25 June 2008

How Do I Know I Have the Right Family?

How Do I Know I Have the Right Family? --this originally appeared in the Ancestry World Journal on 15 Dec 2006

by Michael John Neill

When families migrate from one area to another, it can be hard to
determine if you have really located the same group of individuals.
The difficulty is compounded if the last name and first names are
relatively common. It's important to be certain that the "true"
family has been located and that one has not mixed up families with
similar names. Male cousins bearing the same first and last name are
particularly easy to confuse.

One quick way to track families in the post-1850 era is through
population census schedules. The listing of all household members
facilitates the matching process, and every-name indexes make the use
of these records much easier than before, especially when the
residence is not known. However, the first close match on the list of
results is not necessarily the correct family. All matches to the
search terms should be analyzed and eliminated based upon what is
known about the family. What appears to be the "right" entry must be
compared in light of other records to determine if there really is

On the other hand, searches of databases must not be overly strict,
as this can sometimes eliminate potential matches. I generally
perform a variety of searches for individuals I am seeking, including
some using Soundex and wildcard functionality. Sometimes it is easy
to determine if the correct person has been found (the person has an
unusual name, the person is living in the right location, names,
ages, and birthplaces of family members match up, etc.). Other times
it is not possible to make a definitive decision that the desired
person has been located. When families are eliminated, the researcher
should keep notes as to why these families were stricken from

Generally speaking, when searching online census databases it is
helpful to track the type of search that is being performed as it is
being performed. Key elements in this tracking are:

  • The first and last names that were put in the search box

  • Whether a Soundex option was used

  • Whether a search was performed with wildcards
  • What year of birth was used (and what range of years)
  • What birthplace was used

Reasons for tracking the search include:

  • It is impossible to effectively modify an unsuccessful search when
    one is not certain how one searched originally or how one searched
    last week.

  • Searching the same static database in the same way will typically
    produce the same results.

  • It is impossible to remember each combination of search techniques
    that was applied. The "correct" combination will always be
    overlooked. It's Murphy's Law applied to genealogy.

One quick and easy way to track your online searches is to make a
spreadsheet with column headings for the various search boxes for the
database being searched. This spreadsheet can be printed and written
on while searching or those who are adept at toggling between
computer windows can fill out their chart as they search. Personally,
I prefer to fill out my chart of searches before I search, making
certain no combination of terms was eliminated. Then I can use the
chart to make certain I have conducted all the desired searches.

The Brices

An earlier column mentioned the family of William and Anne Brice and
how they were tracked in census records from Illinois to Kansas to
Missouri between 1860 and 1900.
As an example, let's
look at how their entries were obtained and what leads me to believe
I have the same family in four separate locations over four census

Generally speaking, census enumerations on any family should not be
viewed in isolation. (Space considerations do not allow us to include
the complete analysis in this column.) Rather, other records should
be utilized in order to determine if the tentative family structure
and migration paths are supported by other documents. Wherever
possible, obtain maps of all relevant areas to assist in viewing the
family's overall migration path. Search for reasonable alternate
spellings before assuming the "actual" family has been located and
consider if there are alternate situations that could explain the
records that have been found. We should search to see what is found,
not search to prove an already determined conclusion.

1860 Census-Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois

William Brice, age 21, born Ireland, married within census year

Anne J., age 22, born Ireland, married within census year

The reference to the marriage within the year caused me to search the
Illinois State Marriage Index. An
index entry appears for William Brice and Ann Jane Belford indicating
an April of 1860 marriage. It seems very reasonable that this is the
same couple, especially since there were no other marriages in the
index for a William and Anne Brice (or any reasonable spelling

1870 Census-Chili Township, Hancock County, Illinois

William Brice, age 34, born Ireland

Ann, age 33, born Ireland

William, Jr., age 6, born Illinois

Mary A., age 4, born Illinois

Robert, age 1, born Illinois

Chili Township in Hancock County, Illinois, is close to Ursa Township
in Adams County. The ages of William and Ann are consistent with the
earlier enumeration. In both cases, William is a farmer (it is
important to note any extreme inconsistencies with occupation as
well). The ages of the Brice children are consistent with an 1860
marriage. The initial census search was conducted for a William Brice
(and Soundex variants) born in 1838 in Ireland, plus or minus five

1880 Census-Bruno, Butler County, Kansas

William Brice, age 45, born Ireland

Anne J., age 48, born Ireland

William, age 16, born Illinois

Mary, age 14, born Illinois

Robert, age 11, born Illinois

Sarah J., age 9, born Illinois

James, age 6, born Illinois

John, age 2, born Kansas

The family structure is consistent with the 1870 enumeration. The
ages of the parents are off slightly from earlier enumerations, but
not so far off as to warrant any special concern. The initial census
search was conducted for a William Brice (and Soundex variants) born
in 1838 in Ireland, plus or minus five years.

1900 Census-Grant Township, Caldwell County, Missouri

William Brice, age 62 (born March 1838), Ireland

Ann, age 62 (born March 1838), Ireland

Jno. H. M., age 20 (born Mar 1880), Kansas

An unexpected move of the family. However, this was the only "match"
using our previous search terms that came even close to our desired
family. Anna Brice's death certificate (obtained via the Missouri
State Archives website) indicates that she was born in Ireland on 28
March 1836, the daughter of Daniel and Mary Jackson Belford. This is
the same maiden name for the "known" Anne Brice, wife of William.
Further research needs to be done, but it appears I have the same

Wrapping It Up

  • Perform searches that are not overly narrow so that close matches
    (which maybe the right family) are not overlooked.

  • Constantly review information in light of already known
    information to be reasonably certain the same family has been

  • Track what you do, so search terms can be modified as necessary.

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