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by Maureen A. Taylor

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# Monday, November 21, 2011
Census Diving: Browsing for Facts
Posted by Maureen

As genealogists, we mine census records for our ancestors and the details of their lives. For the last two weeks I've written about Richard Levine's puzzling pic in Is this Painted Woods North Dakota? and Painted Woods Mystery: Part Two.

One of the tools I used to research the photo was the 1900 US census.  I routinely use online census records to learn more about when photographers were in business and to fill in background information. 

For the Levine mystery, I wanted to see just how many folks lived in Painted Woods, ND, and whether that information could help identify who's in the picture.

I browsed the census pages. While I might hesitate to read the census page by page for major metropolitan areas, it's a great way to learn more about small communities.  Here's how to do it:

On HeritageQuest Online, a ProQuest database available through many libraries, click the link for Census. There are two options at the census tab: Search or Browse (some records aren't indexed, so they're available only by browsing).  Click browse. Select the census year, state, county and location.

In Levine's case my selections were 1900, North Dakota, Burleigh and Painted Woods. There were only a couple of pages for the families there.

On Ancestry.com it is also possible to browse census pages. On the right hand side of the census search box for each year of the census is a Browse box.  You'll need to narrow the search by year, state, county and location to see the pages. 

By reading the pages for Painted Woods, I learned that most of Jewish settlers had left the area by 1900. The area was then home to many Scandinavian immigrants. 

In an unidentified family group portrait, a census record can help you determine who's in the picture: List the genders and estimated ages of the people in the photograph, then check census records for your relatives who were alive at the time the photo was taken. Look for a household whose members match the genders and estimated ages of those in the photo.

When I use the census to research photographers, I fill in the years between the decennial enumerations with city directories, state censuses and any other pertinent records. 

I'd like to know if you've ever used the census to solve a picture mystery. If you have, please use the comment box below this column.  I look forward to reading them.


Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album

  • 1900-1910 photos | photo-research tips
    Monday, November 21, 2011 2:42:09 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [3]
    Wednesday, November 23, 2011 7:54:44 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
    I could read your blog all day, Maureen. There's so much good information here. I recently used the census to confirm the spelling of a surname on a couple of photographs I found. I actually published a blog posting on it on my Family Photo Reunion blog.
    http://familyphotoreunion.blogspot.com/2011/11/two-brothers-from-barlow-washington.html

    The census is a wonderful tool to confirm the identities of semi-identified photos, especially when the subjects are family members. I never thought of using the census to try and identify a group of unrelated people, but if the place is small, what a great idea!
    Thursday, November 24, 2011 3:26:03 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
    Maureen ... I just used the census to help me figure out the YEAR of a school photograph I just obtained. I had the names of the students and knew the name and location of the one-room school. After figuring out what year about 6 of the students were born, I was able to approximate the year the photo was taken! The census information is so helpful in so many ways!
    Carol Norwood
    Saturday, November 26, 2011 6:55:28 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
    Who has not gone through old family photos and come across one with a name on the back that is not familiar. That was my case which led to a wonderful discovery. My husband's family has provided many mysteries, but I was able to find his grandfather and great-grandmother in the 1880 US Census by seaching for the lady's name on a picture in the family collection. This lady proved to be the half-sister of my husband's grandfather. No one in the family had mentioned (or knew) that the great-grandmother had married a second time or that grandfather had any siblings. Definitely a great genealogy moment.
    Susan Phillips Dunlap
    Susan Dunlap
    Comments are closed.