End of the Line?

brickwall In the previous chapters, I have described how I have had great success in piecing together the history of family using a variety of research tools available to the family historian. The National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) web site provides a description of the US government records that are available to genealogists. NARA has immigration records, also known as “ship passenger arrival records”, for arrivals to the United States between 1820 and 1982. Land Records are available. These are records that document the transfer of public lands from the U.S. Government to private ownership. There are over ten million such individual land transactions in the custody of the National Archives. These case files cover land entries in all 30 public land states. The holdings include Federal military service records from the Revolutionary War to 1912 at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. Military records from WWI - present are held in the National Military Personnel Records Center (NPRC), in St. Louis, Missouri. Naturalization records for Federal Courts are available, but prior to 1906, any municipal, county, state, or Federal court could grant U.S. citizenship, so those records might be found at the relevant State Archives.

Probably the most important tool to family historians researching within the United States is the Federal Population Census, which has been taken every 10 years, beginning in 1790. Article I, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution mandates that the population of the United States is to be enumerated every 10 years. The results of the federal census are used to allocate Congressional seats, electoral votes, and government program funding. There is a 72-year restriction on access to population census schedules, which is why 1930 is the latest year currently available. In 2012, the census schedules for 1940 will be made available to the public. The National Archives has the census schedules on microfilm available from 1790 to 1930, but does not have the census records online on the NARA web site. Ancestry.com and Heritagequest.com have digitized many of the Federal Census records. These web sites are subscription-based, but access is free-of-charge and unlimited from any NARA facility such as the NARA branch that I first visited in 1985.

Although the census schedules and the indexes to the schedules were never intended as a tool for genealogists their availability on-line has proven to be a very valuable source for family history research. Therefore, it is important to understand what is available within the census schedules and to know the limitations of these records.

A good source for information regarding the United States Census is the census bureau’s website itself. They do not have census records on-line here but the US Census Bureau web site provides detailed information regarding each census starting with the first one in 1790 to the most recent (2000). There is also an e-book entitled Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000 that can be downloaded free of charge. This document, published as a 16 MB PDF file, provides information regarding the questionnaires used in each of the census. It also provides information on availability of Population Schedules, availability of the 1930 Census Records, finding guides on State and Territorial Censuses, Mortality Schedules, Population Items on Principal Census Questionnaires, and Individual Histories of the United States Censuses.

When I first started using the census records to search for my ancestors, I had no clue as to what I was doing and as a result. I made a number of mistakes. Moreover, I wasted a lot time. For one thing, I did not properly document my sources back then and secondly I did not have a solid understanding of what the origin and status of my sources were. Researching one’s family history can be very time-consuming, but the gain of understanding the distant past from a personal perspective can be very rewarding. At times it can also be very frustrating particularly when it seems almost impossible to find any information regarding a particular family line that goes back only two or three generations from the present. Genealogists refer to these “end-of-lines” as brick walls. I sometimes like to think of them as missing pieces of a jig-saw puzzle.

So far, most of the family lines that I have describe have been traced back to at least the later part of the 18th century.  For other lines I have not been able to go back further that then the generation that flourished in the mid-to-late 19th century. Specifically this is the case with the family of my mother’s maternal grandfather (Kollros), the family of mother’s paternal grandmother (Spiegel), and the family of my paternal grandmother (O’Malley). Yet even though I have not been able to go back more than a two or three generations with these three lines, I have made some progress and, as I describe in this chapter, with a little bit of detective work, I have been able to knock down a few brick walls.