I use ancestry.com quite a bit. This site provides me with information abound about my family. Without it, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not be able to piece together, and consequently document, the history of my family. It is, however, only one of the many tools I have used. But it is here, where I find the first digitized documentation of my grandfather.

Searching on ancestry.com can be an art form all in it’s own. There are tens of thousands of collections of data on the site. And the site has billions of records. For example, collections include, but by no means are limited to; census reports (federal, state, foreign), tax records, wills, obituaries, birth and death indexes, military, immigration, and other members family trees, etc. A basic rule of thumb is that the more data you enter in a single search, the more search fields you fill with data and the fewer collections you search in, the less data you will get back. So for a first search use only a minimal amount data (search fields) and search in all the collections. You can always refine your search parameters to lessen the number of results returned. Other than that most basic guideline I won’t go into how to search on ancestry.com. Instead I will suggest you check out their help page on this topic. There are a lot of nuances that can make searching extremely helpful.

For my grandfather I entered in the most basic of data (first name, last name, birth year, and a location where he lived) and I search all of their US collections. I enter his name as Joseph Hossa, born in 1914 and having lived in Chicago. One of the first Matching Records that is displayed is the 1920 United States Federal Census. If you search for him today, August 31, 2013, a total of 32,383 records are returned. That number increases all the time, as ancestry.com is constantly adding new information. And the number of records is far greater than when I first began using ancestry.com many years ago.

This is an image of the first Matching Record:

Joseph Hossa Basic Search Result

Immediately one can notice that the surname presented is not Hossa, but rather Hassa. This is a common problem in any genealogical database. It is a simple transcription error. When the census report was initially transcribed from the original page to a digital format (in this case on ancestry.com) the transcriber interpreted the surname as Hassa. On ancestry.com when somebody has viewed a transcription and feels that an error has been made, they can very easily submit an alternative. That submission, labeled as an ‘alternative’, is noted in ‘[   ]’ brackets. In this particular case the alternative (correct) spelling is Joseph Hossa and I submitted it on January 13, 2011.

A simple mouse click away and I would be able to tell if this was my grandfather. That particular mouse click pulled up a page with a lot of useful information. The information transcribed, and in a textual format, on ancestry.com for the 1920 census included a person’s age, approximate birth year, place of birth, home in 1920, gender, race, relation to head of household, marital status, father’s name, mother’s name, father’s birthplace, mother’s birthplace and other household members. Along with all that textual information was a link to view an image of the original document. An image that would reveal additional information.

The transcribed text told me that his parents were Frank and Josephine Hassa (both born in Poland), that he lived in ‘Chicago Ward 8 (Cook) Illinois’, was white, was born in Illinois, and was 6 years old. I was also given other members listed on the census report that were in his household. Those names (and their ages) were: Francis (12), Virginia (10), Anthony (8)**, Pearl (3), Walter (1). All of which were transcribed, on ancestry.com, as having a surname of Hassa.

** NOTE: This individual is a female name Tola – See this blog post regarding the correction made on September 17, 2014

Another mouse click away and I was able to see a digitized copy of the original page of the 1920 census with my grandfather and his family’s information. You can view the full document on my blog here. In this article, I will only show you a section which contains the lines of the Frank Hossa household.

This is a portion of the 1920 United States Census (lines 15 to 23) with only the household of Frank Hossa. It does not show all the columns.

This is a portion of the 1920 United States Census (lines 15 to 23) with only the household of Frank Hossa. It does not show all the columns.

Once I was able to view the full page of the original document I could verify that this was my grandfather. And there was further information that I could pull from the document. Specifically that they lived at 8240 Burley Ave, Chicago, Illinois in Cook County. It showed me the year that both my great grandmother (Josephine) and my great grandfather (Frank) immigrated to the US. Frank and Josephine were born in Poland (and spoke Polish) and the children were all born in Illinois. They rented the house they lived in. Not shown on this clip of the census is that Frank’s occupation was that of a Saloon Keeper; Frank and Josephine’s parents were all born in Poland and spoke Polish. The entire family could speak English. You can look at the complete census page here.

This was a great start for me. It provided me with a lot of details that I could work from and I was also able to compare this to oral histories given to me by various family members.

Finally, I want to point out that when it comes to the census reports, the dates given for various items (like immigration dates and birth years, for example) are often approximations or flat out wrong. The information is only as good as the person, that was interviewed by the census taker, was able to provide. Information from one census report to the next can often contradict each other. I will go further into this in another article.