Saturday, November 21, 2009

Make the Most of Occupation in Census Research

When I started working on my family history, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to occupation. My parents were teachers, and all my known grandfathers and uncles were plain old generic farmers. I was disappointed that I didn’t have any really interesting ancestors like doctors, ship captains, clergymen or even factory workers. But, as I researched more families, I learned how important occupation can be to identifying an ancestor across census years or matching ancestors in different kinds of records

Let me share one example. I was trying to learn more about a Holland-born family I found living in 1870 among my Dutch relatives in Hardin County, Iowa. To start, I was unsure of names. The head of household was 50 year-old Pieter Kingma, or possibly Ringma. Pieter was a “painter.” Living with Pieter and his apparent wife were five individuals, aged 10-25, listed under an unfamiliar name that looked something like “Sourumia” (Ancestry index: “Sousrema”). All were born in Holland, but the name didn’t sound Dutch to me. I speculated that the five younger individuals might be step-children. Among them were 16 year-old Adam and his 20 year-old sister Eve. Dutch? Really?

Oh yes, Adam’s occupation was “painter apprentice.”

I needed to find these people in 1880. Uncertainty over the names complicated the search. Using various combinations of first names, ages and birth places, I was not able to find any good candidates anywhere in Iowa in 1880.

I was about to give up, but decided to try a 50-state search for any man named Peter and born in Holland a few years either side of 1815. I was rewarded with more than 200 matches – a small enough number to browse. I found a Peter Kingma, age 63, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a painter. In the same household was a 24 year-old Adam, born in Holland.

I was able to find Peter in 1880 by searching on first name and paying attention to occupation. Adam and his siblings were identified as step-children of Peter Kingma. indexes the step-childrens’ last name as “Funoma,” but on the census manuscript the name looks more like Sunoma. Searches in later censuses revealed the name to be Sonnema, which turns out to be a good Frisian name traceable in records from The Netherlands.

The census-taker recorded Peter’s occupation as “painter-house” and Adam’s as “furniture varnisher” – good matches for Pieter and Adam of 1870.

I hadn’t expected an Iowa family to migrate east during this time, but it was perfectly natural for a Frisian family to move to the Dutch-Frisian stronghold of southwestern Michigan. Attention to first names helped, but the clincher was occupation.

Time and again, occupation has helped me match individuals across census years or across different kinds of records. John Lee’s occupation as a railroad porter helped me prove that John Lee living in Dorset in 1861 was the same man as Bartholomew Lee living in Bristol in 1851 (see “The Three Cs of Genealogical Research, Family Chronicle, February 2009). Similarly, Christian Gerloff’s occupation as a wagon-maker in the 1850 Iowa census allowed me to match him with the Christian Gerloff, wheelwright, listed on an 1843 Baltimore passenger arrival manifest. I now pay close attention to occupation!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Immigration Stories in the U.S. Census

As I've prepared this week for a talk at the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, I've been thinking about how to talk to non-genealogists about the census. I've come up with two themes:
  • The U.S. census records and preserves immigration stories, and
  • When it becomes public in 2082, the 2010 census will provide a snapshot of our families for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Most Americans have immigrant ancestors. The U.S. Census is part immigration storybook. The 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses asked questions about immigration and citizenship status. This information, combined with information about birth place, give family history researchers the basics of their families' immigration story, and lead to other sources that help complete the story.

The 1900 census tells us that Charles Falk of Two Harbors, Minnesota, came to America in 1890. It says his first five children, aged 10 to 20, were born in Sweden. Four more children, aged 1 to 7, had been born in Minnesota. The census says Charles and Louisa had been married 20 years.

According to the 1910 census for Minneapolis, Andrew Pafko came to America from Hungary in 1906. A 10 year-old daughter had been born in Hungary, while a 4 year-old daughter and 2 year-old son were born in Minnesota. The family spoke Slovak, suggesting they were from the part of the Austria-Hungary now know as Slovakia.

We learn from the 1920 census for St. Paul, Minnesota, that Thomas Reeves came to the U.S. in 1909, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1919, was married and had a 6 month-old daughter. Thomas and wife Mary were born in Ireland, and the census-taker recorded their language as "Irish." Living with them was Thomas' brother-in-law Patrick McCarthy, giving a hint to Mary's maiden name.

The 1930 census found Italian-born Eugene Lattanzio living with his uncle Leonard Gaultieri in Two Harbors, Minnesota. His uncle's surname gives a clue to Eugene's mother's name. Unfortunately, Eugene's year of immigration is unreadable in the 1930 census, but the 1920 census says he had arrived in 1915, and had filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen.

In each case, the census information gives clues for finding other records of genealogical interest, including marriages, birth records for children, and passenger arrival records.

Information about individuals in the upcoming 2010 census will be held confidential for 72 years (under current law), becoming available to researchers in 2082. When you complete your 2010 census return, you will be archiving information that will help your grandchildren and great-grandchildren reconstruct their ancestors lives. Many of us will someday be ancestors.