Great-granddad: a time traveler?
January 3, 2012 10:39 AM   Subscribe

Geneaology question: is my great-grandfather a time traveler?

In the 1930 census, I can locate my paternal grandfather (age 0!), and his mother and father. My paternal great-grandfather's entry lists his year of birth (1901) and place of birth (Texas). It also lists his parents' place of birth, both of which were born in Texas.

From this information, it seemed reasonable enough to me to conclude that there would be census entries for my great-grandfather in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. Alas, I have been unable to find any, in Texas or elsewhere. I've tried variations in spelling of our last name, providing a few years of wiggle room for the year of birth, only searching by last name and first initial - everything I can think of.

I unfortunately cannot just ask my grandfather about his parents. I've considered that he might have been an orphan or in a similar situation, but I would imagine that even so by the 1920 census, he'd have been listed by his 1930 name. What tips do you have for tracking this wayward great-granddad down? What might be causing this absence from prior censuses?
posted by palindromic to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What might be causing this absence from prior censuses?

Their simply not answering the door/returning the census form?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:41 AM on January 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

A lot of people don't answer to the census now. I imagine in 1910 and 1920, that problem was a lot worse.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:42 AM on January 3, 2012

I have several ancestors that I can't find anywhere in the census when they should be there. Possible reasons include:
1. they skipped them in the census
2. they are in the census but but their name is completely wrong
3. they aren't indexed correctly in whatever census you are using (I have had luck just paging through the census looking for people. This works better in small towns than big cities though.)
4. they didn't have a fixed residence for some reason: they were in the process of moving, they traveled for a living, they were at sea
5. I had one ancestor I couldn't find for a long time who turned out to be in prison.
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:54 AM on January 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

The census is far from perfect even now, with computer databases and fancy handheld computers (that didn't actually get used; long story.) I worked this last census so I know a little bit about the (current) process and here are some thoughts:

- If they didn't answer their door/their mail, the census takers would have relied on neighbors for data. The neighbors may or may not have known names/last names/spellings - this is how you get such weird info. There's a lot of "Oh yeah that's Bill and Mary and I think their kid is Steve or Scott or something. Last name? No idea, sorry. Bill makes a mean barbeque though."

- The census is specifically for residence as of April 1. If they were moving around that time of year it's not hard to slip through the cracks.

- Kids are harder to get info for. Just flat-out harder - parents get protective, neighbors are less likely to know and often less willing to talk. Also if there was any possibility he was spending part of the time with relatives he may be under a grandparent's household or whatever. People assume, even still, that the kid's last name matches the guardian's.

- If he was born in '01 I'd see what you can find from military records - he would have been 16 when draft registration started, and might well have lied about his age and joined right up.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:02 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

From this information, it seemed reasonable enough to me to conclude that there would be census entries for my great-grandfather in the 1910 and 1920 censuses.

Well there's your problem.

Census records are a great way of demonstrating someone lived a certain place at a certain time, but the lack of suck a record is not actually evidence to the contrary. There are any number of plausible explanations, including the fact that Texas was, by today's standards, almost completely deserted in 1920 and 1930. Population was between 3 and 5 million. Now it's 25 million, and people are still pretty thin on the ground in a lot of places. I know I didn't show up in the last census--no one came to my door, and I didn't get anything in the mail--probably because I moved in 2009.

Or the records could have been misfiled, misspelled, mis-categorized, or just lost in the intervening century.

As far as how to find him otherwise, there are a ton of online genealogical tools and websites out there. The Mormons actually have one of the best databases in the world.
posted by valkyryn at 11:02 AM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

My family skips censuses all over the place, even when I know from other sources they lived in exactly the same house--they'll be there in 1890, not in 1900, there again in 1910, not in 1920. They could have been out visiting a friend when the census-taker came around, or maybe were staying with a family member and the neighbor who answered questions didn't know.

Another thing--both the census-takers and the transcribers get things wrong. Try variants of the last name (like Malley and O'Mallie instead of O'Malley), the first name (John vs. Jack; or Lucy vs. Lucia if they're first-generation), or see if you can look through the raw records from the same neighborhood.

The poorer family members are harder to find than the middle-class ones, too, and I'm guessing there were some ESL issues; I can't find hide nor hair of some of my Italian-speaking family and I know pretty specifically when and where they lived and most of their names.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:02 AM on January 3, 2012

One thing I have tried with success in cases where the census has completely screwed up the last name, is search only by first name and approximate age. That way you can find every 28 year old "Abraham" in town, then look at their last name to see if it matches. Once again this works better for people who lived in a small town than in a large city.

I have also found people who were living with someone with someone who was not their parent and the census taker gave them the head of household's last name instead of their real last name.
posted by interplanetjanet at 11:03 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have, on occasion, browsed through an entire enumeration district's worth of census records looking for a family member -- I knew they were in the area at the time, but couldn't find them in the index. Turned out they were listed backwards -- last name as first and vice versa -- for no reason I can figure out. Another relative deliberately inverted his name to avoid the cops, though I don't know who he thought he was fooling as both names were quite distinctive. Others just flat don't show up, even a fairly densely populated section of a city (Dallas).

Can you get your grandfather's birth certificate? That might get you a starting place to pin down his parents.
posted by katemonster at 11:26 AM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been doing genealogy for six years now, and generally folks are there *somewhere*, under some spelling of the name. Fewer people were skipped/missed than you might think. If you haven't already, try using different indexes. If the name was hard to read, different sites may have indexed it differently. is free. You can probably use or HeritageQuestOnline through your local library. Google the county name and genealogy and see if there's an index for the census on RootsWeb or via a local genealogy society.

Something else to consider is that the information that you got from the 1930 census may not be accurate. If a neighbor was providing the info, they might have guessed at the ages and assumed that your g-grandparents were born in Texas. I'm a Texan and that seems to be the default place of birth given on the census for many of my ancestors, even if I know they were born somewhere else.

On preview, katemonster is on to something. Texas birth certificates from 1903-1934 are on FamilySearch. 1903 was the first year the state required counties to record births, but a lot of rural counties took their time to comply, so the records are a bit sketchy until about 1930. You should be able to find your grandpa, though. (Search by last name only. A lot of times, the first name of the kid wasn't recorded until later).
posted by donajo at 11:35 AM on January 3, 2012

Something else I've found in my own genealogical work is that people tended to change the name under which they were known. I have a relative whose surname doesn't change but whose given names do - so he shows up at various times as Leonard Henry Smith, Leonard Smith, Harry Smith, Harry Leonard Smith and Henry Smith.

Also, do you think he would have been inclined to travel? My own ancestors moved around a lot more than I ever dreamed looking for work - even going between continents multiple times within a few years. He could've been on a road or on a ship.

Do you have I do (although mine's the AU Worldwide version) and I'm sure others here do as well. MeMail me if you want me to check their databases for him.
posted by andraste at 1:29 PM on January 3, 2012

Also, try variant spellings of their surname, particularly if they were likely of a different ethnic group than the census-taker. Census takers' phonetic spellings made it clear that my surname shifted pronunciation, which makes my fairly inexplicable surname only slightly less inexplicable.

andraste has a good point. His family may have wandered off to another country for the 1920 census. (Or he was sent to family overseas then. Certainly my relatives show up multiple times in the Ellis Island records because they were busy trekking backing and forth.)
posted by hoyland at 2:00 PM on January 3, 2012

I was walking out the door when I posted earlier. As I said, I'd go for the birth certificate first -- by 1930, most states had pretty good records and should be easily findable. In general, though, gather as much info as you can on your grandpa -- marriage record, military service, etc. Any of those may have details corroborating your great-grandparents' names and birth places. Use that to triangulate on them.

Definitely check the draft records (Ancestry has them -- like andraste, I'd be happy to do some searching for you if you don't have access or just want someone else to take a crack at it.). Unfortunately your grandfather and great-grandfather were just a bit too young to be guaranteed to show up, but chances are good you can get your great-grandfather in the WWI draft cards. If you find him, it should tell you his proper name, birthdate, residence, marital status, and perhaps parents' names (plus height, eye color, and hair color).

More details might help us come up with other search strategies -- other states they lived in besides Texas (e.g., where your grandfather was born), ethnicity if they were non-Anglo, that sort of thing.
posted by katemonster at 4:07 PM on January 3, 2012

If by chance you are looking for Italian names in Texas, try Hispanic versions of the name as those were often more familiar to the census takers. For example in our family, Centanni was changed to Santana on the census. If the surname was changed at any point, it could change back and forth; ours did several times.

Also look at the census that you have and see who the neighbors were. Then search for those neighbors and see if your relatives still lived nearby. Always look at several pages before and after for other family members. The census takers sometimes worked one side of the street and then started up the other side. Relatives that lived across the street might be several pages over.

If there is any chance that they might have moved to Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Louisiana even for a short time, check census records for those states for the missing years.
posted by tamitang at 4:12 PM on January 3, 2012

I've been looking at census records (from the late 1800s, in England), trying to figure out which of about 20 young people with the same name, who appear in the 1850 census, was the one who left England around 1860. So basically I'm looking for people who maybe show up in the 1860 census, or maybe not, but not in 1870 or thereafter. You know what? MOST of my 20 candidates follow that pattern. I doubt they all died or left the country. So I think these early census records were extremely patchy, and I expect it was the same in the early 1900s, and in the USA.
posted by lollusc at 5:19 PM on January 3, 2012

You can search for rural relatives by county and section if you think they were farming. Somehow, the county tax assessors always seemed to get it right.

I backtrack up from kids I know for sure about, to parents, and then let Ancestry bring me hits. Often I get a cross-reference to a lateral bro/sis at the parental or grandparent level, and they have more clues/ complete info on their parents.

If this sounds obvious, I apologize, but a search at my grandparents level brings in over three hundred individuals who are all first cousins, or first cousins once removed, or brothers and sisters. And that's just on one side.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:05 PM on January 3, 2012

Someone upthread mentioned the possibility of prison; another one the family might have been embarrassed about is some sort of insane asylum --- I had the pleasure of finding my great-grandmother's brother as 'Inmate' at the Western Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane.....

If your great-grandfather had a stepfather, he might be listed under that gent's name, instead of his own last name. Or if he was living with his maternal grandfather, again he might be listed under a different last name.

Finally, just because they list Texas as their birthplace in 1930, does NOT mean they actually WERE born in Texas: perhaps it was actually Mexico, perhaps somewhere else entirely --- people lied sometimes; plus who knows, the census taker might have even just written in 'Texas' on his own asumption.
posted by easily confused at 6:08 PM on January 3, 2012

I see that no one has mentioned Soundex Code as one of the methods developed to make it easier to find surname variants. Take a few minutes to study how Soundex works, and perhaps by applying that method to the surname you're researching, you'll come up with varient spellings you never imagined to be possible!

Remember that all the publicly available census records (1790 - 1930) were done manually, door-to-door and in larger places by people likely not of that community or area and written out by hand. There is simply no devotion to spelling accuracy, and often if you read enough of the entries made by a particular census taker, you can see a little bit into their psyche and possibly figure out how they would comprehend names being given to them verbally.

To cite one of my favorite stories of wildly inaccurate census records, consider the 1910 census taker who had the power to change gender. Yes, easily identifiable only by context of the other members of her family is my grandmother Olga who magically became for one census my grandfather Walter. Ooops!! Travelling further back into history, I unlocked a huge mystery about another branch of my family when I discovered them listed as the very last family in a small town on the East Coast as the "Ferrin" family when, indeed, they were the "Curran" family. I have surmised that given they were listed last, and a radically misspelled name, that they might have been missed when the census taker came around, and someone in town said "Hey, did you get my neighbors? They are Ferrins, I think"

I found the "Ferrin" family through a technique mentioned above, that is searching only by first name, age, and using other context like other family members' first names (luckily the Currans had a bunch of children!). The other thing I did was to make sure to leave 'bread crumbs' for future researchers. has a mechanism for one to report alternate spellings and additional information about entries in their indexes. You can't actually change or notate the originals, but at least if you share your findings with as many folks as you can, you make it easier for future researchers to find the mysteries you worked hard to unravel.

This method will take you about three times as long, but it will help sharpen your powers of deductive reasoning. Good luck with your research!!
posted by kuppajava at 8:02 AM on January 4, 2012

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