Beginning genealogy: Those (not so) pesky neighbors!
By Jason Gavin, Special Collections Librarian
Originally published September 12, 2014
You’ve started your family genealogy, and zipped right through the first few generations using census records on Ancestry.com. Great! Then the inevitable happens – you hit a brick wall. Great-great-Grandma or Grandpa seems to simply disappear off the face of the Earth! Now what? It’s time to take a closer look at the census records you’ve already used, and look at those nosy neighbors.
It’s always worth bearing in mind that census records were compiled by a (sometimes very) fallible human being walking door to door, knocking, and asking “who lives here?”. If you stay aware of this fact, you won’t make the mistake of assuming that because a name is spelled a particular way, in must not be Grandpa Stephen, because he spelled his name with a “v”. If the census taker heard “Gavin”, he might have written “Gavin” on the census. If, on the other hand, he heard “Caffin”, that’s what he’ll write (I’ve seen it happen!). And if the name was even slightly exotic, be it French, German, Italian, Swedish, etc. – forget about it! I am often tempted to believe that to be hired as a Federal census taker prior to 1900, applicants had to pass a grueling exam, where only the most hard-of-hearing, sloppiest penmanship, and poorest spellers passed. I can’t prove this, but I have my suspicions.
The other reason it’s worth remembering this door-to-door-knocking fact, is that it means all of the families listed above and below the family you’re researching were next door neighbors. This can be tremendously helpful! For one reason, youthful betrothed tended to marry the guy or girl next door, or a couple of houses down, or the next street over. If you can find great grandpa while he was single in the census records, you can very often find great grandma’s family on the next page or sometimes even living next door.
Another reason this is useful is because families during certain periods tended to move in groups. The Johnsons moved from North Carolina to Kentucky to Tennessee with the Smith family, for example. And along the way, sons might marry daughters. You never know how little clues like this might help you break through your brick wall. As an example, I found a house full of my ancestors in the 1880 census, along with a very elderly lady by a different last name of Hollingsworth. Continuing my line yielded a few more results, but I eventually hit the familiar brick wall. This was solved eventually not by researching my family name, but by tracing the Hollingsworths, and looking at their neighbors. And sure enough, I found a family of Hollingsworths living next door to some Gavins in 1850, which filled in the gap I was looking for and allowed me to plow headlong into the next brick wall on the Gavin line.
Paying attention to occupations and nationalities of neighbors can also lend some context to the history and kind of location your ancestors were in as well. Was everybody a farmer? This might indicate a poor rural location. Is there evidence for industry? Do you see blacksmiths or railroad workers clustered in the neighborhood? Were the majority of the neighbors German or Irish, or did they speak languages other than English? This might give a clue as to your ancestor’s nationality. What was the average age of people in the community? An extreme lack of elderly individuals might indicate the area was fairly newly established, whereas a uniform lack of young men of certain age might indicate heavy recruitment for a war.
Like so much in genealogy, the smallest, most overlooked clues can lead to big breakthroughs with a little patience and diligence.