Using Alternative Census Databases When Stumped by Ancestry.com

August 2, 2012 at 9:25 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies, Genealogy Websites | Leave a comment
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The digital age has been an unquestionable boon to genealogy.  So many records are found so much easier.  However, it has pushed genealogists to learn how to “work” a database to find what we’re looking for.  And it’s not always easy.  Ancestry.com – the 10 billion record and county genealogy repository – is without question the first reach source for census records.  But as good as it is, there is still the human element in getting the information from household to census taker and from census record to indexer to overcome.  Learning and mastering ways to crack their database of census records can prove quite challenging.

The Alternative

I often talk about the other sources for census records in my classes because they are simply another tool to find those elusive ancestors, when you don’t first succeed with ancestry.com.

This truism played out in real time for me recently when looking for Pietro Cevetti.  Pietro Cervetti immigrated from Italy and settled in Polk County, IA.  As may be more familiar to most of us, Polk County is the home of DesMoines.  I knew from other records that Pietro probably was in Polk County, IA in 1920.  He had a child there in 1919 and again in 1922, and registered for the WWI draft in Polk County in 1918.

But try as I might with every trick I had, I could not find him in the 1920 Census on Ancestry.com.  I was certain the challenge boiled down to a translation or transcription issue.

I turned to Heritage Quest for a solution.  Heritage Quest is a free online database with US Census records up to 1930 (partial for 1930) available exclusively through libraries and other institutions.  (Midwest Genealogy Center has a subscription.)  You can access it if you have a library card to this institution either onsite at the library or remotely at home.

What Makes Heritage Quest Awesome

It uses a different type of database than Ancestry.com.  Both repositories are good.  Both have their place.  But you can do things in Heritage Quest that you can’t do in Ancestry.  Things like sort the results page by age, location, birthplace or name.  And things like see the count of how many people fit your search criteria by county for that state.  For example, I can search for all Italian born people living in Iowa in 1920.  The results will tell me that there are 911 in Polk County, IA,  and only 126 in the next most dense county of Webster.  All of this to say there are a number of ways you can look at the data to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Pietro Cervetti

I found Pietro not by looking for either his first or last name in the search.  I didn’t even try looking for anyone named “Peter” in Iowa.  Instead I looked for all of the Italian-born residents living in Polk County, IA in 1920.  And as I mentioned there are 911.  To narrow that down I looked at the results list only for those last names that started with “C”.

This is what I saw:

Pietro Cervetti - 1920 US Census for Iowa - Index

Pietro Cervetti – 1920 US Census for Iowa – Index

“Peter Charvich” seemed to fit the description of the person I was looking for.  There is NO way I could have found that name by playing with the spelling variations of “Cervetti.”  And this is exactly why I hit a brick wall searching in Ancestry.com for him.  But this was indeed “Pietro Cervetti.”  The listing matched dates, locations, and family members consistent with what I knew about him.

Transcription Error?

You may be wondering how he came to be listed in the census as “Peter Charvich.”  Was it a translation or a transcription error?

Pietro Cervetti - 1920 US Census for Iowa

Pietro Cervetti – 1920 US Census for Iowa

Can you see the name for the head of household in the above image?  The name was written, then written over by the census taker, who was trying to correct the spelling or make the letters clearer.  As a result the name became virtually illegible.  As a transcriber I would have NEVER gotten “Cervetti” out of that.

Fortunately, with a little creative searching and a little known tool like Heritage Quest, the family was found in 1920 in Polk County, IA, just where they were expected.

Here’s to creative search techniques!

Happy Researching.

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