Step-Family vs. Nuclear Family Research

Describing a family, most people start with the parents, father, mother, then children oldest to youngest, finishing up with the baby. This is true today, and was true 200 years ago. It is a logical linear listing and works great for nuclear families undisturbed by death, divorce, remarriage, stepchildren, adoptions, cousins, grown siblings, elderly aunts, uncles, visitors, lodgers, boarders, or servants. It's an especially good thing to keep in mind when researching the 1850, 1860 and 1870 federal population census where no relationships are stated. Relationships will be, can be and are inferred. This is both good and bad, as some inferences are right and some are wrong. 

Major inferences:

  • All people listed with the same surname really had that surname. Some enumerators were lazy and used ditto marks, some families were inclusive and did not differientiate between children of different fathers.
  • All people in a household with the same surname are related. In Pennsylvania Dutch areas, the surnames Miller, Smith, Stoltzfus, Troyer and Yoder are so numerous a hired hand might have the same surname and NOT be related or at least not within third cousins. 
  • The first person listed, the head of the household, if male, is the husband of the second person listed and the father of subsequent appropriately aged children.  The primogeniture tradition may result in the eldest male being listed as the head of household and that may be all he is, the eldest son, unmarried, father of no one.
  • The second person listed, if female, is the wife of the head of the household and the mother of subsequent appropriately aged children. This could easily be the sister of the head of household, who came in to run things after the mother of the children passed away.
  • Ditto marks mean the next line is the same. Sometimes ditto marks are a copying error, sometimes a laziness factor, sometimes a mistake.
  • In rural areas, household members of different surnames may very well be related. 
  • In urban areas, household members of different surnames have more unrelated options; servants, roomers, apprentices, employees such as store clerks for merchants and law clerks for lawyers.

Most of the time, those statements are generally true, especially for nuclear families. However, there are exceptions to every rule and every family has its own peculiarities which effect genealogical and historical research.

The 1850 federal census was the first to list by name, each and every individual person in a specific household including servants, apprentices, lodgers, and relatives outside the narrow defines of a nuclear family, BUT and this is huge, until 1880 the household members were not identified in relation to each other or the head of the household. Most times, a nuclear family emerged, but not always. This is very important in "burned counties", counties in which courthouse fires or floods decimated marriage records and also in states without vital records registration laws. For example, New York and Pennsylvania didn't have marriage registration requirements until the 1880s, making the popoulation census schedules for 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 extremely valuable to help estimate marriage years.

Main strategies to determine relationships:

  • Use patterns and clues to establish possible connections. (If there is a known blended family in the area, see how the enumerator handled it and compare it to the household in question.)
  • Don't assume, test all hypotheses.
  • Compare surnames to the head of the household.
  • Compare places of birth of potential parents and siblings.
  • Check the ages of the household for discrepancies.
  • Watch the ordering of the household members.
  • Examine all available census years.
  • Use additional sources, marriage records, bible records, gravestones, death certificates, newspaper articles.

Charles Webster a merchant from Ohio lived in Cynthiana, Harrison Co., Kentucky in 1850.

1850 census Ky Harrison Co. Charles.Webster family

The 1850 federal census for the household of Charles A. Webster in Dist. 1, Harrison Co., Kentucky, p. 59 fam. 123:

  • Charles A. Webster 33 m merchant Ohio
  • Martha 35 f Tenn
  • Catharine E. Dinsmore 15 f Tenn
  • Sarah E. Webster 11 f Ky
  • Charles 9 m Ky
  • Lucy 7 f Ky
  • Martha 5 f Ky
  • Ellen 3 f Ky
  • Victoria 1 Ky

Without relationship context, some possibilities are that Catherine could be a sister, half sister, adopted sister, foster sister or married sister of Charles Webster, a sister, half sister, adopted sister, foster sister or married sister of Martha, a daughter from a previous marriage of Charles, a step daughter from a previous marriage of Charles, an adopted daughter or foster daughter of Charles, a married daughter of Charles, a daughter from a previous marriage of Martha, a step daughter from a previous marriage of Martha, an adopted or foster daughter of Martha or a married daughter of Martha. Catharine's age of 15 doesn't quite rule out a name change due to young marriage. She could also be a cousin or niece of either Charles or Martha and last but not least she could be an unrelated neighbor, servant or visitor. Because of her positioning in the household lineup, I would suspect she is related to either Charles or Martha or both. In general unrelated people, servants, apprentices, boarders, roomers, lodgers, local school teacher, sales clerk, etc. are listed last or at least after the youngest member of the nuclear family.

In fact, Catherine E. Dinsmore was the only child of Martha E. (Scruggs) Webster from her first marriage with William M. Dinsmore of East Warrensburg, Greene Co., Tennessee. William died in 1835, after which, Martha married Charles A. Webster, moved to Cynthiana, Harrison Co., Kentucky where they had at least seven more children, an entire Webster family.

Jacob Cox a farmer and later a Baptist minister lived in Sullivan Co., Tennessee in 1850.


This family carries over to the next page.


1850 Tennessee Sullivan county census for Anice Cox

The 1850 federal census for the household of Jacob Cox in Division 1, Sullivan Co., Tennessee p. 121/241 fam. 1575:

  • Jacob Cox 27 Tn
  • Ellen 32 Tn
  • Jeremiah 6 Tn
  • George Cox 2 Tn
  • Saml 1 Tn
  • Annice 10 Tn

 Among the known children of William Cox (father of Jacob Cox) and Mary (Whilloch) Cox were: 

  • Elizabeth Cox b. 1806 m. Jeremiah Proffett
  • Deborah Cox b. 1807 m. Jeremiah Proffett
  • Sarah Cox b .1810 m. Thomas Parker
  • Mary Cox b .1811 m. Thomas Brown
  • Margaret Cox b. 1812 m John McCulley m Mr. Jackson
  • William Cox b. 1814 m. Eliza Crouch
  • Jeremiah Cox b. 1816 m. Eleanor Amanda King
  • Anna Cox b. 1818
  • James Alvin Cox b. 1821 m. Sarah Lady, Mary Hodges, Edan Lane, Fannie Courtney
  • Jacob Cox b. 1823 m. Eleanor Amanda (King) Cox
  • Rodah Cox b. 1823
  • John Harvey Cox b. 1824 m. Cynthia Copas

Rev. Jacob Cox, one of the younger sons of William Cox and Mary (Whilloch) Cox, was born 9 August 1823 in Sullivan Co., Tennessee, died 29 September 1861 and was buried in Cox Cemetery, Sullivan Co., Tennessee under a joint stone with Amanda Cox. Jeremiah Cox his older brother is also buried in Cox Cemetery, born 24 May 1816, died 21 December 1844. Jacob appears in the 1850 census for Sullivan Co., Tennessee neighboring his parents and older brother, William. Ellen age 32 (his wife Eleanor Amanda (King) Cox Cox, widow of his older brother, Jeremiah Cox) is enumerated after Jacob age 27, followed by a six year old boy Jeremiah, two year old boy George, one year old boy Samuel and finally ten year old girl Anice. In 1860 Jacob Cox 38, Amanda 41, Jeremiah 14, George 12, Samuel 10, Mary J. 8, Angeline 6, Anis 4 and Mary Cox 70 are enumerated in Tennessee, Sullivan Co., District 14 on page 38, family 268. Anice the eldest child in 1850 is not with the family in 1860 and Anis age 4 known by her complete name of Melissa Annis Cox, is the youngest child in the household in 1860.

1860 Tennessee Sullivan Co. federal census for Jacob Cox

In 1860 Annis Cox Kitzmiler, a 20 year old, is married to Henry Roan Kitzmiller and lives nearby with two children, Joseph age 2 and Martin age 3/12ths. The death certificate abstracts on both Ancestry and FamilySearch for Annie (sic) Kitzmiller born 1840 died 1925 list her parents as John J. Cox and Matilda Cox, with the informant not listed. On the digitized copy of the death certificate, the informant was George Hawk, her son-in-law, husband of her daughter, Florence Louisa (Kitzmiller) Hawk. Her date of birth was unknown, age was "said to be 85." John J. Cox was not a brother of Jeremiah Cox and Jacob Cox, though they did in fact have a younger brother named John Harvey Cox. It is possible that Jeremiah Cox married Matilda first, they had a child, Annis, Matilda died, he married second Eleanor Amanda King, they had two known children; William and Jeremiah, Jeremiah the father died, Mandy married his brother Jacob and they had children. It is more likely that the death certificate is purely wrong and Jeremiah Cox married Eleanor Amanda King, they had three children; Annis, William and Jeremiah; he died, she married his younger brother Jacob and then they had more children, George G., Samuel B., Mary Jane, Martha Angeline, Melissa Annis, Elizabeth E., Jefferson Davis and Robert Lee.

Henry Kitzmiller 1860 Tennessee Sullivan Co. Dist 14 federal census

The county marriage records of Sullivan Co., Tennessee, prior to 1863 when the courthouse sustained a direct cannon ball hit, have not survived. Unless the Fordtown Baptist Church has kept records from this time period, we may not know the exact marriage date for Jeremiah and Mandy. It is likely Mandy and Jeremiah were married around the time Mandy was 18 or 20 or probably 1836 to 1838. Annis Cox, born 5 May 1840, could easily have been their first child. Annis is a known name in both the James Harvey King/Jane Gregg and John Gregg Sr./Julia Annis King families (yes a brother and sister married a sister and brother).

Just as there are people nowadays who specifically do not distinguish between children and stepchildren, grandchildren and stepgrandchildren in an obituary, there were and are people who did the same while answering the questions for the census. While this is a wonderful gesture of inclusion and love towards the living, it is a stumbling block for the researcher. In addition, mistakes made by the enumerators, assumptions of nuclear families when in fact the family was a blended one, also aggravate researchers with surnames that match when they shouldn't. This example was even harder to untangle because the two husbands were brothers with the same surname. The key clue that Annis was not a child of Jacob is that she appears at the end of the household enumeration. The two aggravating factors, her full brother, Jeremiah appears at the start of the list of children in the 1850 census and the death certificate for Annis  does not mention either adults she lived with in 1850.

Another example of a blended family in the 1870 census, doesn't look blended because the surnames are all the same by mistake of either the enumerator or the respondent or possibly by design of the respondent. Adolph Steinruck was born in 1867 in New York according to family lore and the 1900 and 1910 federal census for New York and the 1915 and 1925 state census for New York. Unfortunately, the 1870 New York federal census does not have an Adolph Steinruck born in the decade between 1860 to 1870.

The first enumeration of New York City in 1870 had a boy Adoph born ca. 1867 in New York in Charles Schuler's household.

1870 NY New York Ward 10 Dist. 4 p 72 fam. 604, Charles Schuler 27 Darmstadt, Mary 28 Wurtemburgt, Annie 9 NY, Lizzie 7 NY, Adolph 3 NY, Amana Christian 30 Bremen.

1870 New York New York federal census first enumeration Charles Schuler

New York City was enumerated twice in 1870, as were Philadelphia and Indianapolis. Both times, Anna, Louisa and Adolph were listed as Schuler family members instead of Steinrucks. The ages of the five person household were older in the second enumeration in three out of five instances and oddly younger in two instances. In addition a young man, a wood cutter from Bremen was enumerated in the household in the first enumeration who was not in the second. If only his name were as legible as his occupation and birthplace!

  • 2nd enumeration of New York, New York Chas. Schuler 


    Adolph Steinruck born ca. 1867, father of Adolph Alfred Steinruck born 1891, was enumerated as Adolph Schuler in 1870 in New York City Ward 10, six months later in the second enumeration of New York in Ward 11, and again in 1880 in New York. In 1900, 1910, and 1930 he appears as Adolph Steinruck. He may have been known as Adoph Schuler in his childhood and when he came of age began to use his birth name or it may have been an enumeration issue all along. School records might shed some light on this theory. The 1880 census shows a break in the birth years between Adolph age 15 (sic) and Edward age 8, taken with the 1870 census data, indicates a potential second marriage for Mary in the last half of 1869 or the first half of 1870.


    1880 federal population census New York New York for Charles Schuler

    1880 New York New York 312 East 4th St., 309-3-27 fam. 33, Charles Schuler 35 Hesse Darmstadt, Mary 37 Wurtemburg, Annie 19 NY, Louise 17 NY, Adolph 13 NY, Edward 8 NY, Ferdinand 6 NY.


    In 1910 a half brother, Frederick (sic) Schuler was enumerated in Adolph Steinruck's household, providing the surname clue for 1870 research. In areas not as populated as New York City, the first name Adolph might be enough to search or Adolph and an approximate birth year.


    Clues and patterns in the positioning of names, sexes and ages in the 1850, 1860 and 1870 census can lead to good hypotheses about relationships. They can also lead to assumptions and inferences that may or may not be true. Family research is complex enough without the conflicting directions unknown step-families throw into the mix. Imagine how researchers will look at the 2000 and 2010 census and see all the blended families of unmarried seniors and retirees living together, not married, because of the way Social Security and various pension plans have made marriage an unattractive economic choice.

Ida Sherwood Bettis is my paternal grand mother. Aunt Clara is my great aunt. I can remember every nooks and crany of that house and yard...

Eric Bettis Eric Bettis 25. July, 2017 |

I would be happy to forward your name, connection, and email if you wish.

Barbara K. Henritze Barbara K. Henritze 06. November, 2016 |

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