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Community flavor in Census Records

Oct. 7, 2010 at 5:07 a.m.


By Martha Jones

Before the days of Ancestry.com, Heritage Quest, Footnote and other online programs offering instant access to U.S. Federal Census Populations Records, genealogists and family historians spent hours sitting in front of microfilm machines winding and winding microfilm roll after roll looking for ancestors and related families. It was not uncommon for us to look up after a long session with our eyes still seeing shaded images rolling forward. Today, we simply type an ancestor's name, birth date and birth place for instant numerous possibilities to appear on the computer screen helping us locate our person of interest. Success can come in seconds.

But did we lose something when we moved from spending hours searching through microfilm rolls to instantly locating census records in the comfort of our homes?

I think the answer is yes.

I have come to realize that even though researching census records through microfilm reels took hours and hours, as a genealogist, I could begin to find the "flavor of the community" in those pages of yore. I carefully looked at not only my ancestors, but scanned their neighbors' information, surname ethnicities, neighbors' ages, birthplaces of the parents and other interesting tidbits about the people my ancestors knew and with whom they associated. I noticed unusual given or first names and traced them as they trickled down through the generations.

Now, I miss seeing these neighbors and the names of older generations living in the same homes as their descendents. Sadly, I am no longer creating a community of friends and neighbors with whom my ancestors shared their daily lives. I am missing the flavor of the community.

Do I want to return to driving to the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in Houston to view census records from across the U.S.? Do I want to sit for hours in front of a microfilm reader and try to decipher varying styles of penmanship and scan barely legible pages? Probably not; however, I think it might be good for me to return to the original census records, especially when I come upon a brick wall and know in my heart that John Jones was surely somewhere in Morgan County, Ala., in the 1870s. I can locate his neighbors and do some cluster researching as I try to locate this elusive ancestor.

We know that families tended to move together, worship together, conduct business together and even marry within their circle of friends and neighbors. In our hurry to fill in the pedigree blanks for birth, marriage and death dates, let us not forget to delve into the flavor of the community.

From a Frank and Ernest cartoon by Bob Thaves:

Two men are sitting in an office with the sign: Genealogy Service.

The man behind the desk with papers in his hand says to the client, "Let's just say that the loss of your family tree wouldn't cause the Sierra Club to lose any sleep."

E-mail genealogy queries to mjones@vicad.com. VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.

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