My first clue

Posted for the meme Genealogy Blog Party hosted by Elizabeth O’Neal of Little Bytes of Life. May’s theme invites posts involving genealogical “Duh Moments.” I’ll admit to having more than a few of my own, including the one recounted here.

…should have been the fact that the names and ages of individuals on the 1925 North Dakota census report[1] for some of my paternal relatives was typed rather than handwritten.

The family of interest is Nicholas and Elizabeth (Wehner) Ulschak[2]. (Elizabeth is my great aunt, the older sister of my paternal grandmother, Magdalena Wehner Arnold.) According to Elizabeth’s 1984 obituary, Nick and Elizabeth were married in April 1912, and their oldest child was born in August 1914.

1925 ND Census-Ulschak, Nicholas household 20160526

My research question was: How many children were born to Nicholas and Elizabeth Ulschak? I was especially interested in verifying the identity of an infant Barbara, reported as age 1/12 (1 month) as of the April 1st, 1925 census date. Barbara’s census entry was an outlier to every other record I’ve found about the family (see entries for the Nick and Elesabet “Ul(s)chack” family, highlighted rows 24-27; two sons were born to the couple in 1926 and 1928).

When I first discovered this record, I somehow managed to ignore the warnings I had read about the possibility of errors in transcribed and indexed records and proceeded as if everything in the report was accurate. I’m guessing the typed version of the report was transcribed from a damaged original when the originals were microfilmed. Whatever the circumstances of the transcription, it means there were one or more persons in addition to the original enumerator involved in the 1925 census record for the families on this record, and that those additional persons increased the chances for errors in the record.[3] Nevertheless, I am grateful this record exists (and that the interventions are obvious) because it is less frustrating (for me, at least) to have a perhaps flawed census report for a family when/where they should have been at a given time than it would be not to find them.

Further investigation revealed that the census sheet recording the Ulschak/Wehner family was the last of a series of nine typewritten census reports in a filmstrip of 311 census images. The only handwritten information on these half typed/half written census reports was the sheet number and the tallies of males and females by age categories. The blanks for locality (township, village or city) and assessor’s district were not completed. The forms did specify that the information recorded should be for “every person living April 1st, 1925. Omit children born since April 1st, 1925” but they did not have a space to record the enumeration date.

To better analyze my problem, I created a spreadsheet that detailed family members by name, dates of birth, death, and marriage, spouse’s names, marriage place, etc. I have entries for the 1915 and 1925 North Dakota state census reports, and the 1930** and 1940 U.S. censuses. I have not yet found the family’s 1920 U.S. census report, but it is not a key component of this analysis since Barbara was born in 1925. I sanity-checked myself by recording each person’s age as reported on the several census reports to ensure I was tracking the same family group.

**I had a lot of trouble locating the family’s 1930 U.S. Census report. I finally succeeded by following a tip I read several months ago: enter the first name of a child, leaving his/her surname blank, and the first name of one or both of the child’s parents. In this case, I used “Curtis W” for the child (because his name was the most unusual one among his siblings) and “Nick” for the father. The first result on the list was for “Nuldrak,” which is, admittedly, a long way from the family’s “Ulschak” surname, but when I followed the lead, I was thrilled to discover a one-to-one match with my Ulschak family except, of course, for the mysterious Barbara.

Since Nicholas and Elizabeth and most of their children are deceased, my next step was to analyze available death and obituary information for the family and add those details to my spreadsheet. I arranged the obituary analysis from earliest death to the most recent and marked each person as “L” (living) or “D” (deceased) according to the obituary’s content. None of the obituaries mentions Barbara or even the passing of an infant daughter.

My last step was to contact a granddaughter of Nicholas and Elizabeth who has a public tree at Her 90-year-old mother, the youngest daughter of Nicholas and Elizabeth, was born at the end of June 1925. Nicholas and Elizabeth’s daughter reports that she never heard even a hint that her parents suffered either an infant death or a stillborn child.[4] Nevertheless, this nonagenarian’s June 1925 birth date does offer one other, admittedly farfetched, possibility: that is, if the census taker (1) didn’t get to the Ulschak family until sometime in July, (2) didn’t follow instructions about before/as of/after April 1st, and (3) somehow mis-recorded the child’s name, then this mystery infant might be approaching her 91st birthday!

So, despite missing an obvious warning sign about the validity of a questionable (but still useful) record, I am satisfied that between the 1925 North Dakota Census, the 1930 U.S. Census, and the several obituaries I’ve reviewed that Nicholas and Elizabeth had a total of eight children, all of whom survived to adulthood.

[1] 1925 North Dakota state census, Sheet 19, Stark County, Township/Village or City [blank], Assessor’s District [blank], Nick Ulschack [sic] household; North Dakota, Territorial and State Censuses, 1885, 1915, 1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2008.
[2] The family’s Ulschak surname is frequently misspelled. Neither of the spellings (Ulchack, Ulschack) recorded in the 1925 North Dakota census are correct. Other variants include Nuldrak (1930 US Census) and Ulshak (Elizabeth’s obituary and death index).
[3] This discussion is not an attribution of blame, as this writer has no knowledge about the contents of the original census report. It is entirely possible that the original enumerator made an incorrect entry that was subsequently included in a transcribed copy of the original.
[4] W. Jorgensen to [undisclosed recipient], message/e-mail, 22-23 May 2016, “your ancestry question” and “further update on Ulschak family,” Wehner, Elizabeth (1883-1984), Arnold-Armbrust Family Tree, files privately held by W. Jorgensen [contact information available by request via].

2 thoughts on “My first clue

  1. Quite ironic that the non-existent Barbara was, in fact, still living today. I love stories like this. As for mis-indexed names, the worst case I have come across was for my husband’s “Nation” family. Eventually, I found the 1860 census record. The enumerator’s handwriting was so beautiful, it could have been used as a sample perfect script in a cursive lesson. Yet, somehow, whoever indexed this record – who I strongly suspect was a non-English speaker given that “nation” is a common word – came up with “Watiau.”!!!

  2. Fascinating. Yes, I was once a census taker…it is VERY easy for someone to record incorrect information if they are not very careful. Some census takers are only there for the paycheck, not detail! Additionally, mistakes are made too by others. For instance, my mother’s birth certificate incorrectly lists place of birth as Gladstone which is my FATHER’s place of birth. She was born in Iowa. However, by the time it was discovered, the estate was in the legal systems for settlement and to change it would have really been expensive and created a big mess. Ugh.

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