Every Document Is A Cluster Document: Pre 1850 Census Records

It’s easy to skip those early census records, they just have that one name, often unreadable and a lot of tick marks.  But you will find the cluster of people living in the household, likely family members.

So how do you pull the clusters of out these documents and associate names with the tick marks.

Step one: Find The Record.

I dig up every name and age I can in the census records that enumerate the families,  or any other document I can find, before I start digging into the pre 1850 census records. Obviously, the more you know, the easier the association is.  This helps me make sure  I have the correct pre 1850 census, and identify who the tick marks might be. Then I find the record and the image – my site of choice is Ancestry, obviously there are other places.Then I do a screen grab of the record.

Step Two: List The Name And Age of Everyone In The Family

Thomas Martin Sr was one of 4 Thomas  Martins living York County in 1830.  But he was the only one who was in his 70s. I then list him, his wife and his children and the ages they would have been in 1840.

Step Three: Map The Family.

Sometimes this works perfectly, and you have one tick mark for every person and you give that little sigh of contentment.  But you may be missing people, or you may have extra people.  I mark them as Unknown. Thomas and Sabra are easy to identify, but their children are much older than 2 other people listed.  Are they grandchildren? Nieces and nephews? They are in their 70s and might need help with day to day living.  That could explain someone who was between 15 and 19.  But younger than 5? Doubtful.  I will keep an eye out for people who die young and leave children who are unaccounted for.

Step Four: Map The Slaves

You don’t have names, but you map them as Unknowns.  You may find wills that list names and  ages that will help you identify people; you may find bills of sale with names and ages.  And even if it makes you uncomfortable to think about, map them anyway, you need to know the whole cluster to understand the people who lived in that household.  In this case, there are none.

Step Five: Update Your Documentation.

I add the image to the record in FTM and I make it private (unless I forget!) because I don’t want to clog up people’s search results, but you should  do what makes sense to you.  I have also just started putting the summary of what I’ve found in the citation detail for the record.

In this case it would be Thomas, btw 1751-1760; Sabra, between 1751-1760; 1 female, btw 1811-1815; 1 female btw 1826-1830; no slaves

Step Six: Attach To Everyone

This may horrify some people – if Sabra Martin isn’t listed on the document, you shouldn’t attach it.  But I’m pretty sure Sabra Martin is on the document.  It’s my best guess.  And it puts Sabra, who is believed to be born in North Carolina in 1759, in York County in 1830.  I need to know that.  If I believe that she died in 1850 and she isn’t on the 1830 and 1840 census, I need to rethink what I know.

Trees on the internet and on desktop software are not published papers with well thought out proofs.  They change often, and sometimes they are wrong. They are our best guess as to what we think at any given moment.

I personally, don’t create people labelled unknown in my tree to map out those I find and can’t identify.  But I make notations that they are there.  Especially cases like this one. They are too young to belong to Sabra — I doubt she had a child at the age of 66.  The 15-19 year old might be hers, but according to the data in Thomas’ Revolutionary War pension, not at all likely.

This is where the tree structure fails us.  We have a cluster of people living as some kind of  family unit but they don’t fit into the parent and children format.  How do we represent them?

For now, I’ve got this:

It isn’t enough to know who parents were and what someones vitals are.  We have to find ways, better than what we have, to represent how people lived together, worked together and took care of each other.


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