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Using the census to connect your family

Article Date: 
10 May, 2013 (All day)

I had a great experience earlier this week.  My son has shown some interest in family history.  My wife has ancestors in England that we have been researching for some time and I was stuck on where to go next.  I invited my son down to the Family History Library and we spent about two hours with a research consultant in B-2 (the British Area).  One of the research consultants helped us and I learned a new technique for finding ancestors and learning more information about them.  In the space of  less than two hours we were able to identify more than thirty new ancestors we had not found before and gain clues about many others.
The key is in the way Ancestry.com has organized their censuses for the UK.  They have created links between the various censuses.  
We began searching for a family we had already identified, Daniel Patterson and his wife Ann.  They lived in Bedlington, Northumberland, England between about 1825 and 1840.  
We found the family in the 1841 England Census.  The census shows where the children and parents are born (or at least what the census taker recorded as their birthplace).  We found  a number of the children of Daniel and Ann in the 1841 census and discovered that the family had moved to Gateshead (just south of Bedlington) by the time of the 1841 census and that a few of their children were born in Gateshead.  
It was at this point that the real magic began.  The combination of Ancestry.com’s very useful navigation on the census and searches for the various children over time began to assemble the family.  As we searched for Daniel and Ann in 1851, 1861, and onward we would see children appear as they were born and disappear as they were married and left home.  
As they disappeared we could search for them in the census and see them get married and start to have children.  We could then trace their children as more were born and the families grew up.  As we traced each of the children we would sometimes find clues to other family members.  Sometimes the couple was living with their in-laws so we were able to find a surname for the wife.  Sometimes nieces or nephews were living with them so we could track births from other family members.
An additional search that was less definitive, but no less useful, was the search for spouses.  Searching for the spouse in the years before the marriage in the location on the census where it indicates she was born can offer clues as to who the spouse and her parents might be.  Sometimes later censuses will show in-laws living with the family as they age and need more care.
I have searched the census many times to find more family information, but this systematic way of using the census consecutively and tracking children as they are born and leave the home was something I had never done before.  If you haven’t tried this technique on your family in either the United States census or the British census it is well worth the time. I will validate the conclusions from the census with other records (parish, civil registration, and others), but the clues from the census are invaluable.  Ancestry.com can be used for free at the Morgan family history center.