Genealogy: Learn about the neighbors in census research

Search neighbors, censusBy Barry J. Ewell
For all the census years, one of the most valuable categories of information, sometimes overlooked by beginning researchers, are neighbors of the family of your interest.  Census information was gathered as the enumerator went from house to house, neighbor to neighbor, down the streets and roads.

When you begin census research, look carefully at other families in the census records after you discover your family.

As you learn more about the history of your family, go back and look at the census records you previously copied for your ancestors and note the surrounding households.  Often you will see a new connection. You must examine and re-examine the clues again and again.

  • Families with the same surname as the one you are researching will be of particular interest, but look also for similarity of unusual first names and coincidental places of birth.
  • Look also for similarity of unusual first names and coincidental places of birth.
  • Families seldom moved alone from one area to another; they moved in groups related by blood, marriage, religion, ethnic origins, and social cliques. Tracking groups of people across the country through time in the census records can be easier than tracking a single family.

For example:

  • For my ancestor Permitt Lee where every I found him, I also found the Moats family.  For my ancestor Maxcey Ewell, I found the Mullins family.
  • The closer I looked and studied the families, I found children marring into the families, names as witnesses in church documents and land deals.
  • I remember one occasion where I lost my family.  I looked for their neighbors and was able to relocate my own family.
  • I have also found it valuable to reach out and connect with genealogists who are researching the neighbors.  They have been able to help me overcome roadblocks, such as place of immigration, birth, because they have had to resolve the same questions and from records and information found about their own ancestor.

Researching a family with a common name can present special problems. For example, the John Jones family can be especially challenging. But if you find John’s son Samuel married the daughter of James Ewell, and other in-laws of the Joneses included the Mullins, Abrahams, Allreds, and Rothchilds, you’ll have more names to look for in previous places of residence. People tended to marry within their own social and economic groups—identify kinship groups to look for in census records.