New Electronic Tool for Hunting Relatives

by Terry Hogan

There is a new, free, electronic tool available on the Internet to help pin down those elusive ancestors. It is a searchable electronic database of the 1880 census. Now you may think this is a bit recent to be useful. You may know something about this period. So much the better.

What is useful about this electronic database for the 1880 census is that this census not only requests the location (state) of the inhabitant’s birth, but also asks that information for their parents. So, it may be useful to help you take the next step back. In addition, the database has already translated the scrawl and handwriting for you. It is user friendly and quick.

"Where can I find this?" you may ask. The Internet address for this database, along with other free searchable databases is This will get you to the homepage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. On the right margin you will see reference to the new 1880 census and you need to click on it. This will bring up a series of self-evident panels to complete information about the ancestor. You can do repeated searches and "shot gun" dates and locations if need be. That is, you can pick a date within his/her life span, pick the maximum range to search around that day (plus/minus 20 years) and search. If you know the state, you can specify the search for that state only. If not, you can search all the states, or do the most likely state and then branch out, depending upon your level of knowledge.

Now, a few points that I’ve learned recently while using this database. If you find the relative right away, great. If you don’t find him/her, start being a little creative with the name. Using my great grandfather as an example, I’ll explain. His name is Jasper Newton Hogan. So I used the full name. Nope, he didn’t turn up. I tried various dates, but still no Jasper. Next, I tried "Jasper Hogan". Nope again. I then tried "Newton Hogan" as years of research allowed me to learn that this is what he often used. Again, nothing. Finally, I searched on "J. N. Hogan". Bingo. There he was, sitting in the Camden, Illinois 1880 census. I knew this was great grandpa, as I knew he lived in that area for a while. Further, by clicking on the "family" button, it brought up data on his wife and children.

Now, the potential information doesn’t end there. This database is nicely set up. Once you find a relative of interest, the software allows you to click on a button and bring up the "previous" and the "next" census records (neighbors). This is worth doing because family members frequently lived in a different dwelling on the same property or adjacent properties. This is particularly true if it was a rural setting and the principal occupation of the head of household was farmer. A married son often took up farming on the same, adjoining, or nearby land.

This database also has other opportunities that may prove to be useful. When you search for a relative by name and date range and location, you will likely get multiple "hits" that you will have to look through to see if your relative is lurking within. If you find the relative, look for others with the same name and same general location. Remember that brothers and sisters often lived close together and often named their children (cousins) in honor of fathers and uncles. Thus, if you have a "Horace Marsh" as an ancestor and you find him lurking about in New York, look for another "Horace Marsh" or two, about the same age and in the same general location. This may well turn up a cousin. It also may suggest a father’s or uncle’s name, particularly if the name is given to the first-born male of a family. Of course, if the name you are searching is really common, say for example "Charles Brown," this makes the theory more suspect.

Of course, one still has to be a little cautious with the data. The typed names come back to you crisp and clear, with a sense of authority and accuracy. However, you need to keep in mind that the hardworking folks who put all this wonderful data together still had to deal with issues of copy clarity, handwriting, etc., so there is room for error. For example, I found a potential "hit" for an ancestor- right time, right location, but instead of having the name "Pearl A Howard," the record showed "Perla Howard". Either the database is wrong or I am. Thus, I will need to do some additional work. But the electronic database gave me a very strong point to start. And I was able to do it from the comfort of my own computer.

And for those readers who might have a Swede or two in the family tree (he typed with a smile), you can also do searches on them by clicking on Sweden for country of birth. However, it can be tough unless you already know a lot about them. There’s just a whole bunch of "Olof Olofssons" that pop up on the old computer screen.

Just remember the old saying, "trust but verify" when using any secondary source. Some folks are more careful than others and we all make mistakes. I offer up the Backtracking column as Exhibit 1 in that regard. I recently came across a definition of genealogy that went something to the effect "The process of confusing the dead and annoying the living." My guess is, that if you aren’t accomplishing both, you’re not trying hard enough.

Good Hunting.