In the days before there were things like “independent living”, “assisted living” or nursing care facilities, our extended family members very often lived in the same home. It was not uncommon for 3 generations to be living under one roof. Families were large, and when elderly parents could no longer live on their own, they moved in with one or more of their children. This system, like any other, had its benefits and drawbacks for those involved, but from a purely genealogical standpoint, it was a homerun!
Finding a census in which numerous generations of one family are recorded together in one household can add several branches to a family tree in a relatively short time. Of course all relationships implied by the census should be verified by other sources, but there is no denying the giant step forward your research can take with such a discovery!
Starting with the 1880 federal census, the relationship of each household member to the “head” of the household is given. Imagine you are trying to establish a maiden name for your great grandmother, Elizabeth Flannigan, wife of James Flannigan. Locating a record like the one below from the 1880 census gives you the name of James Flannigan’s mother-in-law, Ellen O’Hanlan. Now, it can be assumed from this information that Ellen is Elizabeth’s mother, but what can’t be assumed completely is that O’Hanlan is Elizabeth’s maiden name. There is always the possibility Ellen remarried.
More complex extended family relationships can also be analyzed from the data found in census records to open up more research possibilities. The 1900 census from Albany, NY, below, shows the household of William Kirtley at 838 Madison Avenue.
William resides with his wife Margaret, to whom he has been married for 7 years, and their only son Alfred. There are 6 extending family members also living in the household, as well as a “boarder”. (often people classified as boarders are also family members). Mary Kirtley is identified as “mother in law”, but she is likely William’s mother as they share the same surname. Mary Chase is a widowed aunt, Thomas D. Olney an unmarried cousin, Mary Boyd, a widowed mother-in-law, Florence and Elizabeth Maxwell, teenaged nieces, and finally, Mary E. Monroe, a single boarder. Sorting out who all these people are gives us valuable clues as to our own ancestor’s origins. If you go looking for William Kirtley in earlier census records in an effort to identify his parents, you will know to look for him in a household with a mother named Mary.
Though the thought of having our extended family members residing with us today makes many of us cringe, we can be happy our ancestors either did not feel the same or were able to conceal their opinion more effectively. Either way the happy result is often more research possibilities to extend the branches of our family tree!