Missing Census or Missing Family: Legacy Tree Genealogists Answer

So, you think there might be a missing census page? Whether it’s a missing census or a missing family, my special guest, professional genealogist Kate Eakman from Legacy Tree Genealogists has strategies to help you figure it out. She has just the answers you need to find your ‘missing’ family.

missing census

A Genealogy Gems reader doing genealogy research in New Jersey has lost her family! Well not literally, but she can’t find them in the 1940 U.S. Census. Here’s the email I recently received from her:

I am having a problem finding my mother and grandparents in the 1940 census. My grandfather, William Charles Opfer, was born on October 15 1900. I can find him in the 1930 census living in  Glouescter Township, (Unincorporated Grenloch) Camden County, New Jersey. He is living with his wife Kathryn (Katharine) Opfer and three children: William C Jr, Robert, and Nancy (my mother).

When I search the 1940 census on Ancestry nothing shows up. So I went to the government web site and converted the 1930 Enumeration District to the 1940 Enumeration District. The 1940 Enumeration Districts were 4-57, 4-58, and 4-61. I then went through all of the pages for each of the districts looking for William C. Opfer. I did this on Ancestry, Family Search, and NARA.  No William C. Opfer.

I then went back to the 1930 census and looked at his neighbors. I searched for each of the 13 heads-of-household neighbors from the 1930 census. Two had moved 1940 and I found them. I could not find the other neighbors in the 1940 census. I am wondering if a page from the 1940 census did not get scanned? Is there somewhere else I could look?

Missing Census Answers from Kate Eakman, Legacy Tree Genealogists

First, let me say how impressed I am with this Gem’s research and her dedication to finding this census report. She has made some very thorough searches and performed a number of advanced genealogical techniques in her quest for the 1940 U.S. Census page. It hardly seems fair that all that work didn’t yield the success she surely earned.

The government website she referenced is the National Archives 1940 Census page. The use of the page “1930 Records Search” allowed her to simply locate her grandfather in the 1930 U.S. Census. Then, by clicking a few buttons, discover the corresponding enumeration districts (ED) for the 1930 ED in which he and his family lived: 4-57, 4-58, and 4-61.

I, too, have scrolled through page after page searching for that one elusive name and we know how tedious that task can be! Using three different sites was a good strategy and one that we employ ourselves here at Legacy Tree Genealogists. Different images might be easier or more difficult to read, although in the case of these three EDs, the copies seemed to be uniformly easy to read.

The first two EDs were for Blackwood, an unincorporated part of Camden County, New Jersey. The third one was for the Lakeland Tuberculosis Hospital, unlikely to have housed the entire family, but certainly worth looking through in case one Opfer was a patient there.

ED 4-58 had an interesting variation at the end of the report. The last two pages were not 15A and 15B, as would be expected, but were 61A and 61B. This indicates these households were enumerated at a later date than were their neighbors. Because federal law requires every household to be counted, and because not everyone was at home when the enumerator arrived, the enumerator had to return on a different day and attempt to gather the necessary information for those families. They were recorded separately, beginning with page 61A.

People living in hotels, trailer camps, and other places normally designed for single-night stays were enumerated a week after the initial enumeration and those pages are numbered beginning with 81A. Not every ED has a 61 or an 81 page, but if you see one, now you know why the page numbers suddenly changed so dramatically.

The writer’s use of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ FAN Club was an excellent idea, too. FAN, an acronym for Friends, Associates, and Neighbors, takes advantage of the fact that people, in general, tend to remain geographically close to the people they know. [Read more about this in our post, “The Genealogy FAN Club Principle Overcomes Genealogy Brick Walls“] If a portion of a community moves, they tend to move together and relocate in the same general area of their new location. Her instincts to use this tool were excellent, even if they did not produce the desired results. This falls under the heading of “reasonably exhaustive research” and should always be included when someone, or in this case something, can’t be found, but should be there.

The fact that the researcher was able to locate only two of those neighbors could be explained, in part, by the fact that so many were in their 60s, 70s, and even 90s in 1930. They simply may have passed away in the intervening ten years. Another explanation, particularly for the working families, is that the Great Depression caused many families to move in order to find employment.

This may have been true for the Opfers. We noticed in 1930, William was employed as a supervisor for Reading Transportation. While supervisors were important to the operation of any transportation company, it is possible William found himself unemployed, as was true for millions of other Americans. If that happened, he and his family could have moved anywhere in the United States in an effort to find work. Alternatively, William may have left to find work while Kathryn and the children lived by themselves in reduced circumstances, or with family or friends.

To this end, I searched for William and Kathryn, and then each of the three children individually, in the hope of locating one or more family members. Using the “less is more” strategy which is often an important part of genealogical research, I searched with and without the family members’ ages, places of birth, and other family member’s names. Because the surname “Opfer” might have been misheard by the enumerator or grossly misspelled, I even searched for the various members of the family with no surname. Since we did not know where the family may have lived between 1930 and 1944, we included all of New Jersey, Delaware (the home state of Kathryn), as well as neighboring Pennsylvania and New York in our searches. The lack of positive results meant we needed to expand our search to the Eastern seaboard, and then the entire United States.

We also identified the names of William’s and Kathryn’s parents, William and Sallie Opfer and Raymond and Corrine Mason, and searched their households and neighborhoods for William and Kathryn. They were not there. Walter, William’s younger brother, was not hosting the family, either.

The writer had asked if it was possible that a page from the 1940 U.S. Census did not get scanned. Since the 1940 census has only been available for four years, it is still possible, although not probable, that there are one or more pages missing unbeknownst to anyone. Our research revealed only a few pages from a couple EDs in Ohio and South Dakota that were missing from the FamilySearch collection. There is no indication anywhere that there are missing pages from New Jersey. In addition, the pages in the three possible EDs for the Opfers were all included and in the correct numerical order, with no indication of any missing pages at the end. Therefore, I think we must conclude that missing pages do not explain the Opfer family’s disappearance.

Other Databases to Help

There are two other databases which might provide some insight into the location of the Opfer family. The first is the set of 1942 World War II draft registration cards. All men between the ages of 18 and 65 were required to register for this draft. The draft registration cards would have included the address at which William lived in 1942; however, there was no card for a man named William Opfer (or with only the surname “Opfer”) born between 1895 and 1905.

The final search was the database of city directories. A poorly-indexed city directory reported the Opfers lived in Haddonfield, New Jersey in 1943, but there are two directories contained in the same book, and the listing was actually for 1947. It reported William and Katherine lived at 209 Washington Avenue with their children William and his wife, Robert, and Nancy. William’s brother, Walter, and his wife Edith lived nearby. Unfortunately, the search for them in 1940 revealed that 79-year-old widower William Pape lived at that address with his household servants who were not the Opfer’s.

missing census alternative

The William Opfer family in Haddonfield, New Jersey in 1947.Photo courtesy Ancestry.

Although the turmoil and upheaval of the Great Depression meant families were scattered, and it would have been easy to miss enumerating many households in the mid-1930s, by 1940 the U.S. was recovering from the effects of the Depression. Some agencies, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), were in place to provide work for men. Many war-related industries on both coasts were revived by the Allies’ efforts to stop Hitler.

In other words, there should have been work and stability for the Opfer family by 1940, and they ought to have appeared in a census report. The evidence of the 1930 census and the 1947 city directory strongly suggest they remained in or close to New Jersey, but all of the efforts to locate them have failed to yield positive results.

One Last Scenario

One possible scenario which would explain the Opfers apparent absence from the 1940 census is a simple one: perhaps the family was in the process of moving from one location to another in the month of April when the census was enumerated. Although the census was supposed to be enumerated on 1 April, the reality is that it was simply impossible to knock on every door and obtain the necessary information in one day. Some enumeration districts were fully counted by the 4th of the month. Other places were not completed until the 30th. This was true even in the same town.

If the Opfers had moved across the street from 206 Washington Avenue to 209 Washington Avenue in Haddonfield, for instance, between the 5th and the 14th of April, they would have moved from one enumeration district to another. Because the 209 Washington Avenue address had been enumerated on 4 April, they would not have been counted in that new location. And, because the 206 Washington Avenue address was not enumerated until the 15th of the month, they would not have been included in that EDs census report. We have seen this happen in the reverse and a family was enumerated twice because they moved during the enumeration, so it certainly could have happened the other way around. This is the only explanation we can find to explain the absence of the Opfers from the 1940 U.S. Census.

More About Kate Eakman at Legacy Tree Genealogists and SAVE $100!

Kate Eakman grew up hearing Civil War stories at her father’s knee and fell in love with history and genealogy at an early age. With a master’s degree in history and over 20 years experience as a genealogist, Kate has worked her magic on hundreds of family trees and narratives.

Areas of expertise:

-Native American Genealogy

-U.S. Civil War & Victorian America

-Narrative Biographies

-Irish Genealogy

The team of expert genealogists at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help bust through your brick walls. They do the research and you enjoy the discoveries!

Census Research Tip: Why Look at the Same Thing Twice

census research tipWhen may it pay off to look at the same records or indexes twice? When you can compare them on different genealogy websites. Here’s an example for this census research tip.

You’ve probably noticed that some record sets are available online at multiple websites. At each site, the images and indexes you find may be a little different. Online tools for viewing and searching at each site may also be different.

For example, a digitized image may be faded, dark, blurry, blotchy, cut off, or otherwise unreadable on one website but clearer on another site. Here are two images from the first few lines of the 1880 U.S. Federal Census taken in Bay Minette, Baldwin, Alabama. The first image comes from HeritageQuest Online (available at public libraries) and the second is from Ancestry.com. See the difference?

Alabama census image HeritageQuest census research tip

alabama census image ancestry census research tip

As you can see, depending on which line you’re reading, one image may be clearer than another.

Here’s another census research tip: The online tools available at each site are different, too. At HeritageQuest Online, you can view the image at original size, 200% or 400%, and you can look at the image as a negative, which sometimes helps faded text stand out a little more. Ancestry.com lets you zoom in and out, magnify specific areas, and rotate the image or view it in mirror form (in case you’re trying to read backward text bleeding through from the other side).

HeritageQuest Online improvesMore Gems for Online Genealogy Research

HeritageQuest Online Gets Better with Ancestry’s Support

4 Tips for Getting the Most out of Ancestry.com

Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 125: HeritageQuest Online, Ancestry Library edition and other great genealogy resources at the public library (Available only to Genealogy Gems Premium website members)

See what this intriguing census taker had to say about the neighbors

funny Gypsum census

Click image to view larger image

Eagle eye Genealogy Gems reader and listener John Roberts ran across some very unique entries in a Kansas State Census. John writes: “I thought you might find the professions listed for the people on lines 13, 16 and 33, out of the ordinary, to say the least. It appears this census taker had a critical nature. I found this census page very amusing. Hope you enjoy it too.”

Indeed I did John!

In 1875 census enumerator Frank Wilkeson made his way through a Gypsum, Kansas neighborhood making usual note of the locals as sculptor, wagon maker, and carpenter. However, his attitude changed when he reached the Law household, where he listed 27 year old Job Law as…

census genealogy family history

“Loafer”

genealogy census family historyHe didn’t think much more of the next Head of Household 55 year old James Coleman who he labeled “Blow Hard.”

Appearing to have settled down after that visit he went on to list the blacksmith, farmers and miller…until he reached J. Lockwood’s house where he called it like he saw it:

census genealogy family history

So who exactly was the guy who used the role of census enumerator as a platform to share his personal opinions on this Gypsum, Kansas neighborhood? I couldn’t help myself and did a bit of digging.

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According to the Gypsum Hill Cemetery Historical Walk, published by the City of Saline, Parks & Recreation and the Saline Public Library (and posted to Franks’s listing on Find A Grave), Frank Wilkeson led an interesting life that took many twists and turns. He was born in Buffalo, New York, on March 8, 1848, the youngest son of journalist, Samuel Wilkeson, and Catherine Cady, sister to suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton.Wilkeson“Wilkeson was only 15 when he ran away from home to join the Union Army during the Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, he had been brevetted a captain. He later published Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac, a starkly realistic view of war” (and early indicator of his brutally honest views.)

His exploits included working in Pennsylvania and Colorado as a mining engineer, working as a civil engineer for the Northern Pacific Railway and exploring the river valleys in Washington State, to which he returned many times. He then married and went to Saline County, Kansas in 1871, buying land in Gypsum Township where he established a cattle ranch and raised two sons.Frank Wilkeson

From 1887 to 1893, he wrote fishing and hunting pieces for the New York Times and the New York Sun. The last twenty years of his life, Wilkeson wandered between Kansas and Washington, writing promotional articles and dabbling in politics and various business ventures.

As a man who worked hard, was adventurous, and enjoyed putting pen to paper to share those experiences, I guess it’s no surprise that this page of the Kansas state census went down in history as it did.

Frank Wilkeson died in Chelan, Washington on April 22, 1913.

Learn US History through the Census

Game of Life

Remember the board game LIFE?  Archives.com has put its own spin on this family favorite that experienced a revival in the 1960s.

(Quick Quiz: 1. What  year was the game of LIFE created?
Bonus: 2. What was the original name?)

We recently discovered this cool, interactive webpage for learning more American Family Thru Timeabout U.S. history through census facts. It’s called The American Family Through Time and you can “play” it here free at Archives.com.

This clever page uses census data to show how American life has changed over the course of 220 years (and 23 censuses). You can click on decade-by-decade summaries on the “gameboard.” In addition to the census questions, you’ll find some fun now-and-then comparisons for housing, education and occupations. Great for kids of all ages!

Quick Quiz Answers:
1. 1860
2. The Checkered Game of Life

Family History Episode 11 – Census Wrap-Up: Decade-by-Decade to 1790

Family History PodcastOriginally published 2009

Republished December 17, 2013

Download the Show Notes for this Episode

Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 11: Census Wrap-Up: Decade-by-Decade to 1790

In our first segment we welcome back genealogy researcher, author and lecturer Lisa Alzo. The author of Three Slovak Women, Baba’s Kitchen and Finding Your Slovak Ancestors talks about discovering family traits and putting them in perspective.

Then in our second segment we wrap up our three-episode coverage of U.S. census records with a decade-by-decade overview of censuses from 1880 back to 1790. We talk about special schedules taken during one or more censuses: mortality, slave, social statistics and supplemental, agricultural, manufacturing and the DDD (Defective, Dependent and Delinquent) schedules.

 Updates and Links

For a list of online resources for U.S. federal census data, check out the show notes for Episode 9 at http://tinyurl.com/ShowNotesEp9. More links you’ll want for this episode include:

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