July 17, 2020
As I’ve written before, whether you started your genealogy last week or forty years ago, your go-to record for American research is the U.S. Federal census. It has been taken every ten years since 1790, and most of the censuses, up through 1940, for most areas of the country, are available for research.
Why is it then that so many of us complain that “I just can’t find great grandma in the censuses?” For most of us, the reasons we can’t find our ancestors in a particular census have more to do with how we’re searching than with any other fact. There are some missing censuses, most particularly, nearly all of the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire, and occasionally some people were overlooked and don’t show up on a particular census. On the whole, though, when we say we can’t find someone, we’re really saying that we haven’t found them – yet.
One of those missing ancestors in my own family was my great grandmother Mary Lindberg who was missing in the 1870 census for many years, although she should have been enumerated. Mary, or Maria as her name was in Sweden, was born in 1852 in southern Sweden. At the age of seventeen, family lore says that she emigrated to the United States, although I have never been able to find a passenger list entry for her, and her records in Sweden are unusually unhelpful since the local pastor who was required to record when anyone left his parish failed to do so when Mary left. Family stories help fill in the gaps by recounting that she left home at age fifteen to work as a servant on a farm about forty miles from her birth parish. Within a year she decided to come to America with her employers and supposedly travelled as a member of that family, most likely under the employer’s surname.
The story continues that soon after the family arrived in America, they travelled by train through Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania where the train broke down. My great grandfather to-be was working on the railroad line in Tunkhannock, and he spied a young woman walking beside the stalled train. From her appearance, he thought she was probably Swedish, as he was, so he introduced himself. The legend continues that he convinced Mary’s employers that Tunkhannock was a perfect place for them to settle since it had great job opportunities for Swedes. Conveniently, Mary stayed too, and one thing led to another, and the young couple fell in love and married within a couple of years. Eventually they produced eleven children who produced families of their own, and here I am, as a result!
It’s all a lovely little story of a fortuitous meeting leading to true love, but how much of it is really accurate? Family legends are great fun, but how many of them are really factual? In Mary’s case, I wasn’t able to find any emigration records in Sweden or passenger records in the U.S., and I didn’t know the surname of the folks she’d travelled with; however, looking at the family story more closely, it did appear that Mary probably had arrived in the U.S. before the 1870 census was taken, and if the story was accurate, she should have been enumerated in Tunkhannock, which is in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania.
Since the censuses are readily available online, I searched for Mary Lindberg and every spelling variation of that name I could think of. Nothing showed up, which perhaps meant that she was using her employer’s surname as the family story recounted. Not knowing what that name might have been, I resorted to one of my favorite ways to locate “missing” folks in the censuses. I searched for the first name “Mary” with no surname. I often have success in locating folks in the census using only a first name, particularly if the first name is unusual. I found one great aunt in numerous records using only her very unusual name “Elila.” Unfortunately, most names are not that unusual (even if they’re unusual to you, that doesn’t mean that they really are), and Mary was, and is, an extremely common first name. I think that there were more Mary’s in my family than anything else. I did know that Mary was born in Sweden in 1852 so I added those bits of information to my search criteria. I also narrowed the search to Wyoming County, Pennsylvania since Mary from Sweden with no location would probably have garnered way too many hits. Luckily for me, my search gave me exactly one hit – a Mary Wernell listed as a servant in a Peter Wernell household in Tunkhannock. She was from Sweden, and her age was correct. I was sure that I had the correct person, but, of course, I needed more verification.
Eventually, I did locate a note on a parish record in Sweden which stated that Mary had moved to a parish in another province in Sweden. By accessing the records for that parish, I learned that she had worked for a man named Peter Wendell and his family who had gone to America in late 1869. Although Mary isn’t listed as leaving the parish at all, I’m quite certain she did accompany that family when they emigrated. A closer look at the 1870 census seems to confirm my theory. The scrawled surname that looked like “Wernell” to an indexer looks much closer to “Wendell” when you know what you’re looking for. I have never been able to find any further records for the Wendell or Wernell family in America; Mary was married by 1872, and there was no further mention of them in any family document or story, but every once in awhile I check back for that elusive Wendell Family since I’d be interested in learning what happened to them. For now, I’m satisfied that I’ve located “my” Mary in the 1870 census.
Fortunately, for me, I had a family story to help begin my search, and I was also lucky that Mary’s employer decided to stay in Tunkhannock on that long ago day since there were only a few Swedish people in that area. My great grandfather’s family and a couple of Swedish railroad workers made up the entire population of Swedes in 1870. I suspect if the family had settled somewhere where there were more Swedes, my search wouldn’t have been quite so simple. In this case, though, using just a first name, I was able to confirm at least part of my family’s story by finding great grandmother Mary when she was just a girl starting her new life in America.
Researcher/Director at Large