Monday, September 19, 2022

The Missing Census Entry


There we are, chasing after our family's place in history when suddenly they go missing. Decade after decade, that family may have regularly made their appearance in the national census, but this one year, there is no trace.

Unfortunately, that common research scenario is exactly what befell me while I was trying to piece together the story of the Irish Murdock sisters' whereabouts after their arrival in Lafayette, Indiana. Ever since discovering that Eliza Murdock Stevens actually had two other siblings besides her well-known brothers—thanks to her brother John's will—it has been fairly easy to trace older sister Ellen. But younger sister Sarah? That has become my problem.

I've found it a good policy to trace a family through every decade's census record. While much can happen in a span of ten years, this decennial document provides a snapshot of those changes. Even in the one census in which I found Sarah and John Nolan and their family, it was easy to see their oldest child was born in Ohio, while the others arrived when the family called Wisconsin their home. And barely by the time of the 1860 census, they were living in Lafayette.

Yet, in 1870, there was no sign of them. Oh, true, there was a John Nolan showing in the 1870 census, but looking at the names of his wife—clue: she wasn't named Sarah—and the children, it was a snap to decide that wasn't the right family.

In the 1880 census, the only sign I could find for Sarah Nolan and her family was an entry in the enumeration for Sedgwick County, Kansas. True, that's far afield from Lafayette, Indiana—but there were other problems with that discovery.

The most obvious problem was that there was no sign of John, Sarah's husband. Sarah's entry marked her as a widow, but that was during a time period in which many women would have done the same, even though the reason for a husband's absence might be far from that fact. What had become of John? Looking for a death or burial record has not yet provided any explanation. What would a woman with several children be thinking in moving her family so far away from the traditional supports for a widow in that era? The only reasonable answer would be that if he wasn't still alive, John must have died in Kansas, not Indiana.

Looking at the names of the Nolan children in this census record—possibly our first opportunity to learn more about the descendants of this Murdock sister—we once again encounter doubtful entries. All we know from the 1860 census—the only census record we've been able to confirm for this family—is the names of the four children born before 1860. Then, we had listed James, Mary Ann, John, and George.

For this possible 1880 census entry, gone were Mary Ann and George, though there were entries for a James and a John. The only consolation I could find was that the birth locations agreed with what we had previously found: James born in Ohio and John born in Wisconsin. Even their ages agreed with the twenty-year margin from their entry in the 1860 census back in Indiana.

The only other detail tugging at me was the name of one of the five additional children appearing in this Kansas Nolan household: Sabina. Recall that the Murdock sisters had as their mother a woman named Sabina. As Irish-born immigrants, each of those sisters might still adhere to the traditional naming pattern of their homeland. Thus, for each Murdock sister, we'd expect to see a first daughter named Sabina. In this Nolan household in 1880 that was indeed the case.

Of course, we can't let any conclusions hang on just that one observation. There are multiple people claiming the same name, as we've seen in many research situations. We'll need to dig further to clarify whether this Sarah Nolan was one and the same as the Murdock sister named in John Murdock's 1874 will back in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. If that turns out to be the case, then we can follow Sarah's timeline in Kansas to see whether any other records mention her roots or confirm her parents' names.

One thing, though, is sure: it would have been near impossible, without close family help to point the way, to have found such a wandering trail of this still-migrating Nolan family without the aid of online resources. 

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