52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 5 ‘In the Census’

1900 censusIn the Census: Understanding what the census enumerator was instructed to write.

The census is one of the first places we go to when researching our ancestors. We pour over those images, trying to interpret what is on the page in front of us. For the 1880 U.S. census, the Superintendent of the Census offered supervisors some general guidelines in choosing enumerators: “The appointments should be made with reference to physical activity, and to aptness, neatness, and accuracy in writing and in the use of figures,” to “active” and “energetic” young men “of good address.”1 Most genealogists would agree that, “aptness, neatness, and accuracy in writing” is not what we always find on the census. There is little we can do about indistinct handwriting but perhaps gaining some context to what the enumerator was instructed to write in that particular column may help us interpret something which is difficult to read or a mark or abbreviation that makes no sense to us.

An Example

George Everett Zimmerman, my husband’s great grand-uncle, was enumerated on the 1920 U.S. census as Zimmerman, E. George.2 At first glance I may have concluded that while I had previously thought his first name to be George, and middle name Everett, this census entry may make me think that perhaps the initial ‘E’ for Everett was actually his first name and George, his middle name, was the name he went by.

Zimmerman census
1920 U.S. Census for Zimmerman, E. George.

After studying the other families on the page, I could see that all were enumerated as [last name] [initial] [first name]. In fact, all the heads of households in the entire enumeration district were recorded in this manner.

IPUMS (The Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) uses microdata to study the past sixteen federal censuses, looking for patterns of social and economic change. It also contains a record of all census questions, enumerators instructions, and brief histories of every census from 1790-2010. For our example above the enumerator was given this instruction:

“108. How names are to be written. – Enter first the last name or surname, then the given name in full, and the initial of the middle name, if any. Where the surname is the same as that of the person in the preceding line do not repeat the name, but draw a horizontal line (-) under the name above, as shown in the illustrative example.”3

The enumerator misunderstood the instructions and recorded all the names in his enumeration district by last name, middle initial, given name.

Learn More

If you want to get more out of your U.S. census research I suggest looking at IPUMS.org. The instructions to enumerators is invaluable in providing context to the information we see on the census.

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 5 prompt: In the Census.

  1. Diana L. Magnuson, “The Making of a Modern Census: the United States Census of Population, 1790-1940,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1995, IPUMS (https://usa.ipums.org/usa/voliii/enumproc1.shtml : accessed 1 February 2018). 
  2. 1920 U.S. Census, San Joaquin County, California, population schedule, O’Neal Township, ED 153, sheet 28A (penned), dwelling 586, family 586, George E. Zimmerman household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 31 January 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 143. 
  3. 1920 Census:  Instructions to Enumerators, IPUMS USA (https://usa.ipums.org/usa/voliii/inst1920.shtml : accessed 31 January 2018), citing “How names are to be written”. 

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 4 ‘Invite To Dinner’


At my dinner table…

Out of all your ancestors who would you most like to share a meal with?   I would like to sit down with my 16 great great grandparents as they seem to be a fascinating lot. All 8 couples were born in different parts of the U.K. and the world. There is a lot I know about them but even more I haven’t yet discovered.

UK Map
Map of the United Kingdom with colored areas representing birth places of great great grandparents.
World map
Map of the world with colored areas representing birth places of three (two in Germany, one in South Africa) great great grandparents.

I imagine the conversation among these 16 dinner guests would be lively. The coal miners at the table, William Thomas from St. Agnes, Cornwall, John Bruce from Edinburgh, Scotland, David Bellis from Holywell, Wales and Richard Wilson, from County Durham, would no doubt have much to say about mining and wages and working conditions.

Perhaps sitting in one corner of the table the two Germans, Helena Schmidt and George Eberhard, might have been chatting about where in Germany they were from (information I would like to have!) and what brought them to their current homes. Helena Schmidt Davis was living in England by 1877 and George Eberhard, an engineer, had made the very long journey to the Cape Province, South Africa, sometime before 1880.

John Hayes and Bridget Dillon Hayes would be the only Irish folk at the table, and John, the only military man at the gathering. He had been a tailor before joining the British Army in Belfast, Ireland at the age of 18. He had been posted to Tullamore, King’s County, Ireland where he met and married Bridget in 1882. His military service would take him to Jamaica where their first child would be born, and then on to South Africa. John Hayes and George Eberhard, despite likely language barriers, may have been able to talk about their trip to South Africa and what life was like there.

John Kewn and Jane Gell Kewn were from the Isle of Man. John was a very successful builder with his own business. Financially, he would probably be the most well off at the table.  Joshua Davis, finding himself seated next to the successful John Kewn, may have been rather quiet. Joshua himself came from a very well to do family, but was considered to be almost the black sheep of the family. He was a plumber by trade, while the rest of his brothers worked in the thriving family business of being railway carriage owners.

The ladies at the table would of course, find plenty to talk about as ladies often do.  Susan Bastian had been married at age 17 to William Thomas, and they had seven children. Many of the women at the table were coal miner’s wives and some had worked at the mines themselves.  By 1842, it was illegal for women to work below ground so Susan and her children worked above ground sorting coal. Christina McIntosh, born in South Africa to Scottish parents, operated a store in the front room of her home and Bridget Dillon Hayes was a school teacher. The other wives all worked in the home, taking care of their husbands and children. The eight couples had 58 children between them, of which only four died in infancy. That is quite a feat considering infant mortality rates in the mid-1800s.

My dinner guests:

William Thomas (born 1834, St. Agnes, Cornwall) and Susan Bastian (born 1837, Chacewater, Cornwall)
John Bruce (born 1843, Edinburgh, Scotland) and Isabella Bowes (born 1847, Sherburn, Durham, England)
David Bellis (born 1822, Holywell, Flintshire, Wales) and Margaret Williams (born 1833, Abergele, Wales)
Richard Wilson (born 1840, Philadelphia, Durham, England) and Elizabeth Twedell (born 1845, Gosforth, Northumberland, England)
Joshua Davis (born 1854, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) and Helena Schmidt (born 1851, Germany)
John Joseph Hayes (born 1862, Carrickfergus, Antrim, Ireland) and Bridget Mary Hayes (born 1865, Cork, Ireland)
John Kewn (born 1821, Peel, Kirk German, Isle of Man) and Jane Gell (born 1826, Peel, Kirk German, Isle of Man)
George Eberhard (born 1857, Berlin, Germany) and Christina Elizabeth McIntosh (born 1857, Knysna, Cape, South Africa)

I love prompts that get you thinking about your ancestors!  Week 4’s prompt for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow is ‘Invite to dinner’.


52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 3 ‘Longevity’

Longevity (or in my coal mining ancestors, the lack thereof)

Coal mining was not an occupation that promoted longevity in those who worked from before daybreak to after dark, six out of seven days a week, month after month and year after year. Most miners began work down the mines as young as age 8. Back breaking, dangerous and physically exhausting labor, accidents and disease, most often meant that many miners never reached old age. While David Bellis, a Welsh coal miner, and my 2nd great grandfather, lived to the age of 81 and his son, John Bellas (the name is spelled both Bellis and Bellas in the records), my great grandfather, lived to age 78, the majority of their sons and extended family died fairly young. All of them spent their entire working lives in the mine.

Name Year of Birth Year of Death Age at death
John Bellis (3rd great grandfather) 1793 1840 47
John Bellis (2nd great granduncle) 1814 1871 57
Hugh Bellis (2nd great granduncle) 1825 1860 35
David Bellis (2nd great grandfather) 1822 1903 81
John Bellas (Great grandfather) 1859 1938 78
John W. Bellis (1st Cousin 3R) 1860 1883 23
Thomas Bellas (Great granduncle) 1861 1901 40
William Bellas (Great granduncle) 1866 1915 49
Tom Bellas (granduncle) 1888 1933 45

John William Bellis died while working in Etherley Colliery near Escomb, County Durham, England in 1883. John was an Incline Man which was someone who “attended to work on an incline plane”[1]. The Mine Inspectors Report described the accident as “died from the effects of a sprain received on 22nd January last while lifting a tub on the way.”[2] Sadly, John was only 23 years old.

Read any of the historical data on mining deaths in England in the 1800s and you will come across lives lost far too young. The risk of accidental death or disease was high but for many families of Northeast England it was the only occupation open to them.

children miners
Child miners. Photograph in public domain.
“The little trapper of eight years of ages lies quiet in bed…It is now between two and three in the morning, and his mother shakes him, and desires him to rise, and tells him that his father has an hour ago gone off to the pit. He turns on his side, rubs his eyes, and gets up, and comes to the blazing fire, and puts on his clothes. His coffee, such as it is, stands by the side of the fire, and bread is laid down for him…He then fills his tin bottle with coffee, and takes a lump of bread, and sets out for the pit, into which he goes down in the cage, and walking along the horseway for upwards of a mile…He knows his place of work. It is inside one of the doors called trap-doors, for the purpose of forcing the stream of air, which passes in its long, many miled course from the down shaft to the up-shaft of the pit; but which door must be opened whenever men or boys, with or without carriages, may wish to pass through. He seats himself in a little hole, about the size of a common fire-place, and with the string in his hand: and all his work is to pull that string when he has to open the door, and when man or boy has passed through, then to allow the door to shut itself…He may not stir above a dozen steps with safety from his charge, lest he should be found neglecting his duty, and suffer for the same. He sits solitary by himself, and has no one to talk to him; …. For he himself has no light. His hours, except at such times, are passed in total darkness. For the first week of his service in the pit his father had allowed him candles to light one after another, but the expense of three halfpence a-day was so extravagant expenditure out of ten pence, the boy’s daily wages, that his father, of course, withdrew that allowance the second week, all except one or two candles in the morning, and the week after the allowance was altogether taken away; and now, except a neighbour kinder than his father now and then drop him a candle, as he passes, the boy has no light of his own.”
Dr. Mitchell’s report of the Collieries of South Wales, Children in Mines and Collieries, 1839, p38-39. “The History of Mining in Durham & Northumberland”, Newcastle University, (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/library/services/education-outreach/outreach/mining/children.php : accessed 17 January 2018).
[1] “Mining Occupations”, Durham Mining Museum, (http://www.dmm.org.uk/educate/mineocc.htm#inclineman : accessed 16 January 2018).
[2] “In Memoriam”, Durham Mining Museum, (http://www.dmm.org.uk/individ0/i06704.htm : accessed 16 January 2018).



















52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 2 ‘Favorite Photo’

Amy Johnson Crow has a new challenge for us called 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks. You can learn more about it here and sign up if you think you would be interested. It’s a great way to share some of our data and as I looked through my photographs for the Week 2 prompt “Favorite Photo”, I not only enjoyed a quick refresher seeing some of my favorite photos but it also jogged my mind as to a few things I had meant to do with those photos and hadn’t yet. Thanks, Amy!

It’s not easy picking a favorite photograph. There are so many great ones that I like for different reasons. I finally settled on one that has some of my favorite people in it. It not only has my grandfather in it but also my favorite uncle, who we nicknamed ‘Uncle Snoozy’ as he would come from England to visit us in South Africa and would fall asleep each afternoon lying in the warm South African sun.

JamesThomas1894_photo family all men

This photograph was taken late 1950s/early 1960s and shows several generations of the Thomas/Bellas/Stables family. It was taken either in Shiney Row, County Durham, England or Edmonton, London where the Stables family lived. The original is in my father’s possession and I have a digital copy. I’m not sure what the occasion was but there is another photograph, obviously taken at the same time, with all the wives and children. It looks to be a happy occasion whatever it was.

In the front is my grandfather, James Thomas, who was born in 1894 and whom I unfortunately never got to meet. He served during the First World War with the Tyneside Scottish, attached to the 21st Northumberland Fusiliers and spent his 21st birthday on the front. My father clearly remembers that his father forever hated the sound of bagpipes after the war as it reminded him of going ‘up and over’ the trenches to meet the enemy.

Behind my grandfather is “Uncle Snoozy”, Leslie Bruce Thomas. He was the oldest of my father’s siblings and I knew him well from visits to England and him visiting us in South Africa. He was a lovely man, a talented musician and always kind and loving. He passed away in 2013 but I can hear his voice with its’ Geordie accent calling me ‘Pet’.

Behind “Uncle Snoozy” is his son, also Leslie Thomas. Behind him is my great aunt’s husband, William ‘Bill’ Stables. Next comes another Leslie (a popular name in our family back then), this is Leslie Bellas. He fits into the Bellas side of the family as it was Elizabeth Bellas who married my grandfather, James Thomas. And finally, right at the back of the row, is Thomas Stables. He was the son of William ‘Bill’ Stables and Margaret Bellas (Elizabeth Bellas’ sister). Thomas Stables died in 1962 of renal failure, he was only 21. A favorite multi-generational photograph and one which makes me happy when I see it.


Is it really a brick wall?


Recently, I’ve noticed quite a few posts in various genealogy groups where people are asking for help. That’s not new, of course. What seems to be new, or perhaps I’ve just noticed it more, is that the request for help is preceded by a sentence like this, “I’ve hit a brick wall! I’ve been looking all over Ancestry for my grandfather’s birth certificate for a few weeks now and I can’t find it.”  Or something like this, “Please help with my brick wall. I’ve looked everywhere for a month now and can’t find the marriage certificate of my great grandparents who were married in 1870.”

I started thinking about that term ‘brick wall’ as it’s used in genealogy. Have we really hit a brick wall after searching for a few weeks? Have we hit a brick wall if we are only searching online for information? The answer is no. What those pleas for help show is a common misconception that all genealogical material is online and secondly, they show a lack of understanding of one of the main tenants of the Genealogical Proof Standard (the GPS). The first step in accurate research (the GPS has five steps in all), is that our searches should be reasonably exhaustive. Can you truly have exhausted all avenues of research if you are only researching online or if you’ve done it for a few weeks and given up in frustration? A reasonably exhaustive search would imply we have a) educated ourselves as to which records are available that may help our search and b) we have searched for those records, both online and in brick and mortar repositories either ourselves or by asking (and sometimes paying) others to do so for us. I have had some of my best success in locating records previously searched for and not found, by reaching out to local historical and genealogical societies, and to libraries and archives (librarians and archivists are a genealogist’s best friend!).

So how do you define your brick wall? Is it a time issue? You’ve been searching for over 5 years, 10 years, longer with nothing to show for it? (A person could say though that you have negative evidence then so really you do have something to show for it).  Is it an issue of record availability, in that, the records do not exist and no other record sources have helped in solving the problem (think burned U.S. counties here, or the 1890 census, or the loss of records in the fire in the Public Record Office of Ireland in 1922)? Although again, there are substitute record sets that may help. Is your brick wall an adoption or other NPE (Non-Paternity Event) that DNA has not been able to solve (yet)? I have a couple of brick walls that fall into those categories, one of which is the search for the death of my great-grandfather Harry Joshua Davis. I’ve been searching for his date and place of death for over 15 years now. You can read more about him here.

frustratedmanBrick wall research can be frustrating so it’s good to break from it and work on other lines and go back every now and then to see if fresh eyes can bring a different perspective. It’s always good advice to educate yourself on the history of the area and what records may be available – no sense searching for a birth certificate in North Carolina in 1883 when they didn’t start recording birth information until 1913. Know the history, know the records is a mantra I often find myself repeating and one I wrote more about here.


While some hobbyists may not be too worried about employing a reasonably exhaustive search, serious family historians and genealogy professionals know the importance of being confident that we have conducted a reasonably exhaustive search before we make any conclusions. And even then, we know that new evidence may turn up that could overturn those conclusions. Brick walls don’t exist when we have only searched online or when we have only been searching for a short time and don’t really know where else to search. Those are bumps in the research road…. they may well lead to a brick wall in the future but without reasonably exhaustive research they are still just a bump in the genealogical road.

Genealogy Education – The Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research.


  • Want to hone your research skills?
  • Learn to write professional research reports?
  • Critically analyze documents?
  • Network with others passionate about genealogy?
  • Learn from the best of the best in the genealogy world?

Then keep reading …

My blog has been quiet for the past 3 months as I threw myself into the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research. The course ended about 2 weeks ago and I have been thinking about my experience. A quick disclaimer – I have no association with the B.U. course except that I recently completed it.

The Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research is a 15-week online course covering modules in Foundations of Genealogical Research, Problem-Solving Techniques and Technology, Evidence Evaluation and Documentation, Forensic Genealogical Research, and Professional Genealogy. It is taught by some of the best genealogists in the country (more about who they are can be found here), sharing their knowledge and expertise in an online setting. Together with experienced teaching assistants, they guide students through each module, encouraging discussion among the 30 or so students in each group and providing feedback on assignments.

The assignments are tough and I appreciated that. I wanted the opportunity to put into practice what I was learning and they provided an effective way to do that. Each assignment is graded and you need at least a C in each module, with a final grade of at least a B- to earn the certificate.

This course is time-consuming (20-30 hours of work a week). Many fellow students worked full time and participated in the course outside of their work day, and were able to keep up with it. I was fortunate to be able to focus exclusively on the course and many times put in more than 30 hours a week. Between online course work, all the readings (including supplemental and mandatory readings), the discussion forums and the assignments, there is certainly enough to keep one very busy.

I did many hours of research prior to signing up for the course as I wanted to spend my genealogy education dollars wisely. The course is expensive, there’s no way of getting around that fact. However, I am happy to report that I feel like my expectations were exceeded and my money well spent. My goal is to become a Certified Genealogist and I felt like this course gave me the skills and confidence to see that I am capable of achieving that. [Note: The Boston University course results in being able to say, if you pass the course, that you are a holder of a Certificate in Genealogical Research. You are not a Certified Genealogist after the course.]

One of the side benefits of this course is that you get to meet other students as passionate about genealogy as you are. Each bring their experience and knowledge to the group and that fosters great discussion. I am looking forward to meeting up with my new-found friends at upcoming genealogy conferences.

If you are thinking about genealogy education, I would highly recommend this course. I believe the next course starts in January 2018. More information can be found here.

Guest Post – Full Circle: A Transplant Michigander’s Surprise Homecoming

by Kirsten McNelly Bibbes

Orphan.  I was an “orphan” in Lansing, Michigan for many years.  Don’t get me wrong—my parents were alive and pretty perky—but lived in Arizona.  Not knowing a soul, I moved to Lansing in 1996.  I started my legal career based in Lansing, practicing in Ingham, Clinton, and the surrounding counties.  I was lucky enough to appear in many of the area’s old courthouses.

(Ingham County Courthouse, Mason, Michigan)

Making Roots.  In time, I worked my way to partner with a historic downtown Lansing law firm, Foster Swift, founded in 1902.  From time to time, I visited old area cemeteries.  Twice each day on my way to work, I passed the beautiful Mount Hope Cemetery, opened in 1874.  Michigan was home.  I always felt that I had roots there.  I had no idea just how deep those roots ran, taking hold long before I arrived.

mt hope
(Mt. Hope Cemetery, Lansing, Michigan)

Finding Roots.  Until genealogist Sue McNelly got in touch with me, I had no idea that I had a family connection not just to Lansing, but to the area’s legal profession as far back as the mid-1800s.  Turns out, “Lansing’s oldest resident,” Daniel Case, is my fourth great grand-uncle. He and some of his family members are buried right in the Mt. Hope cemetery!


A “Pioneer Resident” of Lansing, Daniel L. Case.  Sue had come across (what do I call him, “Uncle Case?”) Daniel Case’s obituary while doing genealogy research.  I was fascinated to learn that my ancestor not only was one of Lansing’s pioneer residents, but he was a lawyer who practiced law in the very same counties as me.  For three years, he was Mason, Michigan’s prosecuting attorney.

McNelly discovered that along with practicing law, by 1847 Daniel Case worked as a farmer and owned one of two general stores in “Lower Town,” located where Grand River and Center Street intersect today.

Daniel Case newspaper
(April 28, 1955 State Journal article detailing the area’s first settlers)

Case’s Legacy.  My great-great-great-great uncle was an anti-slavery activist, and even, for a time, worked as trustee and resident manager at the Michigan School for the Blind (which stands today).  I try to imagine where he may have delivered the passionate anti-slavery address documented in his obituary, and wish there were a surviving transcript:

Mr. Case had always been an active Democrat until the bitter and bloody contest in Kansas between pro slavery and free state parties.  The conduct of President pierce toward the slave power forced Mr. Case to sever his relations with his party, and in 1856 he fully identified himself with the [anti-slavery] Republican party and canvassed the state for Fremont and Dayton.  During that exciting campaign, Mr. Case delivered an address to the democracy of Ingham County, giving the reason for his political change, which was considered one of its most powerful and convincing political arguments of the time.

I can’t express how much I would like to sit down and talk with Daniel L. Case.  Putting aside modern conveniences, I can’t imagine his life was all that different than mine.  I am proud to be descended from this man, and now better understand why I have always felt at home in Lansing.

(12/8/1898 Ingham County Democrat)

Kirsten McNelly Bibbes is a litigation attorney who practiced in Lansing, Michigan from 1997-2011.  She now practices in San Francisco and can be reached at kmcnelly@gmail.com.