Saturday, April 18, 2009

Can't find your family in the census?

Leonis or Lewis? Some Quick Tips for Finding Your Ancestors in the Census

By Jana Lloyd 05 August 2007

In the 1900 census on Ancestry, my great-grandfather is listed as Leonis J. Lloyd. The problem? His name is Lewis John Lloyd.

Ancestry uses a thorough process to make sure its indexes are as accurate as possible; however, mistakes occasionally creep in.

Understanding why these mistakes are there and what to do about them can keep you from missing ancestors in your search.

There are two main reasons why mistakes enter the census indexes. The first has to do with census takers, or enumerators. The second has to do with census transcribers.

Think about it. If you were a census taker in 1880, your purpose was to gather statistics about the nation’s population and economy. You wouldn’t have known that your records would be used for family history years later.

Enumerators spelled names phonetically, used initials or abbreviations (“Jno.” for “John” is a common one), Americanized foreign names, or just plain misheard and incorrectly wrote names.

The second place where errors occur is not in the past—it’s in the present, with the transcribers.

Transcribers are hired to read the old census records and record the names for online indexes. Transcribers are trained on common handwriting conventions of the time. Their transcriptions are also tested for accuracy. But, sometimes mistakes still happen.

So what can you do to make sure you locate ancestors whose names might have been misspelled by an enumerator or misread by a transcriber? These searching tips can help:

  • Search using abbreviations, variations, foreign translations, phonetic spellings, and even nicknames—remember your ancestors may have given the enumerator a nickname rather than their full name.
  • Use initials. In some instances, enumerators only recorded initials—not full names.
  • Reverse the given name and surname. Sometimes enumerators mixed them up.
  • Eliminate a given name or surname and try narrowing the search by using other criteria, such as location and birth/death years.
  • Substitute letters that are commonly mistaken for other letters by transcribers, such as:
    S and L
    T, F, J, and I
    K and R
    P and R
    O and Q
    U and W

  • Conduct a wildcard search using an asterisk “*” or a question mark “?” The asterisk represents zero to six characters and the question mark represents one character.
    For example, a search for “Fran*” would return “Fran,” “Franny,” “Frank,” “Franky,” etc. A search for “Johns?n” would return “Johnsen,” “Johnson,” Johnsan,” etc.
    Note: You must include the first three letters of a name before any wildcard character.

  • Search for other members of the family (or even neighbors if you can figure out who they were from other census records).
  • Search only for a location and scan through the records for a town or county page by page. This can be time-consuming but worth it.

Was Abraham Lincoln a sawyer or a lawyer? The capital letters “L” and “S” often look alike in nineteenth century manuscripts.

Are you sure you learned how to spell Mississippi correctly? In the nineteenth century, the double "s" was often penned as something that looks like a lowercase “f” or “p” to us.

Let’s go back to my great-grandfather Lewis. In his case, the error in the index was not one person’s fault; the enumerator and the transcriber both made errors.

Look at the original census record; the enumerator recorded his name as “Louis.” Obviously, he didn’t bother asking about the spelling.

The enumerator’s handwriting was also difficult to read. Years later a transcriber saw the name “Louis” and read “Leonis.”

Look closely and you can see how a transcriber saw “Leonis” instead of “Louis.”

Fortunately, in spite of these errors I was still able to locate Lewis. I found him by searching for his father—John Lloyd—and entering the location where I knew his family was living—Canon City, Fremont County, Colorado.

If you find a name mis-transcribed in census records, help out future researchers by submitting a correction to Ancestry. These corrections are collected and periodically updated.

You can submit a correction by clicking the “Comments and Corrections” link that appears in the “Page Tools” box next to any record on Ancestry.

Ancestry will not correct what an enumerator wrote—only what a transcriber mis-recorded. So, Ancestry would index my great-grandfather’s entry under “Louis Lloyd,” but not “Lewis Lloyd.”

If a correction is accepted, it will appear as an alternate name in brackets under the original transcription. A comment icon will appear beside it with information about the error and who contributed the correction.

Jana Lloyd is editor of the Ancestry Monthly newsletter. She can be reached at but cannot assist with personal research questions.

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