the 1920 census. Finding them all was not as simple as entering a name in a search box!


    Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can visit his website at: http://www.rootdig.com/, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

    Copyright 2002, MyFamily.com.

  • Other Genealogy articles by Michael John Neill