Finding “Missing” Ancestors in the Census

One of my toughest “brick walls” has been trying to locate my Lithuanian ancestor’s who immigrated to Pittsfield, MA and then to Athol, MA in the late 1800’s.    From what I can tell their surname was Baltrunas, but I have found them listed in records as Baltruniene, Baltrunene, Baltromei, Baltrenas, Baltrunew, Barton, Bill, Billie, Billei, Billy and Billings.

My mother thought that “Ellis Island” officials changed our Lithuanian surname. However, I have found there is not much truth to that bit of lore. While immigrants’ surnames may have changed as they adjusted to their new lives, rarely were names changed upon their arrival at Ellis Island. Here is a great article:

So how did I find these ancestors in America?  I will share some “search tips” that helped me in locating them in census (and other) records:

First always start in “old search” (not sure why, but I seem to have better luck with the old search tool).    Go to the main search screen and on the top right hand side there will be a link that reads “old search”.  Don’t try to search in the main search form on ancestry. Go right to the database you want to search, for example the 1900 census. Pick the advanced search.

1. Use a wild card to search (this requires at least three letters)
Try Joh* for Johansen

When using wildcards you can also use them at the BEGINNING of a name. For example when searching on the Johansen you can try *ansen or *sen

You can also use them within the word, as long as you have three characters total.  So for Johansen try: Jo*en OR *han*en OR J*h*n.  

Sometimes you get a weird error message from, but for the most part it works.

2. Check name variations like: Reed, Reid, Ried;  George, Goerge, Gorge; Joseph, Joesph, Josef.   Try spelling the name phonetically. For Johansen try things like Joehanson.

3. Leave the last name blank, and search on first name only or a few letters in the first name with a wildcard (*) if it’s an unusual or uncommon first name. 

4. Leave the first and last name blank

By doing this, you might get hundreds of hits. Try to narrow down your results by adding additional  information:

Add State, County, City, birth year (+/- 2 years or more), place of birth, etc. You also have choices like head of household, wife, son, daughter, white, black, etc.

When all else fails, I look for my ancestors in the city directory for the census year (city directories can be found on 

If the directory you need is not on, you could do a google search for the local library in the city where your ancestor was living. The librarian may be able to help you with street directories if they are not online.  Many times they will copy the pages for you for free or just charge a small fee for copying.

Once you find them in the directory, you will have a street address.

The data for the directory was sometimes collected a year in advance, so be sure to check the year of the census as well as the years before and after to get an address. If the family moved within the directory year, many times the directory will tell you what city they moved to.  Many of the directories list the names of people who died in town that year, so always check for that as well.  It is usually in the back of the directory, so browse those pages.

You can then go to the free Steve Morse site: and search for that street name on a census (see the link called “1900-1940 Census Street Finder”). Once you find the street on the census you can look through all the census pages for that street until you find your ancestors.

Another great thing to do is look at neighbors. Say you find them in 1920 but can’t find them in 1930. Look at their census page in 1920, find some neighbors with “easier” names. Search for them in the 1930 census. Chances are that your relatives will still be nearby (you might have to do this for a few neighbors).

 You may also want to try checking other census indexes.  If their name was improperly indexed on, it may be properly indexed on HeritageQuest ( you can usually get free access to this at your local library), ( ) or Family Search (

It’s a rare occurance, but sometimes there are people who were just never captured in the census data.  My g-grandmother Georgianna Clough is found in the 1900 Lynn, MA city directory living at the same address as her mother and her step-father Kittie and Frank Shipman.   Kittie and Frank are listed at that same address in the 1900 Lynn, Essex County, MA census without Georgianna. Perhaps Georgianna moved during the census year and was missed at both locations or perhaps the family wasn’t home and the census taker asked a neighbor about the family and the neighbor wasn’t aware that Georgianna had moved in with her mother.    

Have fun searching and please share any additional search tips that you use!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ann M on November 13, 2010 at 8:04 PM

    I too am Lithuanian-American, Lithuanians have maculine and feminine verions of their names, ‘iene for a married woman, ‘aite for an unmarried female. Therefore Baltrunas would be Baltruniene for a married female (If married to a male Baltrunas) and Baltrunaite for an unmarried female. Baltrunas is for a male, married or not. This explains some differences in surname. Some of our ancestors may have stuck to this naming convention.



  2. Posted by Elana on May 17, 2017 at 12:38 PM

    I know you wrote this 7 years ago, but it’s still so helpful. I’m trying to track down my great grandmother who claimed her parent’s native language was Lithuanian in the 1920 census and it’s been impossible. I’ll definitely use some of these tips. Thank you!!!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: