Casefile Clues

15 March 2014

Using Census to Find My Irish Chains--For St. Patrick's Day

"Using the Census to Find my Irish Chains" --from Ancestry's Website (http://www.ancestry.com)--29 Sept 2006
by Michael John Neill

[note: I decided to reprint this sans citations--as is our policy. Since this article was originally published, I've discovered minimal new information but a review of the sources used may be helpful. Personally I don't expect that any of the conclusions reached in this article to be revised. But what could happen is that I notice something different in the process. This article was written when I was a contractual employee for Ancestry.com.]
Families rarely migrate in complete isolation. The ties of family and friends are not always obvious to the researcher several lifetimes later.  The difficulty with most families lies in finding those connections that led to migration. This week we see how the databases at Ancestry, along with some detective work and analysis, can allow us to begin discerning those connections.
A Little Background

Brothers Samuel and Joseph Neill were both born in County Derry, Ireland, in the 1830s. They immigrated to New Brunswick, Canada, in 1864--Joseph, with his wife Anne Bryce (Brice), and Samuel, as a single man.
Samuel married Anne Murphy in St. John in 1865 shortly after his arrival and the marriage record is the earliest documented existence I have of Samuel's wife, Anne. All later extant records on Anne Murphy Neill only indicate that she was an Irish native.
In the late 1860s, both Neill families left Canada and moved to West Point, Hancock County, Illinois. West Point was not an urban area where jobs were plentiful. It was hoped that a better understanding of the family's migration might lead to information on the origins of Anne Murphy Neill.
Census Review

I began with a careful review of the 1870 through 1910 census entries for both Samuel and Joseph Neill. My intention in reviewing entries was to: 
  • determine if I had overlooked any clues in the enumerations,
  • determine a timeline for migration from Canada to the United
    States,
  • determine if there were neighbors who were also Irish immigrants (by reading at least three pages before and after the located entries) 
My review of the census entries indicated the Neills likely came to Illinois around 1867. There were a few other Irish families living nearby, but they did not settle in a neighborhood that was heavily Irish. These other families will be researched to determine if their Irish origins are geographically close to the Neills or if these families spent time in New Brunswick before settling in Illinois.

Searching the Census Index in Other Ways

The census indexes at Ancestry offer additional search options that should be explored. Instead of searching for names, I could search for other natives of Ireland living in the same area as the Neill family. I could perform searches for individuals with a birthplace in Ireland born within five years of 1835 in  an attempt to locate other individuals roughly the same as Samuel and Joseph. All census indexes at Ancestry for censuses 1850 and later provide this option. A search of the 1910 census could also include a year of immigration in an attempt to find other Irish immigrants who immigrated in the same time frame as Joseph and Samuel. The database interface affords me search possibilities that never existed several years ago unless I read the census one page at a time.
A Warning

There is one potential pitfall to such searches. A search of the 1910 census for natives of Ireland living in Hancock County, Illinois, who immigrated in the 1860s (performed by searching for an immigration year of 1865 plus or minus five years) does not locate Samuel Neill even though he is enumerated in the 1910 Hancock County census. The reason is simple: the year of immigration on Samuel's entry is left blank.
Using the Ancestry search page to locate immigrants from the same country as your ancestor who came over around the same time as your forebear is an excellent way to generate additional research leads. However, one must do it with the following things in mind:
  • The year of immigration could be incorrect in the census entry, either for your ancestor or for the others who might have immigrated with him.
  • The year of immigration could be omitted completely for some immigrants.
  • Places of birth could be completely incorrect or vary slightly from what you think is correct, Prussia or Hanover for Germany, etc.
Searches of databases are frequently made under the assumption that our ancestors gave the correct answers, that those answers were written legibly and that the reading was transcribed correctly. This assumption only causes a problem when the researcher fails to acknowledge it.

Before madly entering search terms, think about what you are trying to locate and the best way to go about finding it. Then keep a record of the different ways in which you have searched so that searches are not repeated and new searches can be developed if necessary. In the case of Samuel Neill, the best search was simply to look for other Irish natives born in the same decade who were living in the same county. This did not result in an unmanageable number of hits for any census year. Samuel's residence near the county line also warranted performing a search in the neighboring county. Geography must always be kept in mind.

A Connection

Similar searches were conducted in the 1870 and 1880 census in the county where Samuel lived. The number of entries in both cases was small enough that all the names could be manually scanned. Particular attention was paid to any names in townships that neighbored the township where Samuel lived from ca. 1868 until 1912. There were a handful of other Irish immigrants living relatively close to Samuel. However, the entry for one Irish native stood out: William Brice.
The connection was easily made. Samuel's brother's wife was Anne Brice. William Brice and family lived in the township due east of the Neills, most likely within five or six miles. Of course, it might easily have been coincidence that a William and Anne Brice were somewhat near neighbors of someone with whom they shared a last name and a country of birth. One could not immediately conclude they were related to Joseph's wife Anne Brice Neill. However, the entry was worth following in other census years.
Back to the Census

Searches easily located William and Anne Brice in the following
census records: 
  • 1860 Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois 
  • 1870 Chili Township, Hancock County, Illinois 
  • 1880 Butler County, Kansas 
  • 1900 Caldwell County, Missouri
How did I know it was them? I performed Soundex-based searches of  the Ancestry census database for a William Brice, born in Ireland within five years of 1838. These were the only entries that were relatively consistent with the family structure of William Brice in 1870 when he was a neighbor to the Neill families. Further research on William Brice needs to be conducted in order to determine if he is related to Anne Brice Neill. If this William is related to Anne Brice Neill, it looks like he was what brought the Neills to west-central Illinois. (Ursa Township, Adams County, Illinois, is relatively close to West Point, where the Neills settled.) Unfortunately at this juncture,
direct connections to Anne Murphy Neill have not been discovered.
Things Worth Remembering
  • Census records can provide a tentative outline of a family that should be documented with additional records.
  • Searches of census records without using names, focusing on places of birth, ages, etc., may result in the location of unknown extended family members.
  • Tracking experimental search techniques is important so that the same searches are not conducted repeatedly.