Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What Doesn't Get Indexed

Over at The Ancestry Insider, there has been a discussion unfolding in which a reader questioned just what is and what isn't included in the indexing process that helps subscribers find information on possible ancestors. Of course, in that case, the question was specific to public family trees posted at, not the situation we've been dealing with here at A Family Tapestry, in which I'm seeking whatever became of the near-orphaned children of missionary Peachy Taliaferro Wilson.

It is the indexing process that has revolutionized the whole genealogical research process, in that now, instead of poring over page after page of records in hopes of finding mention of the precise ancestor being sought, a computer-aided search can pinpoint the exact location on a specific page of the very person you wish to find. Embedded within that process, however, is one detail that presents us with today's quandary: what gets indexed, and what doesn't?

Fortunately for us, the question being examined in the Ancestry Insider posts was specific to names in publicly submitted family trees at Ancestry. In the case I'm looking at today—and one I've run up against in the past—the search is on in a different venue: government documents.

In the process of converting the scanned and digitized pictures of such documents, in order to make the material searchable via computer, someone had to set up a project that decided which keywords would be captured and which details would be bypassed in the process. Thus, for instance, the recently-added files at Ancestry on the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index at first had the individual's own name included in the index at—but not the parents' names, though they were often provided in the file as well. Later, Ancestry chose to add those valuable bits of data to the list of words which were indexed in that collection. (Likewise, they then could also be attached to the records of each parent in a person's tree.)

While the process of indexing makes for a very efficient research mechanism, it is not the be-all, end-all of genealogical research. There are still reasons why we need to look at the actual image of the document. The one example I'm concerned with today falls within that category. You see, if it weren't for the ability to look at the document and see what wasn't included in that indexing protocol, I might have missed a vital detail helping me connect yet another son of P. T. Wilson back into his rightful family tree.

It was, in fact, that very collection—the Social Security Applications and Claims Index—that provided me with a first tip in the case of the Wilsons' second-born son. If you remember, when missionaries Peachy and Mary Whitcomb Wilson returned to the United States from India, along with their daughter Mary and son William, they were traveling with another son, Harvey.

According to the passenger list when the Algeria landed in New York City on April 4, 1873, Harvey's age was given as one year and six months. That would put his birth—if that were an accurate report—somewhere around October, 1871.

By the time the Wilson children had lost their mother in 1874—and subsequently were placed in homes so their father could return to his work in India, confident that his children would be safe and well cared for in their homeland—it seemed they had all but vanished. It was a chore to discover where oldest child Mary's new home was, since she was taken in by someone to whom the family was not related. Even son William's location was partially concealed by his uncle's use of initials, rather than his name, for the 1880 census—the only such record in which I've been able to locate the young man—showed us the family had moved from their customary location in Illinois to an entirely different state.

That didn't make the search for Harvey a promising venture. He might be with family—but with whom remained the question, as finding Peachy's brothers was a chore, as well. If with well-meaning friends, as we just found had happened with his sister Mary, his surname might be entirely omitted from the census record.

In fact, that was exactly what did happen. I'm sure I never would have found this out, had it not been for two serendipitous revelations, neither of which could have been located without a computer-aided search, combined with the exercise of carefully examining the originating document.

The first discovery was in that very Social Security Applications and Claims Index I mentioned earlier. But don't think it was an easy one. Thankfully, the search engine served it up, despite a jumbled-up name: instead of Harvey Wilson, the result read "Harvey Clendening," but included the names of "household members" as Peachy T. Wilson and Mary E. Whitcomb.

Well, that was a promising start. But what about that Clendening name? Just in case there was something to it, I decided to test out the hypothesis that Harvey had been placed in the home of someone named Clendening.

Sure enough—just as the 1880 census seemed to be the only window of opportunity to capture any record of these missionary kids back home in the land of their citizenship—there was an entry for a Clendening family with a Wilson boy. The caveat: "Wilson" was represented as the child's first name.

You see, in the 1880 census record for the Hyde Park, Illinois, household of Thomas Clendening, clergyman, and his wife Amelia, there was only one child: an eight year old son named Wilson. While that may seem unusual, it wasn't the first time a son had been given a "family name"—a surname from the family's ancestry, to be brought forward as the given name of a child.

Clendening, however, didn't figure easily in my Wilson genealogy, nor from the Gilmers—the ones in Peachy's maternal line whom he could thank for the gift of his unusual first name. What would be the blood connection?

Taking a closer look at the census record provided a clue. Just as the record for Peachy's daughter, Mary, had shown her born in "Hindustan," that was exactly the listing for this boy, Wilson. The report for his parents' origins, however, followed suit from the listings of Thomas and Amelia—Ohio and Massachusetts—not our Harvey Wilson's mother and father, which would have referred us to Kentucky and Massachusetts.

Call that one inconclusive. But what about seeking out later census reports for this Wilson Clendening? Thankfully, unlike our experience with Harvey's older brother William, this was somewhat easier.

The 1910 census, this time moving us into the city of Chicago, provided a glimpse at that same Wilson Clendening. This time, he was a man of thirty eight years of age, married, with a son of his own. One interesting alteration was the listing of his name: now, not merely "Wilson Clendening," he had added just one initial, to render the name "H. Wilson Clendening."


Of course, the first thing I did was zoom straight to the column revealing Wilson's place of birth. It didn't seem to do much good, though, for whatever entry was originally there had been overwritten. I knew what my heart hoped I'd find, but didn't want that impetus to overrule what was actually there to see.

It looked like Wilson's birth location was a state that began with a capital "I," but other words obscured the entry's full identity. Providing some hope, though, Wilson's father had been listed with a birthplace as Kentucky, and a mother's birthplace in Massachusetts. This was beginning to look promising, even though his own birthplace was unclear.

Still, since Wilson had a son, that questionable entry could be double-checked by the son's own entry for his father's birthplace—and sure enough, there it clearly stated, "India."

That's where those blessed marginal notes—the ones that don't follow protocol, and certainly never seem to make the cut when project managers decide which entries to include in the indexing effort—make all the difference for a researcher like me.

It was when I looked closer at the entry—blew it up to the largest proportions I could for legibility—that I noticed a marginal note explaining what had been written over Wilson's place of birth. It was the phrase, "son of missionary," which not only explained the attempted "Am Cit" over the original entry "India" but provided me the assurance I needed that H. Wilson Clendening was likely once known simply as Harvey Wilson.

Above: Excerpts from the 1910 United States Census, in Chicago, Illinois,  for the household of H. Wilson Clendening. The second excerpt shows the birthplaces, respectively, of H. Wilson Clendening on the top line, his wife Bertha in the middle line, and below, their son Wilbur. Both records courtesy


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Iggy! I'll gladly take a bow for that one...after I wrap up a few more details. You know there are always those pesky extra details.

  2. So was Harvey Wilson adopted by the Clendenings?

    1. That's what I'm wondering, Wendy. By actually taking that name, it seems to point in that direction.

  3. Very interesting post. It pays to look at the actual entry. Have been doing a Happy Dance this week and last because a researcher added a name to that may well lead to many descendants on a Cramer Line. I had not been able to make much progress on this line for about 35 years. I am tracking the researcher down after her phone # did not work, she didn't answer my two e-mails (yet), I called a family search center in Maryland, and they said she does research there! I left my name with them. I will take a deep breath and give her a chance to respond. I should follow your example and write about these experiences. Maybe I will start writing in my Sherwood Blog again as this has to do with that family. I started another blog:

    That blog is taking up so much time. There just isn't enough time to keep track of all the ancestors.

    1. With every step back through the generations, we double our amount of research work, Grant. No wonder there isn't enough time to do it all!

      Thanks for leaving the link to your new blog. Looks great! And yes, if you can find the time, picking up on your Sherwood Blog would be interesting. You had found so many fascinating details on that story.

  4. Replies
    1. That was a little victory dance for sure, Far Side! I want to do more work on him, of case it turns out to be a case of mistaken identity. There are a few other details that don't seem to line up. I'll explain tomorrow...


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