Unusual individuals and finding information about them (or not)

[Contributor: Jessica Hoppe]

Researching specific individuals found within the census records has proven to be quite difficult. Despite having information such as their addresses, occupations, birthplaces, etc., finding information past what was provided on the census is practically impossible. When searching for detailed information on a single individual from nearly a decade ago, we must remind ourselves that the people we’re researching are most likely ordinary people similar to you and me.

As I began looking through the census data for types of people to research, I came across a quite peculiar family. This family consisted of a mother – Alice Barron – and four children. However, the lack of a male head is not the only strange aspect of this household. Nearly all the members of this family were born in different places. The mother was born in Australia, a son in Iowa, a daughter in Louisiana, and two other sons in Cuba. The census also lists the mother tongue – Alice’s mother tongue (and that of her children, too) is Irish, and both her parents were born in Ireland.  This unique dynamic sparked my interest in researching individuals with unusual histories and lifestyles.

selection from census sheet showing Alice Barron and her children

Alice Barron and her children in the 1920 census. (Note that in the actual census sheet, this family is further down the page, but this image has been edited to show it as the first family so that you can see the headers for the different columns.)

I was most intrigued by those who were occupied in odd or rare jobs, though. I was interested in these individuals because I was under the assumption that most workers at this time would be employed in more practical occupations such as mining or factory work. I made a pivot table in Excel of the occupations in our data on the Weld County 1920 census, so I could see all the occupations, and then I examined the ones that only one or two people had. When I found a few of these unusual occupations, I wanted to know why or how they found themselves working these uncommon jobs.

While sifting through the data, I noticed there was one individual from Weld County who worked in stone cutting/carving. In order to search for more information on this person, I turned to a service called HeritageQuest  – it’s a genealogical database, and it allows the user to input details known about an individual such as birthplace, race, sex, occupation, and other information covered on the census in order to find the specific person one is searching for.

Screen shot from HeritageQuest showing search boxes

With these specifics, Heritage Quest is able to find these individuals based on matching criteria. After inputting known information about the man who worked in stone cutting, I was able to find some extra data such as his name, Ralph E. Shotwell, and his address.

However, I wanted to know more than just his name. I was interested in finding information about Shotwell that wasn’t available through the census data, which is all I retrieved from Heritage Quest. To attempt this, I then searched through the internet to see if there was any more information available about this man. I was able to find a social security death index as well as a divorce record from 1924 on FamilyTreeNow.com. The aforementioned divorce was between Shotwell and the woman listed as his wife in the 1920 census data.

Ralph E. Shotwell death record

Ralph E. Shotwell death record

Shotwell death record

Ralph E. and Natalie Shotwell divorce record

Unfortunately, my luck ran thin at this point of my research. I was not able to uncover any other details about this mysterious masonry man.

I did attempt to to research other individuals, but I found there to be a severe lack of information about any specific person I attempted to search. Although Heritage Quest aids us in determining the names of these individuals, it is mainly made to assist people in constructing family trees of their own. This is when I realized there is a limitation on what information is available about these people from nearly a century ago. Without the benefit of other resources such as oral histories, recovering satisfactory resources about an arbitrary individual is extremely difficult.

One could also pursue some other avenues of research to contextualize the lives recorded in the census data, and to slice and dice the data itself in various ways to understand more about what kinds of patterns these people’s lives had. Since I was interested in the occupational habits of the inhabitants of Weld County in 1920, I looked into the participation rates of the labor force. I was able to find that only 54 percent of the able population was in the labor force. However, this does not account for 2 percent of the population who are classified as unpaid family farm workers. One could maybe try to find out about this small group and their lives. Continuing with this pattern of exploration, one could also look into other aspects of the data – for example, the number of women who engage in a certain occupation or the average age of a labor force participant; the possibilities are endless.