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Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 8/28/2002

Chasing Thomas Chaney in Post-1840 Census Records

This week we complete our series analyzing Thomas Chaney's federal census entries. We will compare Thomas Chaney's 1850 census entry with his earlier ones. The 1850 answered a few questions and raised additional ones.

Thomas in 1850
The census entry looks fairly straightforward.

Thomas Chaney aged 84, farmer, born Pennsylvania
Elizabeth Chaney, aged 70, born Pennsylvania
William Chaney, aged 31, born Pennsylvania
Melinda Chaney, aged 27, born Pennsylvania
Isaac Wigfield, aged 12, born Pennsylvania

The entry is from Southampton Township, Bedford County, Pennsylvania. Readers downloading digital images should always be certain to cite their source. Two excellent ways to do this with census records are to download the entire page or save the image with a filename that makes the original source clear. A digital copy of Thomas' census entry can be viewed here:

Who is Melinda?

We'll start with the second female listed in the household. No daughter is mentioned in the list of children in Thomas' biography. One would reasonably hypothesize that William and Melinda were husband and wife instead of brother and sister. Ten years later, the 1860 household of Lewis [?Hinston?] in Southampton Township, Bedford County, includes a William Cheney aged 41 and a Melinda Cheney aged 39. Thomas Chaney's death in 1856 eliminates his being enumerated in the 1860 census. William and Melinda's continued residence together hints at a marital relationship.

In the interest of space, we'll jump ahead to the 1880 census. Fortunately, William is a head of household making the relationships between William and Melinda clearer. The 1880 census for Southampton Township, Bedford, Pennsylvania, page 327D, lists William Chaney as a 61-year-old head of household with a 59-year-old wife Melinda. The age changes correspond perfectly with 1860.

Based upon the 1850, 1860, and 1880 census, Melinda was born between 1821 and 1823. She could easily have been married to William as early as 1840. The mysterious girl 8 (discussed in Part II and III of this series) from Thomas' 1840 household was born between 1825 and 1830. Could Melinda be girl 8? The age of girl 8 from 1840 would only have to be a few years off for girl 8 to potentially be Melinda Chaney, daughter-in-law of Thomas.

Thomas' Age in 1850?
From the 1810 to 1840 census records, it was determined that Thomas' was born between 1770 and 1775. His age of 84 in 1850 makes him born in 1766--not quite the same. All the consistencies in Thomas' age in the 1810 through the 1840 census are shot down if the age in 1850 is correct. Of course, Thomas' age in 1850 could easily have been off by several years. I'm fairly certain these entries for Thomas Chaney in Southampton Township from 1810 through 1850 are the same man. For now, I'm handling this discrepancy as either an error on the part of the census taker or the individual who provided the information.

Thomas' "Wife" Elizabeth?
The Elizabeth Chaney, aged 70, in Thomas' 1850 household is likely his wife in 1850. However, there is a slight discrepancy here when comparing the wife to earlier census entries for Thomas.

The oldest female (and hence his wife) in Thomas' household from 1810 through 1840 appears to have been born between 1765 and 1770. We've assumed for the time being that the 1810 through 1840 wife of Thomas is one person based on the consistencies in her ages. Based upon the range of birth years, the wife of Thomas Chaney should be aged between 80 and 85, if all data is provided consistently. Thomas' apparent wife in 1850 indicates she is seventy years old and born in Pennsylvania.

Thomas' age in 1850 is inconsistent with his earlier census ages and it would not be unreasonable for his wife's 1850 age to be inconsistent with her pre-1850 census ages as well.

However, it is always possible that the Elizabeth in 1850 is not the wife Thomas had in the 1810 and 1840 enumerations. This would explain the discrepancy in the ages. There is an additional fly in the ointment though.

Three of Thomas Chaney's children have been located in the 1880 census, two residing in Pennsylvania and one residing in Illinois. They all agree on the place of birth for their mother: Ireland. Does this mean that the Elizabeth in 1850 is not their mother? Not necessarily.

But Ireland is Not Pennsylvania
Of course, Ireland is not Pennsylvania. Thomas's likely wife, Elizabeth in 1850, indicates she was born in Pennsylvania. Three of Thomas' children in 1880 indicated their mother was born in Ireland. Elizabeth's place of birth in the 1850 census could be incorrect. The children could have confused where their mother was born versus where their mother's family was from (after all, 1880 is a good one hundred years after their mother's birth). If Elizabeth's parents were Irish immigrants her children might have incorrectly assumed their mother was born in Ireland as well. The consistency in the children's listing of Ireland as their mother's place of birth is interesting. The agreement on the location of birth for the mother is especially interesting as the child living in Illinois had likely not seen her Pennsylvania family since 1830.


What Next?
My searching should focus on locating more of Thomas' children in the 1880 census (and other census records as well). Of Thomas' ten children, I know where three of them were in 1880. I am not certain where the others were living or if they were even alive for the 1880 census. Further records on the children may assist in determining if the Elizabeth listed with Thomas in 1850 is the mother of none, some, or all of his children. Further research may indicate if girl 8 could have been a step-child of Thomas.

Additional records on William and Melinda may allow me to approximate a date of marriage for the couple. This would help me in determining how reasonable it would have been for William and Melinda to have been living with his father in 1840. Further research may indicate if girl 8 could have been Melinda.

Not Mutually Exclusive
The two situations, a second wife for Thomas and daughter-in-law Melinda living in the Chaney household in 1840 are not mutually exclusive. They both could have reasonably happened. Of course girl 8 can only be one person---and it is remotely possible that girl 8 could be a step-daughter and a daughter-in-law at the same time. While I don't think that this is the case here, it is a possibility.

You might not agree and that's fine. As I've mentioned before, the important thing here is tracking the sources used and writing down the line of reasoning and the conclusions that were reached. Conclusions without sources and logic are weak.

All of this in an attempt to figure out girl 8. Whew!


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 e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2002, All rights reserved--used by the author on his website with permission.


Thomas Chaney Census Record Analysis