Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bulldozing Genealogy

I have been at the Family History Library this week helping those researchers attending the Family History Expos Research Retreat. The day before yesterday, one of the researchers came to me with several questions. One of the questions concerned the fact that the family she was researching appeared in the 1910 and 1930 U.S. Censuses but was missing entirely from the 1920 U.S. Census. I told her about several other online sources for searching different indexes to the U.S. Census records such as the following:

I also told her that the only real way to make sure and find the records was to do a name-by-name search of the entire U.S. Census record for the place where the family lived in the 1920 U.S. Census since the family lived in the same place in both the 1910 and 1930 U.S. Censuses. We looked at the place (Enumeration District) in the 1920 U.S. Census and it had about 196 pages. I mentioned that I called this "bulldozing" the record, that is, starting with the first page and working my way back and forth through the record until I had searched every page. I also mentioned that inevitably, the name was always on the opposite end of the record from where you started (not always but it seems that way). She didn't say anything, but left to do her research.

Yesterday, she came back to consult and was looking for someone else to talk to. She talked to Holly Hansen, who was sitting by me in the same room in the Library. She explained her question and Holly started to explain that she needed to look at the 1920 U.S. Census and go through every page of the place looking for the family. She said that was the same thing the I had told her the day before! We had a good laugh about that. Yes, the answer is always the same, go through the entire record looking carefully at every entry and make sure you look for variations in the spelling because the Enumerators did not necessarily spell the name the way you think they should have.

Indexing is helpful, but not infallible. Even looking at multiple indexes is helpful, but again, if the Enumerator or whoever wrote the record got it wrong, the indexers will also "get it wrong" because they have no idea what the real name is but only what was written on the page. For example, "Tanner" has been indexed as "Tamer" and many other variations.

If you look at and its millions upon millions of digitized records in the Historical Record Collections, you will almost immediately see that there are a huge number of unindexed records where the images are available and the only option is to bulldoze through the records. Fortunately, the records are broken down into separate microfilm rolls, so the research is much less difficult than it would be looking at the original microfilms, but it is still tedious in many cases and takes considerable time to go through each section of the records.

One of the researchers was complaining that the exact microfilm record in the Library that she needed seemed to be missing. There was no "space" where the record should be. It was gone. I explained that as the records were digitized online, they were retired from circulation as microfilm rolls. This likely solved the problem of the missing roll since I have not yet heard back about the issue.

If you think about this for a few seconds, would you rather sit in front of your own computer and examine the digitized record with the ability to zoom in and magnify the image or sit in the dark at the microfilm reader with its limited ability to enhance the image? The advantage of digitized images is apparent, but the availability of the images does not do away with the need to bulldoze through every page of some types of records, even if the records are indexed. How badly do you want to find your missing relatives? It takes only a few sessions of research to realize that you do not always find them easily in some online index. Just hope they lived in a small town. Holly related to the researcher yesterday how she bulldozed through the entire Salt Lake City, Utah U.S. Census record for one year and finally found her ancestor. So, read (bulldoze) the entire record. It may be the only way you find what you are looking for.


  1. One also needs to consider the circumstances of the family or individual if a census entry is not easily found. Family breakups through death or divorce could scatter family members to relatives or institutions. Recent immigrants sometimes returned to the old country for various reasons and lengths of time. Military service (even in peacetime) might take the serviceman and his family to an unexpected location. Higher education led many young people away from their home towns. And so on...

  2. Before Bulldozing an indexed film, I would try using some of the search techniques outlined in this blog. See