This week I had the opportunity to help an African-American woman look for her ancestors in the U.S. Federal Census. She was able to locate them in the 1930 census but couldn't find them in any other years. It seemed very odd to me because her ancestor had a very unique given name and a surname that seemed hard to misspell. I helped her look for a while. We tried wild card searches and birth year searches and just about every other trick we could think of with no luck!
She ended up moving on to look at some films and when I had a few free minutes later in the afternoon I began searching again. This time. I searched for the names of the children and their birth years. In the 1920 census I didn't get any hits on the children until I dropped the surname as part of my search. I searched just in the parish I knew the family was living in and the first name and approximate birth year of the children one by one. Finally I hit the jackpot. It turned out that the census taker wrote down the father's surname as his given name and his given name as his surname. No wonder we couldn't find them!!
Next I returned to the search in the 1910 census. This time I tried some of the same techniques that I used in the 1920 census search. I began with children's names. I also used a wildcard search for the surname omitting the last letter of the surname, which was Gary. It turns out that this time they had spelled the father's given name mostly correct but they had really butchered the last name. Instead of Gary it was Garregue! Since they were in what used to be French Louisiana the census taker had given the family a French-ified version of their surname. The mother's name was also changed from Mary to Marie.
This whole incident just goes to show that you need to persistent in your census searches. Never give up!! Think creatively too! You never know how your ancestors might have been recorded. Consider given name searches, birth year searches, and always throw in some wild card characters if you have a name that could easily be misspelled!