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Archive for the ‘Census Records’ Category

Continuing the Family History through the Alphabet series…C is for Census! Federal Census Records are one of the first tools that U.S. researchers turn to when beginning their family history research. It was my first stop when I began my research 23 years ago – back then, the most recent available census at the time was the 1910! I think the census records are even more valuable today.

While census records don’t give you exact dates or vital statistics about your family members, they do provide vital CLUES to assist in further research. The census teaches us:

  • family relationships – including occasional maiden names if in-laws are living with the family
  • approximate ages
  • addresses
  • occupations
  • for immigrants, the approximate immigration year and if naturalized or not

How accurate is the information? Well, in my family that all depends on several factors, including who provided the info, how well the informant understood English, and how close to the “event” they were at the time (for example, the immigration year is more likely to be correct five years later than 25 years later).

I’ve found a lot of family members in quite a few federal censuses, so I’ve created some rules – of course, they may only apply to my family, who tend to shy away from being “found” by future generations. But perhaps I’m not alone, so I present Donna’s Census Rules:

1. Women get younger every decade. Or so it seems…

2. Rule #1 is applied more vigorously in instances where the wife is older than the husband. Although the wife was older in one set of my grandparents, two sets of greats, and my 2nd great-grandparents, she is always either the same age as the husband or younger so as to prevent the raised eyebrows of the neighbors.

3. Just because adult children are listed with their parents doesn’t actually mean they live there, it just means the parents misunderstood the question. Keep looking, because you’ll probably find them listed elsewhere on their own. My family has inflated the official population number for decades with this rule!

4. The spelling of immigrant surnames are irrelevant for the first 25-30 or so years after immigration, then enumerators finally get it right. Overall, the 1940 census has been the most accurate with both names and ages for all of my ancestors.

5. Don’t be surprised to find extra, unknown siblings listed. Or existing, known siblings not listed. I may never know why. Or why not.

So there you have it….researching census records can be a wild, fun ride. You never know what you’ll find, but one thing’s for sure – there’s always a “happy dance” involved when you find your ancestor! Maybe someday I’ll get to explore census records for other countries, too!

[Written for the weekly Family History through the Alphabet Challenge]

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“One hour, okay?”  He looked at me skeptically. “Then you have to come back to me. We have places to go!”

“One hour – got it!” Wow, even time travel has restrictions. I turned on the machine and within a minute I was back in 1940 and walking the streets of Philadelphia. I didn’t have much time, but fortunately I had a good idea of where to go. I was a bit nauseated at first, but my focus became clearer and I could see where I was – Thompson Street. I needed to turn down Venango Street to get to Mercer Street, my first destination.

The weather in Philadelphia on April 4, 1940 was warmer than the previous day – nearly 63 degrees and dry. People were going about their daily business and the streets were not deserted – people were out walking. Cars were few. I could hear faint sounds of Big Band music coming from a house fortunate enough to own a radio. The music was great, but I also love the fashions of the 1940’s – there’s a guy in a suit and a fedora walking down the street. I look great dressed up in a skirt, blouse, and pumps – and only in 1940 could I get away with wearing a hat!

I quickly found Mercer Street. I knew the real census enumerator had been there the day before; I was just an interloper. I hoped my plan would work to avoid any suspicion as to who I really was. I tried to look official and get to know the neighbors on my way to almost the center of the block – 3553 Mercer Street. As I passed by #3505, a young girl came out carrying an even younger girl.  Were they sisters? I heard the older say, “Come on, Peanut, I’ll get you home.”  Oh my, I thought, that’s Rita Mroz and – no way!  Rita lived with her 3 sisters, 2 brothers, and Polish-born parents, but the little “Peanut” she was carrying was definitely not her sister. In fact, she was heading right towards my destination!  I watched while Rita safely delivered the young girl back home.

There it is!  3553 Mercer Street.  A 7-year-old girl sat on the front step, looking quite unhappy that her younger sister arrived back home.

Wow, this is too much! If I could only tell Aunt Joan about this, she would laugh so hard!  “Hi!” I said, “I love your curly hair.”

“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” replied the girl. And with that, she ran inside.

I knocked, and a handsome man came to the door. I was momentarily stunned, but I quickly recovered. “I work for the Government,” I stammered. Well, at least that’s not a lie. I explained that although the census enumerator had been there the day before, I was a supervisor performing a spot-check to ensure that the responses were recorded properly.

“Sure,” said the man, “come on in.”

As I sat down, I tried to look around without looking like I was casing the house for a future robbery. I could smell something wonderful – Oh my God, it’s Nan’s chicken soup! I silently wondered how I could ingratiate myself to the point of being invited for dinner. I heard a female voice call out from the kitchen, “Henush, who is it? Whoever it is, we don’t want any.” I thought, Hi, Nan! If she only knew…

The Pater Family, circa 1937

Her husband yelled an explanation back and I saw her take a peek from the kitchen. She looked so young! And pretty!

“Now, let’s see,” I said. I acted professionally and began asking all of the enumerator’s questions. “Name?”

“Henry Pater.” Boy, I thought, Mom was right about those grey eyes! He’s so much more handsome than any photo I ever saw.

“Age?”

“Twenty-eight.” Wow, kudos for telling the truth, Grandpop. Once we got to the same question for his wife, Mae, I heard her yell, “Twenty-seven!”  He looked over his shoulder and whispered, “I told the enumerator yesterday 31, but she’s really 32. Just don’t tell I told you!”

I learned about 7-year-old Joan and 4-year-old Anita, the “peanut” I saw earlier. Upon hearing her name, she appeared and hid behind her father’s leg. “This is Anita,” he said, “but I like to call her Chick!”  Anita giggled.

Finally, Henry told me his father-in-law, Joseph Zawodny, also lived there. Henry told me that Joseph was married. I didn’t need to ask where his wife was – I knew she was in a mental hospital. I would visit her on another trip back to the past. Where are you, I thought.  As if he heard me, I saw an older man peer out of the kitchen and ask Henry something in Polish. If only I could answer back or get the chance to talk to him! There is so much I want to know, and I’d like to know him so much.

I knew my time was running out.  Reluctantly, I thanked the Pater family and took my leave, waving bye to little Anita on my way out. I’m off to see your future husband now.

How do I get from the Port Richmond neighborhood to Northern Liberties fast? Sometimes future technology has its advantages, and I found my way more quickly than I thought possible.  Suddenly I was walking along Germantown Avenue. I couldn’t go up and down every street with my limited time – when I saw the meat packing plant on the corner of 3rd and Thompson, I knew I was in the right place. The census-taker wouldn’t walk these streets for two more days, but fortunately my destination was right on the corner so I didn’t have to fake my way through several houses.

Right on the corner at 1300 Germantown Avenue, I spotted a young boy sitting on the front step. I was stunned and forgot where I was. “Nick?” I asked.

The Pointkouski Family, circa 1938-9

The curly-haired boy looked up at me and smiled. “No, I’m Jimmy and I’m 5. I’ll be 6 this summer,” he said proudly, blue eyes sparkling.

“Oh,” I said, “it’s nice to meet you, Jimmy! I have a nephew named Nick – he’s 4 going on 5 this summer and he sure looks a lot like you!”

Suddenly a woman came to the door and she didn’t look happy that I was talking to her son. After I explained about the census, she invited me in and once again I tried to look around the home’s interior. This house rented for $5 more than my last stop, and I wanted to see if it was worth the extra money.  I also couldn’t stop looking at the woman, Margaret Pointkouski.  As I took down the information she provided, I questioned the spelling. “That’s with a U, not a W?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “that’s right.”

Margaret looked so – what was the word? Young! She was 28 years old – well, that’s what she told me, but I knew her 28th birthday would actually be the following week!  Just then the door opened and a young man entered. “Well, hello!” he said as he tipped his hat and leaned over to kiss Margaret.

Just as with Henry, the 29-year-old James looked so much more handsome than any photos I had ever seen. I couldn’t help but smile back.  When he heard who I was, or at least who I was pretending to be, he commented that he didn’t know there were “lady census takers”.

At that, Margaret rolled her eyes, “Oh, Pop!”

I said, “They thought some people might answer more questions from a woman.”

“Sure,” the elder Jimmy said, “I’ll tell you anything!”  He added, “I hope you get all of your info recorded.”

“Oh, I will,” I assured him. Just maybe not today.

The Pointkouski household was small with only the couple and their young son, Jimmy. I was bursting to tell Margaret that she would get pregnant late the following year and have a daughter, but I knew it wasn’t my place to speak of such things.

I asked my questions – not the ones I wanted to ask; I could not ask those questions. Like where are your siblings living right now? I hadn’t visited them yet. Oh, there were so many questions I could not ask. But I asked the “official” questions and I was very happy to hear the answers. All I kept thinking was: this is so cool!

I said my good-byes to 1940 and powered down the machine. Suddenly my boyfriend appeared, “Time’s up – let’s go out to eat. Did you find everyone you were looking for?”

“Not everyone, but it’s a start.  They’ll all still be there when I go back.”

###

[Written for the 117th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: 1940!]

I actually wrote this the night before the carnival topic was announced. I’ve told a few stories on this blog, but I never presented factual information in such a fictional way.  Technically, I’d call this creative non-fiction. To me, talking about finding a genealogical record (on my “machine”, aka my laptop) can sound a little boring, at least to non-genealogists. But how could a science fiction lover like myself resist seeing that search for the record as time travel! The idea took hold and would not let go.  Face it – bringing up those images, walking through the neighborhoods, reading all about the families – it is the closest thing we can get to time travel!

The Census facts came from the actual 1940 Census (source citations upon request, I used Ancestry to access). I saw the path the enumerator took and learned about the neighborhood layout from a combination of current maps and a 1942 map of Philadelphia courtesy of the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. What was the weather like on those April days in 1940? Well, I learned about temperature and precipitation totals from The Franklin Institute! I knew about fashion from the movies and my parents. I have an idea what the characters looked like from photographs. As for the personalities of the individuals – everything I know, I learned from my parents. Of my grandparents, I knew my maternal grandmother the best.  Second would be my paternal grandmother, with my paternal grandfather third.  Least of all, I knew, or rather didn’t really know, my maternal grandfather – he died when I was five years old and I only met him a few times. I’m glad I could get to know them all in the 1940 Census!

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In only 35 days genealogy geeks everywhere will rejoice in the release of the 1940 Census. It will be the first Federal Census in which my parents make an appearance. When I came up with 12 Genealogy Goals for 2012, goal #3 was to “Find all my relatives in the 1940 census.”  But just how many relatives is that? Until I started gathering notes, I didn’t realize just how much my great-grandparents’ families grew from the time of their immigration between 1900 and 1909 to 1940.  Here is a chart that outlines the, er, relative growth of the families:

The additions in the great-grandparent generation or above were immigrations, and decreases were due to deaths. The additions for the grandparents and below were births. I’m counting my paternal grandmother in the above counts because she was alive, but I’ve yet to actually find her on any census ever. And I’m not double counting the several relatives that were counted more than once in prior censuses!  The spouse category includes all spouses of any generation that are not directly related to me. So, it appears I only have to find 108 relatives. 

The good news is, this is roughly about 32 households.  Of those 32 households, 27 live in the city of Philadelphia which had a 1940 population of “only” 1.93 million.  It appears I have my work cut out for me! 

What am I doing to prepare for the research? Well, other than mapping out the list of individuals that should be alive, I’m trying to determine their 1940 addresses.  Mostly I’m relying on the 1930 addresses, but in some cases I’m using other available documents like death or marriage records if the events took place closer to 1940. I even have my grandfather’s driver’s license from 1940, so I am confident I can find my father at that address with his parents.

After compiling a list of the possible addresses and/or what the 1930 ED (enumeration district) was if I’m using that address, I then head to Steve Morse’s Unified 1940 Census ED Finder. Unfortunately, for a city as large as Philadelphia the result usually yields two or more possible ED numbers based on either the 1930 ED or an actual street address.  To narrow it down even further, I am literally mapping out the address and relying on Steve’s links to the descriptions or maps of the EDs.

While this whole exercise would bore most of my non-genealogy friends to tears, the research has been fun.  Well, not as much fun as converting surnames to Soundex codes back in the day and scrolling through microfilm, but fun. While an index will certainly make research easier, I’m still confident that the ease of using free digitized images will make finding all 108 relatives relatively easy.  And I’m sure I’ll find some surprises once I find these families!

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Genealogists are eagerly awaiting the release of the 1940 U.S. Federal Census in April 2012 so we can track down the information on all of our relatives. While Ancestry will have the images available for free, they will probably not be indexed for some time. For me, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing…my family’s track record for being recorded and indexed correctly is 5 out of 19 attempts from 1900 through 1930. Of the 14 entries that have incorrect spellings, 8 could be found via Soundex. That left 6 families that had to be found using other search methods. These 19 only include the surnames of my four grandparents – if I added in siblings of great-grandparents and grandparents with different surnames, the error count would be even higher. Here’s a look at how my family’s names fared in census indexing so far:

The Bergmeister Family

I have a lot of entries for the Bergmeister’s. First, he’s my only great-grandparent to be enumerated on the 1900 Census having just arrived to the U.S. in time. While neither he nor his wife are still alive for the 1930 Census, their two adult sons and one daughter have their own households by then. Also, my great-grandfather had a brother who is enumerated in 1910, and his widow takes over as head of the household for 1920 and 1930. Of the nine households total, only 3 were correct: Joseph Bergmeister in 1900 and 1910, and his son Joseph Bergmeister in 1930. Fortunately, no matter how creatively the name was spelled, it managed to show up in the Soundex most of the time.

Year Person Spelling Soundex
1910 Ignatz Berzminster N
1920 Joseph Burgmaster Y
1920 Theresa Birgmister Y
1930 Theresa Burgmeister Y
1930 Max Bergmuset Y
1930 Marie Bergmeistor Y

The Pater Family

I’m always amazed that a name like “Pater” could be misspelled so often. I mean, Pointkouski I can see, but Pater? There are only four instances of my Pater family in the census: Joseph Pater in 1910, 1920, and 1930 and his son Louis with his own household in 1930. At least they got it right half of the time!

Year Spelling Soundex
1910 Potter Y
1930 Rater N

The Zawodny Family

My great-grandfather Joseph Zawodny is in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 Census as well. However, you’ll only find him using a Soundex search in 1930 due to the rather creative spellings of his name.

Year Spelling Soundex
1910 Savonia N
1920 Cawodny N
1930 Zavodny Y

The Piontkowski Family

The Piontkowski’s were also in the U.S. for the 1910 through 1930 Census. I can’t tell you how long it took me to find them in 1910 – you’ll see why by the spelling shown below.

Year Spelling Soundex
1910 Kilkuskie N
1920 Pontdowke N
1930 Peontkowski Y

By 1940, only 3 of my great-grandparents are deceased. Both sets of grandparents are married, and it will be my parents’ first appearance on a federal census record! And many of the siblings of my grandparents and their cousins will have households of their own. No index? No problem! I’m already gathering the information that will help me find them in the 1940 Census: addresses! By using sources such as social security applications, draft registration cards, death certificates, city directories, and the 1930 address I should be able to get a fairly accurate idea of the various residences in 1940. I also intend to use Steve Morse’s site to determine the enumeration district (ED) where I need to begin my search. See his page on finding the ED based on 1930 addresses, or take the quiz! I can’t wait to see how all of my family names are misspelled in 1940!

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Have you ever looked at a genealogical record and seen what you expected to see rather than what was actually there? Recently I started organizing data in anticipation of the 2012 release of the 1940 Census, and that includes reviewing addresses and enumeration districts from the 1930 Census.  This is how I realized that for nearly the last ten years I’ve misread one of my family’s entries.

By 1930, my grandmother’s parents were deceased.  My grandmother, Margaret Bergmeister, was only 17 years old and the youngest in the family.  Her siblings included a sister, Marie, and three brothers: Joseph, Max, and Julius. When it came to researching my families, the Bergmeister’s were the easiest. My father remembered a lot of information about his aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Unlike some other branches of my family, the Bergmeister’s didn’t try to hide from the census-takers or make up information. But after reviewing the 1930 entry, I’m left with another mystery on my hands.

Julius, Margaret, Max, Joseph, Marie - October 10, 1959

I’ve already indicated that my grandmother is nowhere to be found in either the 1920 or 1930 Census. The reasonable theory is that she was living with her aunt or visiting at the time of the Census and was simply left out of the family’s lineup (this includes by her own father in 1920). In 1930 she may have been living with the aunt or her sister, but neither household included her. Her oldest brother, Joseph, was 27 and married with two children in 1930. Also listed with his household were his two brothers. When I first found the entry, and in all the years since, it was a “given” to me that they were Max and Julius.  The names that were enumerated, however, were Julius and Gustav.  Since there are many errors on the census, I never thought much about this mix-up in names.  Until now, that is…

As I reviewed the 1930 entry, I realized that Julius is listed with the correct age, followed by “Gustav” who was a year younger.  But Max was older than Julius, so how could that be him?  Then I realized that Max’s daughter, my dad’s cousin, was born in 1930 so Max was likely already married and living on his own.  After a new search, I found 25-year-old Max (indexed under the surname Bergmuset) living with his wife, Sophia.

When did Joe get a brother named Gus?

Back to Joseph and his brothers…  Um, Gustav who?  He is listed as 21 years old, one year younger than Julius.  There’s just one problem…the Bergmeister’s didn’t have a brother named Gustav.  Or did they?  Census paranoia has now set in…could there be another brother that probably died in his 20s and therefore wasn’t know by his nieces and nephews or talked about by his brothers and sisters?

I went off on a wild goose chase to see if there may have been another brother. I’ve encountered plenty of mis-information in census records before, but I always blamed the fact that my ancestors were immigrants and likely spoke in heavily accented English.  But in this case, Joseph and his brothers were all born in Philadelphia – understanding the language would not have been a problem.

After consideration, I’ve determined that the entry for Gustav is likely a mysterious mistake and not a previously unknown sibling. First, there is no oral history of this brother – I’ve met many of my second cousins, and the family stories all have the same information. My father and several of his cousins who are older than my father have no recollection of another brother. There is no sibling named Gustav listed with the family on either the 1910 or 1920 census (but then again, my grandmother, born 1913, is fully absent from both the 1920 and 1930). If there had been a brother who died before my father and his older cousins were old enough to have known and/or remember him, that brother would have likely been buried with his parents.  That grave, purchased in 1919 upon the death of the mother of the family, had room for six, but there is no Gustav buried with them.

Finally, the most compelling reason that I doubt the existence of this brother is that there were two other children born in between Julius and Margaret that would make the birth year of 1909 (based on being 21 in 1930) impossible.  The Bergmeister’s had two premature infants who died on the same day they were born: Charles in July 1909 and Laura in November 1911.  Julius was born in June, 1907, so it is conceivable (pun intended) that another child could have been born in 1908 – but not in 1909.  But in the 1910 census, mother Marie is listed as having borne 5 children, 4 of whom are living – this would include baby Charles’ death and the births of Marie, Joseph, Max, and Julius, but no Gustav.

So young Gustav remains a mystery.  I even considered that perhaps his is the brother of Joseph’s wife, Helen Pardus.  After a quick search of Helen’s family in the earlier census records, I found many siblings – but no Gustav or any brother for the approximate year.  Joseph Bergmeister has a cousin named Charles Bergmeister who was born in 1909, but he is enumerated with his mother in Elizabeth, NJ and there is no indication that either branch of the two families were ever in touch after the deaths of their fathers, the brothers Joseph and Ignatz Nicholas Bergmeister (Joseph died in 1927 and Ignatz in 1919).

I chalk Gustav up as yet another census error. Although my grandmother is missing, I’ve found others counted twice and now a phantom brother.  I’m confident that there is no brother Gus…but as a skeptical genealogist, the parish church were the Bergmeister family was baptized will be getting a call this week!

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Imagine yourself as an immigrant to America in the early 20th century.  You are happy with your decision to leave your homeland for a new life in America. Perhaps after a few years you saved enough money to send for your wife and children to join you. You have found a job, and you have found a house to live in. Perhaps you don’t yet understand the English language perfectly yet, but you are slowly learning. You may not get much practice with English though, because  your neighbors and co-workers speak your native language. One day someone knocks on your door – they are from the government, and they ask all sorts of official questions. “Who lives here?” “What are the names of your family members?” The questions were dutifully answered.

Fast forward eighty or one hundred years. Descendents of those immigrants pour over online or microfilmed images in search of answers about their ancestors. Families are found! But…is the information correct? Most of the time, it is correct. But not always, at least not in my family. Ignoring the numerous name spelling errors, the most unusual census mistakes in my family involve relatives that were counted twice!

All My Children

The first example of this was in the 1910 census for the family of Joseph and Antonina Pater (which is listed as “Potter”, or how Pater sounds in Polish).  In 1910, most of the family was living just outside of Philadelphia in the Bucks County borough of Attleboro (today known as Langhorne). Because Antonina’s mother had recently arrived and she was the oldest family member, she is listed as the head of the household (F. Annie Pluta indexed as F. Amie Theta…seriously, it’s a wonder I find anyone in the census!).  The 70-year-old F. Annie is followed by Joseph and Antonina and their six children (although there is some confusion as some are listed as grandchildren of the head of the household and others as children). The only problem? The two eldest daughters, Frances and Eva (listed as Francesca and Edna), were already married with children and living elsewhere.

Frances’ husband Paul and their son Edmund may be enumerated as a separate family underneath the Pater clan (listed under equally mangled and hard-to-read names). Eva, her husband Edward Süsser, and their children Edward and Anna are all enumerated on the census in Dover, Morris County, New Jersey (as the “Züsser” family).  In this case, only Eva is counted twice since I did not find another listing for Frances.  I believe that the married children who were not actually living with their parents were listed simply due to a language mis-understanding when the census taker asked for the names of their children.  By 1920, the Pater parents only list those children still living with them (Walter and Victoria).

By Any Other Name

A more curious case of double-counting happened in the 1930 census.  My Piontkowski ancestors, John and Rose, had been living in the United States for 25 years, so I would have assumed they had a better understanding of both the English language and what the census-taker wanted after having participated in two other federal censuses. The couple leaves out their daughter, who by this time had married and left the family, but counts their teenaged son, James, as well as their married son Joseph, his wife Catherine, and their daughter, Josephine. The entire family lives on N. Front Street in Philadelphia.

I knew that Joseph Piontkowski later used the surname Perk, but I never thought to look for Joseph Perk on the census.  Why should I? I had already found him living with his parents.  Only he really wasn’t living with his parents in 1930! I recently got in touch with my cousin, Joseph’s daughter, who had been researching her family.  When she wrote that she found the Perk family listed in the 1930 census, I did a double-take.  Sure enough, they are living on Hancock Street in Philadelphia about a mile away from his parents.  Listed are Joseph Perk, wife Katherine, daughter Josephine, and daughter Jean – who, based on the age of 0/12, had just been born!  Anyone without knowledge of the name change would certainly think that these were two different families, but they are the same.

I wonder how inflated the census numbers are/were due to difficulties with immigrants understanding the questions? Oh well, Eva Süsser, Joseph, Katherine, and Josephine Perk may all have been counted twice in one census or another – but at least that makes up for my grandmother Margaret Bergmeister not having been counted at all in both the 1920 and 1930 census!

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This month’s COG (for which I am late…the dog ate my homework, Teacher Jasia!) asked us to Research From Scratch by starting a search on someone else’s family tree.   When I began my own family research about 21 years ago, there were not any records available on the internet.  Lately I’ve wondered how much I could have found if I had waited until today to begin my search and how much easier it would have been.  This challenge was an opportunity to find out. The subject of my experiment: actor-singer-dancer-director Gene Kelly.  As most visitors to this site have since surmised, Gene Kelly is what I call my “other gene hobby.”  Gene was well known for his smiling “Irish eyes”, but I was curious about his Canadian and German ancestry as well.  Starting from scratch, how much could I find in a few hours?  In that short amount of time, I learned a lot about his ancestry.  But I also learned some research lessons that I’d like to share.

Start by interviewing your family, but don’t believe everything they say as fact.

When I began my own research, I started by asking my parents questions about their parents and grandparents, and I also referred to an interview with my grandmother when I was in grade school and needed to complete a family history project.  That same advice holds true today – you need basic facts about a family to begin your research.  In the case of my subject, I couldn’t actually talk to Mr. Kelly.  So instead I turned to the only biography that was written during his lifetime in which the author interviewed Kelly himself.

The book is Gene Kelly by Clive Hirschhorn (Chicago : H. Regnery, 1975).  While it is not entirely accurate – especially since it begins with the incorrect birth date of its subject – it was a way to get basic information about his brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents – as close as I can get to acquring the info from Gene himself.

From the first chapter of the biography, I learned enough basic facts to begin my research on the Kelly family:

  • Gene’s parents were James Patrick Joseph Kelly and Harriet Curran.  They married in 1906.
  • Both came from large families; James was one of eleven children, and Harriet one of 13.
  • Harriet’s father, Billy Curran, “had emigrated to New York from Londonderry in 1845…via Dunfermline in Scotland.”  Billy met “Miss Eckhart”, of German descent, married and moved to Houtzdale, PA.  They later moved to Pittsburgh.
  • Billy died before 1907 from pneumonia after he was left in the cold at night after being robbed.
  • There were 9 Curran children, and 4 who died, but only 7 are named: Frank, Edward, Harry, John, Lillian, Harriet, and Gus.
  • James Kelly was born in Peterborough Canada in 1875
  • James died in 1966, and Harriet died in 1972.  Of Harriet, Mr. Hirschhorn says, “No one quite knows whether she was 85, 87, or 89.”

In addition to Gene’s parents’ info were the basics about their children.  In birth order, the Kelly family included Harriet, James, Eugene Curran, Louise, and Frederic.  Gene was born on August 23, 1912.  This is plenty of information to begin a search.  But, don’t believe everything you read or everything your family members tell you – sometimes the “facts” can be wrong, and only research will find the truth!

Census records are a great place to begin your research.

Back in 1989, my research began at the National Archives with the U.S. Federal Census records.  Of course, back then the first available census was from 1910, and none of the records were digitized.  Today, I still think census records are the best place to start researching a family.   I used Ancestry.com and began with the 1930 census.  Despite many “James Kelly” families in Pittsburgh, PA, it was relatively easy to find the entire Kelly clan.  As I continued backward with earlier census records and Harriet Kelly’s Curran family, I found some similarities to issues I had in my own family research:

  • Names can be misspelled.  I expected this with Zawodny and Piontkowski, but not with Curran!  The Curran family is listed as “Curn” on the 1900 census.
  • Ages are not necessarily correct.  It seems that Harriet Curran Kelly has a similar condition to many of my female ancestors – she ages less than ten years every decade and grows younger!
  • Information can differ from census to census, and these conflicts can only be resolved by using other record resources.  Despite birth year variations for both Gene’s mother and father, James Kelly’s immigration year differed on each census as did Harriet’s father’s birthplace (Pennsylvania, Ireland, or Scotland?).
  • Finding in-laws is a bonus, and a great way to discover maiden names.  If I didn’t already know that Harriet’s maiden name was Curran (from Gene’s biography – and it is also Gene’s middle name), I would have discovered it on the 1930 census since her brother Frank Curran was living with the Kelly family.  Also, I knew Harriet’s mother’s maiden name was “Eckhart” from the biography, and the 1880 census of the Curran family lists her brother and sisters – James, Jennie, and Josephine Eckerd.

In the few hours of research on census records alone, I was able to trace Gene’s father only to 1910 after his marriage to Harriet.  In 1900 he was single, and I was unable to find a recent Canadian immigrant named James Kelly.  Gene’s maternal line ran dry with the Curran’s in 1880.  William Curran and Mary Elizabeth “Eckhart” married after 1870.  There are too many William Curran’s from Ireland to determine the correct one, and I was unable to locate the Eckhart family prior to 1880.

Naturalization records provide the best information – after 1906.

The signature of Gene Kelly’s father from his “declaration of intention” petition in 1913.

Ancestry.com also provided James Kelly’s naturalization record.  In addition to confirming his birth in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 1875 (also found in Ancestry’s World War 1 Draft records), the petition lists his immigration information and the birthdates of the first 4 Kelly children (youngest son Fred was not born at the time of his father’s naturalization).  Unfortunately the record does not list the birthplace of Harriet other than as Pennsylvania.  Was it in Houtzdale, PA, where her parents resided in 1880 or elsewhere?

Although Ancestry has Canadian census records, I was unable to definitely find James Kelly in Ontario on the 1881 or 1891 census.

The internet helps you find a lot of information, but not everything is online.

Census records can only get you so far before you need vital records.  While many states also have these records online, Gene Kelly’s ancestors settled in the same state as mine, Pennsylvania, which is not one of the “friendlier” states when it comes to accessing vital records.  If I were to continue with the Kelly research, vital records would have to be obtained offline.  It would be useful to obtain the marriage record for William Curran and Mary Elizabeth Eckhart, which may have occurred in Clearfield County since that was their residence in 1880.  Finding this record would reveal both sets of parents’ names and possibly birth information for William and Mary Elizabeth.  For the Kelly side of the family, I would likely attempt to obtain James Kelly’s birth record in Peterborough.

 [Side note: I have met several of Kelly’s relatives.  One cousin has delved deeper into the Peterborough roots of the Kelly family as well as James Kelly’s maternal line, the Barry family.  There is an interesting newspaper article on a house that may have belonged to the Canadian Kelly’s called One Little House Leads to Many Connections.]

Conclusion

I was able to confirm many of the intial facts I started with, but I didn’t learn any essential information in addition to those facts.  Specifically, I hoped to learn more about Gene’s maternal grandmother’s German roots, but I was unable to find out anything more about the Eckhart – Eckerd family using Ancestry.com alone.  More offline research is learn more about this branch of the family.  I did learn more about Gene’s aunts and uncles – this is important because researching collateral lines can lead to important information about shared direct ancestors.  Finally, I learned that it is much easier to start from scratch now than it was 21 years ago.  Even though the record sources I used were the same, digitization and the internet has made it much faster to find information!  And easier, which is great because it will hopefully prompt more people to start from scratch!  What are you waiting for?  Start researching your family!

[Submitted (late) for the 97th Carnival of Genealogy: Research from Scratch]

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In 1944’s movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland’s character is in love with the boy next door.  She sings about him in the appropriately titled “The Boy Next Door”, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane:

The moment I saw him smile,
I knew he was just my style,
My only regret is we’ve never met,
Though I dream of him all the while.

But he doesn’t know I exist,
No matter how I may persist,
So it’s clear to see there’s no hope for me,
Though I live at 5135 Kensington Avenue
And he lives at 5133.

How can I ignore
The boy next door?
I love him more than I can say.
Doesn’t try to please me, doesn’t even tease me,
And he never sees me glance his way.

And though I’m heart-sore
The boy next door affection for me won’t display,
I just adore him, so I can’t ignore him,
The boy next door.

I just adore him, so I can’t ignore him,
The boy next door.

Fred and Dottie Kelly with their daughter Colleen.

The song is one of several Martin-Blane hits from the movie.  But did you know that it was based on a true story of a girl who fell in love with the boy next door?  Fortunately in her case, the boy did glance her way and married her or else they would have never inspired Martin and Blane to write the song!  The boy next door was Fred Kelly from Pittsburgh, PA.  Fred had an older brother that you may have heard of by the name of Eugene – otherwise known to the world as Gene Kelly who sang and danced to through the most beloved movie musicals of the 1940s and 50s.  Fred’s girl next door was Dorothy (Dottie) Greenwalt.

Fred and Dottie really did grow up on Kensington Street in Pittsburgh, but their actual addresses didn’t fit the music as well as 5133 and 5135.  Based on the 1930 census, 13-year-old Frederick Kelly lived at 7514 Kensington Street, and 8-year-old Dorothy Greenwalt lived at 7530.  It wasn’t exactly “next door”, but it was close enough for the youngsters to meet and fall in love.

Kelly household at 7514 Kensington St. in the 1930 Federal Census for Pittsburgh, PA.

Greenwalt household at 7530 Kensington St on the same page.

Fred and Dottie married during Broadway rehearsals for the Irving Berlin show “This is the Army” in which Fred was performing.  Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane were also involved with the production, and they asked the newlyweds how they met.  Dottie replied, “I just adored the boy next door.”  Then the couple showed the writers their driver’s licenses to prove it!  Martin and Blane wrote “The Boy Next Door” with Fred and Dottie in mind.  The song went on to be a huge hit and was recorded by many other artists besides Judy Garland.

In my own family, I also discovered an instance of a girl marrying the boy next door – my grandparents.  In the 1930 census, we see 18-year-old Henry Pater living at 2506 Indiana Avenue in Philadelphia, and 22-year old May (Mae) Zawodny living at 2512.  While it is true that the couple lived at those addresses, the “facts” as shown on the census are a bit confusing.  First, both Henry and Mae were already married but are shown as living with their parents.  That they were living in separate addresses despite their marriage is likely true, because at the time of the marriage on 01 Feb 1930, Henry was only 17 years old.  The couple didn’t quite tell their parents right away, and it wasn’t until they were married in a church ceremony in June that they were able to live together.

The Zawodny and Pater households in the 1930 Federal Census for Philadelphia, PA.

Mae and Henry Pater with daughter Anita (1937).

In the Pater household, Henry is listed as single.  But the enumeration record for the Zawodny household is not correct at all.  The father, Joseph, is listed as a widow.  However, his actual living wife, Laura, is listed as a sister.  Mae is shown as married for two months, which is true, but she is listed as a “daughter-in-law” to Joseph, not as his daughter.  Also, her presumed husband is listed as Charles, who was in fact her brother and still single at 19 years old.  If only I could see film or video of the visit of the census-taker to their household…I am sure my grandmother was behind the mis-information!

While Henry and Mae didn’t have a song written about them like Fred and Dottie, they are yet another tale of a girl falling in love with “the boy next door” – or on the same street, anyway.  Have you looked closely at the census records in your family?  Did anyone fall in love with the boy (or girl) next door?

Source Information:

  • Kelly-Greenwalt Census Image:  1930 U.S. Federal Census, Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll  1977; Page: 27B; Enumeration District: 229.
  • Pater-Zawodny Census Image:  1930 U.S. Federal Census, Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll  2110; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 914.
  • Photo of Fred, Dottie and Colleen Kelly used with permission from Colleen Kelly Beaman.   Please see her web site, Dance Kelly Style, for more information on Fred Kelly and the Kelly family’s legacy of dance.
  • For more even more information on Fred Kelly, see his biography on my Gene Kelly site.  To see a photo of his childhood home on Kensington Street, see the biography on Marc Baron’s site.
  • For more information on the Pater and Zawodny families, continue to read this blog or click on the surnames in the side bar!

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This week Randy’s Saturday Night Genealogy Fun asked us to do a scavenger hunt to find a family member in the census.  All of my great-grandparents were immigrants, and I’ve found them on the census records long ago to initially start my research (so many years ago that, at the time, the last available census was the 1910).  All eight were here for the 1910 and thereafter, and only one, Joseph Bergmeister, was in the US in time for the 1900 Census. Many of their census records were extremely hard to find because the surnames were misspelled or mis-indexed.  But I eventually managed to find them as well as their siblings.  Five of my great-grandparents had siblings immigrate as well – I’ve found all 15 siblings so far!  But there is one strange census-related mystery that continues to bother me…my grandmother is simply not there!

Margaret Bergmeister was born in 1913, so she would be seven years old in 1920 and living with her three older brothers, older sister, and her widowed father – the mother died in 1919.  Although the family name is misspelled as “Burgmaster”, the family is relatively easy to find since both names are in the same soundex code.  The entire family is living at 1016 Orkney Street in Philadelphia – minus Margaret.1

There is no way to know for sure why she is missing, but my theory is that she was visiting her aunt and uncle on the day of the enumeration.  Max and Hilarie Thumann are living at 6078 Kingsessing Street in Philadelphia (indexed on Ancestry as Mat and Halmie)2.  With them are Hilarie’s half-brother Julius Goetz and his wife Anna.  But no Margaret!

It is possible that Margaret was visiting her aunts and uncles on the day of the enumeration and her father did not tell the enumerator about her because she was literally not home on 07 January 1920.  On 08 January, another enumerator arrived at the Thumann’s door, but it is possible they did not mention Margaret because she did not live there.  Other possibilities such as adoption are out of the question since Margaret’s birth was verified – not to mention the fact that she looks just like her brothers and sister!

I figured Margaret would be much easier to find in 1930 as a 17-year-old.  Wrong again.  By 1930 her father is now also deceased.  Margaret’s oldest brother, also named Joseph, is 27 years old and married with a son and daughter of his own.  They are living at 311 Wildey Street in Philadelphia3 (and on this census page, the enumerator thoughtfully printed each surname in very neat block letters).  Living with Joseph are his two single brothers, aged 22 and 21.

It was assumed that Margaret, still a minor, was living with her oldest sister, Marie.  Marie was living in the rear apartment at 1302 Germantown Avenue4.  She was unmarried with two young daughters, aged 9 and 5.  But no sister Margaret to be found.

Was Margaret with her aunt in 1930?  The Thumann’s, now 72 and 60 years old, were living at the same house5.  Although they have a boarder living with them, their niece is not there. Nor is she listed with her Uncle Julius Goetz, who was living on 1112 Sauger Street.

So where was my 17-year-old grandmother?  It wasn’t imperative to find her in the census – I know her birth date and her parents’ names.  But, where is she?  It’s still a mystery!   For all the genealogical help the census has given me, the simple question of where my grandmother was at ages 7 and 17 is still a mystery!

Source Citations:

1Source Citation: Year: 1920;Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 16, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll  T625_1618; Page: 8A; Enumeration District: 346; Image: 511.

2Source Citation: Year: 1920;Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 40, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll  T625_1641; Page: 4A; Enumeration District: 1495; Image: 917.

3Source Citation: Year: 1930; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll  2099; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 543; Image: 619.0.

4Source Citation: Year: 1930; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll  2099; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 552; Image: 911.0.

5Source Citation: Year: 1930; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll  2130; Page: 13A; Enumeration District: 223; Image: 111.0.

6Source Citation: Year: 1930; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll  2106; Page: 25B; Enumeration District: 874; Image: 753.0.


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While researching the 1910 Census on Ancestry.com, I came across an unusual error.  Since others may find similar issues with their research, I thought I’d share my way to “get around” the error.  My search was for some families in Philadelphia, PA with the surnames Miller and Mach.  When I click on the census image for the correct individual, they are nowhere to be found on the page itself.  That is when I noticed the Enumeration District numbers.  At the top of the page, it says “You are here” with the location of the record.  In this case, the end reads “Philadelphia > Philadelphia Ward 19 > District 328.”  However, the image located on that page shows an ED of 294.  By clicking on the hyperlink for Ward 19 in the “you are here” address, you can see the list of all EDs in the ward, or ED 291 through 332.  Guessing that perhaps the sequencing of the images got messed up, I went to District 294 instead.  Sure enough, what is supposed to be ED 294 is ED 328 instead.  I also found some of ED 328 in 295.  I alerted Ancestry about the problem months ago, but it still is not fixed.

Moral of the story for users of Ancestry.com:  For Philadelphia researchers – take note if you have relatives living in Ward 19 in 1910!  For all researchers –  if the ED on the image does not match the ED on the index, try the batch of images from the incorrect ED.  If you are lucky they will be from the ED you are looking for!  I would be curious to know if anyone else has encountered this indexing problem where the index itself is correct, but the images are loaded incorrectly.

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In Part 1 of “The Slesinski Sisters” I presented some photographs passed on to me by my grandmother that showed her mother and aunts: Laura, Josephine, Mary, Jane, and Sophie Slesinski, from “somewhere” in Poland.  The remaining photograph that I inherited from my grandmother is shown below.  All I had to begin my research were their (maiden) names – would I be able to find anything with such little information?

The Slesinski Sisters

The Slesinski Sisters

I had already researched my great-grandmother; her Polish name was Wacława, but in America she used Laura.  She came to the U.S. in 1903 following her husband, Józef Zawodny, who arrived a year earlier.  While the couple was easy to find in passenger list records, the key to Wacława’s birthplace would later come through researching her sisters.

I could not locate any of the Slesinski sisters in the census records, so I had to assume that they were married either at the time of arrival into the U.S. or at least at the time of their first census.  If they were married before they arrived here, I had no idea how to find their married names.  So I began with the assumption that they were single when they arrived – or at least some of them!

With luck, I found 3 of the 4 sisters on the same passenger arrival record: the SS Adriatic sailing from Southampton to New York, arriving on 15 October 1920. On the record, their surname was spelled Sleszynska and the first names fit with the information I had from the photographs.  Sailing together were Janina, age 19, Zofia, age 17, and Marianna, age 23.  They were all listed as dressmakers from Dobrosołowo.  Their destination was to their “brother-in-law Mr. Sioracki” at 600 Hazel Street in McKeesport, PA.

Research Tip: Be flexible with first names.  This can apply to either foreign translations like Zofia=Sophie, “adopted” names that are not translations like Wacława=Laura, or “like” variations of a name like Maria=Marianna=Mary.

Also, don’t discount similar spellings of the last name.  “Sleszynska” was similar enough to “Slesinska” to warrant a look at the record.  If the first names and ages offer a good match (and in this case, the destination), it may be the correct record.

This information meant that their sister Josephine was already married and living in McKeesport by 1920 – now I had a name to search on the 1920 census.  I wouldn’t find anything under “Sioracki” though, nor under the Soundex search, so the name was not spelled correctly.  However, I did find her using the address instead: Vincent and Josephine “Shieraski” at 600 Hazel Street.  Vincent is 33 and immigrated in 1904, while Josephine is 29 and immigrated in 1911.  One sister’s married name down, three to go!

Research Tip: Can’t find a name in an index or soundex?  It may be spelled or indexed wrong.  An alternate is to look up by address, which can be found in a variety of sources including city directories, marriage licenses, passenger lists, or personal records like photographs or family papers.

Because the three younger sisters arrived too late for the 1920 census enumeration and were not listed on the 1930, it was easy to assume that all three were married sometime during the 1920’s. The next step in the research was a search of Allegheny county marriage records through the mail.  Amazingly, all three marriage licenses were found!

  • On 14 October 1922, Maria Slesinska married Adolph Majewski
  • On 17 January 1924, Sophia Slesinska married Joseph Goreski
  • On 22 June 1925, Janina Slesinski married John Smilovicz

Research Tip: Some Polish surnames have masculine and feminine endings.  A daughter or a wife of a man with a name ending in -ski would use a -ska ending to the name.  However, this is not set in stone – especially once the couple or the woman immigrated to the U.S.  For purposes of searching records, search for both variations of the name.

Armed with the sisters’ married names, I searched the 1930 census in McKeesport.  The Majewski family lived at 804 Park Way: Adolph, age 38, Mary, age 28, and son Bolesław, age 6 (born in PA). Adolph works in a steel mill and is a WWI veteran.  This solved the mystery of who “Mr. Adolph Majewski” was on the photograph (see Part 1).  Because of his marriage to Maria/Mary, it also confirmed that the labeling on the photograph of the sisters was likely correct since Mary matches the woman standing with Adolph as “one of the family”.

Two of the sisters lived at 1202 5th Avenue.  The first family was Joseph Goreski (age 30), wife Sophia (age 21), and daughter Irene (age 5, born in PA).  Joseph also works at a steel mill.  Although listed on a different sheet, the “Sieradzki” family lived at the same address: Wincenty (age 41) and Josephine (age 38).  Wincenty (Vincent) worked as a die caster.

Finally, at 2817 Garbett Street were John Smilovicz (age 39), wife Jane (age 27), and son Henry (age 3 and 11/12, born in PA).  John works in a tin mill and was also a WWI veteran.

By researching just a few record sources I managed to find all four sisters’ marriages and a few children born by 1930.  After one sister’s social security application pointed back to Dobrosołowo, Poland – matching the passenger arrival record – I decided to find the births records of my great-grandmother and her sisters.  The three sisters’ marriage records in the U.S. provided some clues as to their parents names.  One did not list the parents at all, but the other two agreed on their father’s name – Vincent Slesinksi.  Their mother’s name was listed on one as Stella and the other as Stanislawa, but the surname matched: Drogowski (Stella was often used as an English variant for Stanislawa).  This was more information than anything I was able to uncover about my great-grandmother through her own records in the U.S.

Research in Poland proved to be difficult despite these many facts.  Fortunately, the youngest child, who happened to be Sophia (Zofia), was born in Dobrosołowo – the other children were found in nearby towns.   And there were more than five children in the family!  Birth records were found for the following children of Wincenty (Vincent) Slesinski and Stanislawa Drogowska:

  • Wacława Marianna, 29 Aug 1880
  • Józefa, 01 Jan 1883
  • Feliks, 24 Dec 1885
  • Konstancja, 18 Jul 1888 – 13 Aug 1889
  • Wincenty, 03 Apr 1893 – 02 Apr 1896
  • Marianna, 06 Apr 1896
  • Janina, 12 Dec 1898
  • Zofia, 10 Aug 1901

The birth records proved what the photographs showed: there was a large gap in the ages between the oldest and youngest sister – 21 years!  In fact, Zofia (Sophie) was only two years old when Wacława (Laura) left for America!   The sisters also seemed to shave a few years off of their ages for the census-takers, but that was common and is the main reason why census records are not completely reliable for ages. It is uncertain what became of their brother Feliks – no death record was found in Poland, but no definitive immigration record was found in the U.S. either.

I was even able to find the “end of the story” with regard to my great-grandmother’s sisters – they are all buried in St. Mary’s Polish Cemetery in McKeesport, PA, and a survey of the tombstones is available online.  While the birth years on tombstones can never be regarded as accurate, at least the death years can. The deaths are recorded as follows:

  • SIERADZKI, Wincenty 1888 – 1969
  • SIERADZKI, Jozefa S. 1891 – 1964
  • MAJEWSKI, Adolph 1892 – 1973
  • MAJEWSKI, Marya 1900 – 1955
  • SMILOWICZ, John 1888 – 1974 (Pvt US Army WWI)
  • SMILOWICZ, Jennie 1904 – (no death date listed)
  • GORESKI, Joseph 1900 – 1976
  • GORESKI, Sophia 1908 – 1990

Research Tip: EVIDENCE…which record do you believe?  For a birth year, birth or christening records obviously hold more weight than a person’s marriage record (they may have been underage, considered “too old” to be getting married for the first time, or older than their spouse), census record (they may be trying to stay young, or embarrassed if they are older than a spouse), or a death record (the person giving the information may not know the truth).

I assumed this was “the end” of my research into the Slesinski sisters.  While I had not done any research on the three children identified on the 1930 census – my grandmother’s first cousins – I had gone back to Poland and learned the names of not only their parents, but also their grandparents!  I was well on the way to continuing my research backwards into the Slesinski ancestry.  But a funny thing happened on the way…my research was “confirmed” in an unusual way.

Coming up in Part 3 – My research is confirmed!  By more photographs!

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Sometimes we forget that “stars” are people, too.  And as regular folks just like us, their genealogy can be traced with the resources we all use online.

I was saddened to hear of the death of actress and dancer Cyd Charisse on June 17.  I knew her date of birth to be March 8, which happens to be my birthday, but I was surprised that newspapers couldn’t quite agree on her year of birth.  No surprise there since it’s not unheard of for Hollywood stars to fib about their age.  So, I decided to confirm it for myself.  As she was “believed to be 86″ according to her New York Times obituary, I knew she’d likely be on the 1930 Federal Census.  Her birth name has always been reported as Tula Ellice Finklea.  Place of birth: Amarillo, Texas.

After a quick search on Ancestry.com, I found Ms. Charisse on the 1930 Census (though she is indexed as “Lula” vice “Tula”).

The Finklea Family, 1930

Cyd/Tula is 8 years old, so her birth year is 1922.  Her father Ernest is a jeweler, and the family also has a cook and a maid living with them.  All were born in Texas, but her father’s roots are from Alabama and Texas.  Her mother Lela’s parents were from Mississippi and Louisiana.  It would be interesting to see how far back her American roots go.

In other Ancestry records, I found what appears to be her birth record, though the name is blank and only her mother’s name is listed.  Her father died in 1938 when Cyd was only 16 years old.  Her mother must have moved to Hollywood with her – her death is listed in a 1990 record at 88 years old – clearly Cyd got her longevity genes from her mother!

I’ve written a short tribute to Cyd on my Gene Kelly blog, including resources for more information on her life and career.  If you’re a fan of movie musicals as I am, you know that she was graceful and beautiful – she looked fabulous even in recent photographs.  Rest in peace, Tula – the world will miss you.

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When I first got started in genealogy, I thought the Soundex was an amazing thing. It helped me find many incorrectly written names, often simply mis-pronounced by the foreign speaker or mis-understood by the American census taker. But, the Soundex only gets you so far…some errors are just too much to overcome. For example, the Soundex assumes that the first letter of the surname is correct, but what if it’s not? Thanks to computers and indexing, finding someone on the census is a lot easier than it used to be.

Zawodny Census Names

An example of a family that was hard to locate in the census is my Zawodny ancestors. As Polish surnames go, the name of Zawodny isn’t all that hard or unreasonable! But if you try to find them in census records, good luck. You’ll find three different names! The family first arrived in 1902, so the first census year is 1910. This is how the family’s entry compares for 1910, 1920, and 1930:

1910 – Savonia, Joseph, age 28. Wife Mary, age 20.

1920 – Cawodny, Joseph, age 39. Wife Laura, age 36.

1930 – Zavodny, Joseph, age 50. “Sister” Laura, age 44.

As you can see, only the 1930 surname would have been found using a Soundex search. The wife’s name changes, most likely because her Polish first name Wacława doesn’t really translate into an English name, at least not the same way that Jozef becomes Joseph.

Another favorite family in census records is my Piontkowski ancestors. While the 1920 entry of “Pontdowke” and 1930’s “Peontkowski” show up in the Soundex, the family’s whereabouts in 1910 had me stumped. Finally, I found them – listed under “Kilkuskie”.  Not really an intuitive search, but the first names, ages, neighborhood, and other information all matched. The best part about their entries are the ages – while the husband’s age is or at least close to what it actually was for those census years, or ages 39-49-59, the wife seems to grow younger each decade. Perhaps it was unfashionable back then for a wife to be five years older than her husband, but her ages show up as 37-52-54 while her actual age was 44-54-64!

So, how do you find someone when the surname isn’t right and Soundex searches fail you? The old standby prior to computers was to search for the known address. In the case of these two families, they each had a different address for each census year. If a family moved frequently, even though they stayed in the same neighborhood, they’ll be difficult to find unless you know through some other means, such as a city directory, what their actual address was during the census year.

One method that I used to find these records when “last name” searches failed was to search with a combination of the first name, approximate age, and country of birth. It helps if you know at least the county or city where the family lived, because you may get over a hundred men named “Joseph” born in “Poland” or “Russia” around 1879. But, by carefully checking the other family members, you will find the family if they are there. You can also combine a search using these elements with a spouse’s first name, or a parent’s first name if you are searching for a child. Try using Steve Morse’s searches if other search sites have you stumped.

This post is an excerpt from a future article on Searching US Census Records.

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