I bet if you polled genealogists, you would get a pretty strong agreement about the difficulty of finding ancestors between 1800 and 1850 in America. This is one tough nut to crack. Indeed, any time I hear someone say, “I’m looking for parents of my ancestor, who was born in c.1820,” I know we’re in for a challenge.
Why is This Research So Hard?
This period in American history and American records poses a particularly difficult challenge for researchers for several reasons. I’ll offer my impressions here.
- We were a nation on the move. We took the concept of “Manifest Destiny” and ran with it. Land was plentiful;. The railroads and steamboats were making travel easier and faster than it had ever been. And for an agrarian society, it was getting kind of crowed back East for all of the sons of farmers to have their own farms. The land nearby the parents was taken and expensive, and “Dad’s” farm couldn’t be divided and still sustain each of his children’s families. So, we moved.
- The pre-1850 Censuses – while very helpful – aren’t the goldmine that the post-1850 Censuses are for genealogists. They omit spouses and children, and don’t even think about finding many African-Americans. With those massive populations missing, it’s tough to find the forefathers you’re seeking.
- The Colonial records haven’t kicked in. Colonial America is loosely defined as 1600-1800. And with some creative researching and some luck you can find ancestors among the church, tax, military, and alternative census in this period. If you’re really lucky, there will be a published genealogy documenting your ancestors from first arrival – even if they weren’t on the Mayflower – to about 1800.
So, What’s a Researcher to Do?
We don’t give up and say it’s hopeless. We do give ourselves “permission” to take the time to do the work necessary and realize the challenge ahead of us isn’t going to be easy. “Go, Team!” With that rousing cheer and a good dose of caffeine, I offer two strategies that you may find helpful.
In both examples below, the question is: Who are Jacob Murdick’s (b. about 1827, IL) parents?
Tip #1 – Look for Siblings
From our 21st Century vantage point, our research subject, Jacob Murdick, looks like he’s an only son charting a solo path in the wilds of Illinois and Missouri. But rarely is that the case that a person of this time is an only child. Again, we were a farm-based society, and all farms need farm hands. Where else to get cheep farm labor than by growing your own very large family. So, it’s reasonably safe to assume there are siblings out there somewhere. In the 1860 Illinois Census, Jacob Murdick, age 32, is listed with his wife, children and three other persons. Mary Thompson, age 27, John Thompson, age 3, and George Adams, age 23, laborer. It’s noteworthy that George Adams is designated as a “laborer” or someone who is presumably not family and living in the household. It’s very interesting, though that Mary & John Thompson, who are not “Murdick”s but living in the household are not noted as servants or borders. The person giving the Census taker the information didn’t feel it was necessary to explain why they were in the house, it was obvious to him that they belonged there as part of the family. Given that Mary is 27, and Jacob is 32, my suspicion is that they are siblings. Mary got married to “Mr. Thompson,” who died, maybe in the War. Mary and her son, John, moved in with Jacob. Jacob’s sister is hiding in plain sight.
Tip #2 – Don’t Ignore Boarders & People Who Board
It’s hard to imagine in today’s day and age where hotels and motels are just a stone’s throw away that this wasn’t always the case. Especially on the frontier where shelter was a premium, opportunities for housing were limited. So, we leaned on the custom of boarding persons, often single men without families, who are just starting to forge their own way in the world.
Even though the times and culture permitted this custom, I don’t think any self-respecting family – especially those with children in the home – would board a complete stranger. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I would doubt it is the norm.
Back to the case of “Who are Jacob Murdick’s parents?” In the 1850 Illinois Census we find Jacob, age 23, as a boarder in the home of Anton Hankomp. My first question is, “Who is this ‘Anton’ guy, and what relation did he have with Jacob?” The census doesn’t give us that answer directly, but it does give us a couple of clues.
- Anton was a grocer. That alone doesn’t tell us anything, but Jacob’s son became a grocer. Just like given names repeat in families, so do occupations. (My father was a lifetime printer, just like his grandfather.) Jacob probably spoke positively of his host, Anton’s, occupation or exposed his son to it in such a way that he chose the same profession. You don’t do that if the host-guest boarding relationship is purely transactional.
- Anton’s children were born in Pennsylvania and Missouri and they are about a decade younger than Jacob. Remember they are living in Illinois in 1850. What you don’t know is that Jacob’s mother was born in Pennsylvania per the 1880 Census, and Jacob’s son and eventually Jacob migrate to Missouri in the 1870s & 1880s. There’s a migratory coincidence here that merits looking into. Did Anton know Jacob’s parents from Pennsylvania or Missouri? Did he assume a casual or formal guardianship of Jacob at some point? Well, worth looking into.
With these two examples in mind, I would encourage you to dig out that 1800-1850 brick wall you’ve been wrestling with, and look closely at who’s in what household. Who knows, you may find a connection you didn’t see before!