Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Problems with Ancestry Census Search (And a Workaround)

If you're been reading Ancestrally Challenged for a while, you've probably saw me mention that my paternal line comes from West Virginia. As most people know, West Virginia was formed in 1863 when the western end of Virginia broke off from the state to form a new state. All of the counties in present-day West Virginia were either originally Virginia counties or formed from parts of original Virginia Counties. So tracing ancestors back in time requires making the jump from West Virginia to Virginia once you reach the 1860s.

Ancestry's search doesn't seem to realize this.

Many of my paternal ancestors are from the counties of Gilmer and Lewis in West Virginia. Both of these counties were originally in Virginia. When searching census records on Ancestry from 1870 to 1930, I have no problem choosing an exact search for one of these counties.

However, once I reach the 1860 census, at which point these counties were part of Virginia, I ran into problems. From the search screen, typing in Lewis County in the location box brings a dropdown which gives me the option of choosing the one in Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, New York, Tennessee, Washington or West Virginia. I can't choose Lewis County, Virginia.

Search screen at Ancestry. As you can see, there is no option in the dropdown to choose Lewis County, Virginia

When I tried researching Aaron Schoolcraft (my current person of interest who I happen to know was in Lewis County in 1830 and 1840) and narrowing the results down to only census and voter lists, it only gives me three results. One is the Census returns of Lewis County, (West) Virginia for 1850: copied from the original federal census records in the Census Bureau database. The other two are from the 1920 census for unrelated people.

Results of search for Aaron Schoolcraft using Lewis County, West Virginia as an exact location and narrowing it down to only census and voter lists.

On the surface, this sounds okay, but if you click on the result, it only gives you only the heads of household and the number of people in the household. This won't work for a variety of reasons. One, it's only a transcription, which means there may be errors. I want to see the actual image. Two, it's only an index so it doesn't give all the information from the actual census record. I want to see what else is in the record.

Result for Aaron Schoolcraft in Census returns of Lewis County, (West) Virginia for 1850: copied from the original federal census records in the Census Bureau database. This is curious because Aaron was actually in Gilmer County in 1850. My suspicion is that whoever compiled the census returns included Gilmer County residents because it was formed from part of Lewis and Kanawha Counties in 1845.
Most people that know me know that I'm not one to give up if something doesn't work right away. So I tried something different. I went back to the search screen and I put Lewis County, Virginia in as the exact location, even though it wasn't on the dropdown. Once again I used Aaron Schoolcraft and narrowed it down to the census and voter lists. This didn't work either. It gave me the same results as when I used Lewis County, West Virginia.

After giving it some thought, I approached the search screen once again with a new tactic. Instead of including a county, I put only Virginia in the location box and marked exact search. Then I went down to the keyword box and put in Lewis as an exact keyword.

Search screen using Aaron Schoolcraft with Virginia as exact location and Lewis as exact keyword
Once again, when the results loaded, I narrowed it down by census and voter lists. This workaround was successful. It returned two results for Aaron Schoolcraft in Lewis, Virginia. As you can see from the image below, the results were not compiled transcriptions, but the actual census.
Success! Using  the state as location and adding the county as keyword will pull up the actual census records.
This just goes to show the importance of researching the historical background of whatever area you're looking for records in. If you're working backwards through records and your ancestor suddenly disappears, it may be a result of a changing boundary.

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