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December 14, 2004

Census, census, census! Using Clues to Find Ancestors

Lorine, of the Olive Tree Genealogy website, answers a question posed on Roots-L mailing list. A case study of how a few clues can lead you in the right direction once you think about what you really know, and where you need to look next.

Q: My Grandparents were: Guy Lucian Martin and Geraldine (possibly spelled Geraldeen) Lyle. My grandfather was supposedly born January, 1899 in Purdy Co. Oklahoma. My Grandmother was (supposedly) born in Tennessee circa 1905. With so, so many sites with conflicting records, one could go crazy!

Lorine's A: Start with the U.S. census - it will help you sort
out family groups. It will also give you birth locations and approximate years, plus parents places of birth and much more (depending on the census year)

First, I'd go to and see what questions are asked on each census. Then I'd start looking for your family, going backwards one census year at a time.

For the ancestors you named above, you have some great clues to get you started -- look for Guy in the 1910 census, see if you can find his parents. He'd be about 11
years old. Same for Geraldine. She would be a 5 year old (or 4 or 6, don't be too concerned if the ages are out by a year or so)

Q: My Grandmother's parents were: Sidney Lyle and Georgia Lovell. Where they were born is a mystery as well, I would presume late 1800s?

Lorine's A: Okay so you have Geraldine's parents names - find them in 1910, then 1900 then 1880 census....get an approximate year of birth and a location of birth for both of them.

Q: My father as well was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma September 2, 1926. His name was James Kenneth Rothner. Him, of course, I know about, however HIS Mother and father are, to say the least are a mystery!

Lorine's A: You have so many more clues than you realize. You can find your dad and his parents in the 1930 census! He will be about 4 years old. Finding them will give you great clues and you can then work backwards on this family - to 1920, 1910 etc.

Q: His mother's name was Joy Rothner, nee: Davis. She was supposedly born in Tennessee. My grandfather was Frank Rothner, where, when, he was born I cannot find.

Lorine's A: Census, census census... I can't stress this enough. Get those census records from 1930 back, and get your family groups in order. Write down everything you find! Keep careful track of dates of birth, locations of birth,
parents birth locations, etc.

Be sure to keep track of all children, don't just focus on your direct ancestor. You never know when you will need to find out something that will require the name of a sibling or research on a sibling will lead you to the parents.... will get you started, and give you an idea of where to look for the census you need. Once you get back to 1880 it's online for free at

There are some tips and suggestions for using search engines effectively at If you are new to searching, you might not get good results if you don't know
how to widen your searches to allow for spelling errors and mistakes in indexing.

Here's an example of what census research can tell you. I had a quick look in the
1930 census for your Frank and Joy and James Kenneth... It took a bit of time but I found them. Frank's real name is Theodore. That's a good example of family lore being not quite correct. James Kenneth is listed as Kenneth J. The surname is indexed as rothMer, but on the census page itself it is rothNer. (although the surname is a bit smudged and could easily be misread as rothMer)

So it's kind of hard to find them in an index unless you are willing to search under the last name (using wildcards!) and location and check every possibility

Here's where they are: Oklahoma > Tulsa > Tulsa > District 116

Brief extract:

  • Rothner, Theodore, head age 27, b Missouri, md at age 18, father and mother born "United States"
  • Rothner, Joy J? or G?, wife, age 28, b Arkansas, father b Illinois, mother b Texas
  • Rothner,Frank S son 5 b OK
  • Rothner,Kenneth J son 3 b OK
  • Rothner,Teddy son 1 b OK
  • Davis, Mary E., mother in law 61, widow, md at age 31, b Texas, father b Mississippi mother b Tennesee
  • Berry, Sadie, aunt (more details in the census)
  • Davis, Winnie B, brother in law (more details in the census)

I didn't write out all the details, but you can see what a fantastic amount of new facts you have now added to your family tree with one census record!

You now know that your grandfather went by the name Theodore -- and you have some new questions to answer - did he also use the name Frank, or was that a mis-remembered piece of family lore?

You have approximate years and places of birth for your grandparents Theodore Rothner and his wife Joy Davis.

You have Joy's mother's name, approx. year of birth and place of birth.

You have Joy's mother's approximate year of marriage - and can look for a marriage certificate

You have Joy's father's place of birth and you know he died before 1930.

You have a brother for your Joy. You have an aunt Sadie -- it's up to you to find out how she fits into the family. Since the relationship of each person is given re the head of the house, we might expect that Sadie is Theodore's aunt. However you need to take a good look at the census details and keep an open mind. This may be very helpful as you continue backwards on the Rothner & Davis families.

You have an approximate year of marriage for Theodore and Joy, given his age of 18 at marriage, so now you can look for a marriage certificate - the fun just goes on and on! I only looked in one census for one of your family lines - and you have several more to go.

I'm itching to search this family myself, what fun you are going to have!