1. They moved from where you thought they should be. For instance, I found Thomas Francis Farrell and his family in the 1860, 1870, 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. censuses, but the 1880 eluded me. They were always, always in eastern Massachusetts, moving around from Boston to Cambridge, Lynn, Salem, Winchester, etc. I thought they lived in Massachusetts from the time of Thomas’ arrival in the U.S. until the day he died.
I was wrong. In 1880 the family was living in Henrico County, Virginia! What were they doing there? The enumerator recorded that both Thomas’ wife, Sarah T. (Mullin) Farrell, and his oldest son, Joseph Henry Farrell, had bronchitis. I later found out they moved to Virginia for better health for the family members. So, if they’re not where you think they should be, maybe they’re somewhere else.
2. They were actually living where you thought they should be, but the enumerator wrote their name wrong, so you didn’t recognize them, or the search engine didn’t find them. My dad’s aunt, Floy Terry, lived in Leavenworth, Kansas. The 1930 U.S. census enumerator wrote her name, “Fley Ferry.” In other cases, the enumerator mistakenly recorded everyone in the household with the same last name as the head of the household, even though they had a different surname.
3. They were where you thought they should be, and the enumerator wrote it right, but the indexer transcribed the record wrong. My dad’s brother, Steven Farrell, was living with his aunt, Floy Terry (indexed as “Fley Ferry”), but the indexer gave Steven the name, “Steven Farry” even though the enumerator wrote “Farrel.” This could also happen if the film is faded and hard to read.
4. They were there, but the ages don’t match up with what you know. Don’t be so quick to cross them off your list. This may be your family. It’s hard to tell why this would happen. Maybe the woman didn’t want her true age revealed. Maybe the informant didn’t know for sure. You’ll have to make other connections to determine if it is your family or not.
5. Sometimes they are where you think they should be, but the enumerator recorded their name with initials or a nickname. Thus, if you entered their full name into the the search engine, it didn’t find them.
6. Newlyweds may be living with her parents.
Strategies for finding your family:
1. Search under creative spellings of the name. Can you spell it the way it sounds? Farrell was recorded Farrall, so the search engines missed the family.
2. Try to access a different organization that has also indexed or filmed the record. If you don’t find them in the Ancestry.com files, try HeritageQuestOnline. They each had their own indexers.
3. Search the town page by page.
4. Sometimes there is a second filming of the record. Try to find a different filming to search.
5. Sometimes they really are in the same location as ten years before, but the county boundaries have changed and they are now in a different county. Numerous sources may help you determine the boundary shift. Check online with Randy Major’s new online tool Historical County Boundary Maps, or in book form in The Handybook for Genealogists, or The Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses