Sunday, March 21, 2010

Genealogy Bytes: The Census

Have you filled out your 2010 census yet? If not, why not? The census provides a snapshot of Americans in a particular period of time. Over time it will show historic trends, like increases or decreases in ethnic groups, urban groups, and the average number of children per family. The 2010 census has an added feature that is rather interesting. For the first time, homosexuals living with a lover can designate that person as an unmarried partner. While this information will not provide us with a true record of the gay population in the US (i.e. straight couples also can be unmarried partners, and single gay people are not recorded), it is still the first census that will try to track this information. It also is attempting to trace the ethnic heritage of the Hispanic/Latino population (e.g. Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, etc.), as this is the fastest growing ethnic group in this country.

For genealogists, however, census records are one of the greatest tools for researching one's family history. The US has been counting the population and its demographics every ten years since 1790, and in the UK they've been doing it every ten years since 1801. Over a year ago, I posted about the release of the UK 1911 Census, which helped me discover some fascinating information about a distant cousin who had emigrated to NYC in 1905 to work with at his uncle's architectural firm. I thought it might be interesting to follow-up on that and show how census information has helped me fill in gaps about another part of my English ancestry. It’s interesting to see how, using census records, one can trace the movements of their family over time.

The picture you see here is a photograph taken around 1930 of my great-grandparents Thomas and Jessie Ambrose, who by this time had been married for about 45 years and were then living in the Bronx on Westchester Avenue. Thomas was born illegitimately in June 1860 in the Lake District town of Ambleside in England. His mother, Martha Camm, a domestic servant, married the boy’s father, Charles Ambrose, a few months later. They then moved to where Charles’s family lived in Southport. Using the 1861 census, I found the family living on Boundary Street in Birkdale, where Charles is listed as an agricultural laborer. On the 1871 census, everything is still the same, but now Charles and Martha have two children: Thomas and Ann. (Oddly, though, Ann is listed as the elder child. After doing further research, my cousin HA and I were able to discover that daughter Ann was Charles’s illegitimate daughter from a different woman who had died.)

In 1881, Thomas is now living with the William Constable family on Fenton Street in Barrow-in-Furness, where he’s working as a bricklayer. This is the first mention of him as a mason, which would turn out to be his lifelong career in the US. In fact, Thomas emigrated to NYC the following year, and in 1885 he married Jessie Bagge, whose family also had come from northern England, so they shared a similar cultural heritage. Jessie, however, was only 15 years old when she married Thomas, age 25, a bit of family history that still surprises all of us!

Because the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed in a fire, we cannot find the Ambroses in federal census records until 1900 and 1910. At that time, they lived in Manhattan on First Avenue around 66th Street (what was then a working class neighborhood), and it’s during this period that we discover Thomas and Jessie growing family of 7 sons and 2 daughters (Charles, Thomas, Walter, Alfred, George, Mary, Ernest, Martha, and Edward). By 1920, they had moved to the Bronx and were living on Zulette Avenue, where now they are joined by two of their grandchildren, Thomas and Mildred.

In 1930, about the time the photograph was taken, they were renting an apartment for $35 a month (can you imagine?!) on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx . By this time, 5 sons and granddaughter Mildred were still living with them. As for what happened next, we’ll have to wait, because due to the 75-year privacy law, the 1940 census will not be made available to the public until 2015. I do know, however, that their son Thomas will have died before then, a victim of prohibition alcohol poisoning. Mildred will have died as well, but her death at 21 years old is still a mystery to be solved. My great-grandfather himself passed away in 1943 at 82 years of age, and Jessie lived to be 93 years old, dying in 1963.

All that, just because my ancestors filled out their census forms! So be a part of history and do it!


Anonymous said...

The 1940 census, after a 72 year confidentiality period, will be released in 2012, NOT 2015 as the essay states.

bklynbiblio said...

The privacy law in the US for this type of material is normally 75 years, which means officially 2015 would be the proper release date. The government's decision to release it in 2012 simply means they've changed this. This is not an unusual practice. They released the 1930 census before 2005, and the United Kingdom (where privacy laws are 100 years) released the 1911 census before 2011.