It’s All Relative: Locating Family in Federal Records and Genealogy Research Strategies

Today’s post was written by Miranda Booker Perry, Ph.D., archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

This blog is part of the #1950CensusCountdown. The 1950 Census will be released by the National Archives on April 1, 2022.

The genealogy bug bit me about a decade ago while briefly cross-training with the Archives unit formerly known as the Research Support Services Branch at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. This branch had a strong focus on federal records that pertained to genealogy. However, my love of history started when I was young. Since childhood I have enjoyed talking with Dad about family history, Vietnamese history (Dad served in Vietnam during the advisor tenure) and Black history. My interest in history continued to grow which led me to study history as an undergraduate and to eventually become an academically trained historian. Having a background in history helps me put my genealogy research in a broader historical context.  Conducting genealogy research ebbs and flows from year to year for me, but my intrigue and desire to learn more remains constant.  For the purposes of this blog, I delved into records on my dad’s side of the family. My father’s paternal and maternal lines go back many generations in the state of Virginia, primarily in the central and east-central regions.

woman standing in a dress on a curb
Mary Elizabeth (née Cox) Booker – author’s grandmother (Nana) (ca. late 1950s to early 1960s) – Courtesy of the Booker Family Photo Collection

Mary Elizabeth Booker, née Mary Elizabeth Cox, is my Dad’s mom whom my cousins and I fondly called, Nana. Henceforth I will refer to my grandmother in this blog mostly as Nana and occasionally as Elizabeth (people  typically called Nana by her middle name, Elizabeth). In addition to being a beloved mother and grandmother, she was a preacher’s wife to the Rev. Charles A. Booker (lovingly known to his grandchildren as Poppy), a deaconess, the head of the missionaries, and she was involved in various civic organizations. Elizabeth was discreet, good-natured, serious, punctual and virtuous, but humble. My grandmother loved traveling; she had a green thumb and numerous plants adorned her home, and she was an excellent cook and baker. Sometimes after school Nana would make little tri-cakes for me and to this day I prefer my hot-chocolate with milk (instead of water) because that is how Nana prepared it. We would go seemingly everywhere together from church meetings/functions and visits with family members to running errands and walks around the neighborhood. Nana and I would watch cartoons and TV shows together like: Fame, 227, The Golden Girls, and Amen. Many holidays and gatherings were spent with Nana and the rest of the family too. She died when I was only 11 years old—in fact, I had just turned 11 shortly before she passed on that cold Sunday in January. But she made an impression on me that would last a lifetime.

3/4 quarter portrait of Nana in button down shirt
Mary Elizabeth (née Cox) Booker (ca. early 1950s) -Courtesy of the Booker Family Photo Collection

To narrow it down a little further, this blog will focus on Nana’s family, my father’s maternal line. The importance of Census records to genealogical research cannot be overstated. There is so much information that can be gleaned from perusing through numerous federal decennial censuses. In the 1900 Goochland, County Virginia Census I found my paternal great-great grandparents (Nana’s grandparents), great-grandparents (Nana’s parents) and their siblings (surnames: Cox and Vest) and my great-great-great uncle (Nana’s great uncle) and his family (surname Mathews) who lived in very close proximity to one another. While doing some family research about a year and a half ago, I conducted a keyword search on for the Mathews branch of the family. A few members of 3rd-great Uncle Julian’s family were featured at the very bottom of page 21 (Note that pages 21 and 22 on the online genealogy database, is page/sheet 11 of the actual microfilmed census) of the aforementioned census and the remainder of the family on the top of page 22. Then as I glanced down the page, the Cox surname caught my attention because I knew that was the surname on Nana’s paternal side of the family. And lo and behold, it was indeed Great-Great Grandpa Cox (Nana’s paternal grandfather) and his immediate family. Having made this very cool discovery I thought I should take a closer look at the previous page and other nearby pages. When I clicked back to page 21 (with the Mathews family at the bottom) and looked further up the page, I discovered Great-Great Grandpa Vest (Nana’s maternal grandfather) and his nuclear family. I can’t describe my level of excitement! The moral of the story is to be mindful that more of your family members could be on census pages immediately before or after the page that the keyword search unveiled. It would be unfortunate to overlook relatives who lived nearby one another because you failed to thoroughly peruse the page you are on or back to back census pages.

1900 population schedule, members of Vest and Mathews family outlined in orange, Ella Vest in yellow
Allen & Elizabeth Vest household (lines 29-36), and Julian & Emma Mathews household (lines 48-50, continues on next page). Mary Ella Vest (Nana’s mother) highlighted in yellow. Enumeration District 12, Goochland County, Virginia, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, sheet 11A, NARA Microfilm T623,

The Coxes, Vests and Mathews are all neighbors in this snapshot from the 1900 census. It is fascinating to see that Nana’s grandmother, Elizabeth (often referred to as Lizzy) and her husband, Allen, and their children are living near her brother Julian and his immediate family. In 1900, the Vests and Mathews were both neighbors of, but no relation to, the Coxes. My 1st-great-grandparents, Nana’s parents (Mary Ella Vest and Charles Peter Cox, highlighted in yellow) were teenagers in their respective families and had not started courting. This 1900 census provides a glimpse into the lives of three branches of my family tree before one of those three branches even shared family ties with the others. It is heartening to see my ancestors over 120 years ago intact and persevering during the nadir of American race relations.

census page, Julian Mathews household cont, William Cox house outined in blue, Charles P Cox outlined in yellow
Julian & Emma Mathews household, continued (lines 48-58), William & Mary E. Cox household (lines 59-69). Charles P. Cox (Nana’s father) highlighted in yellow. Enumeration District 12, Goochland County, Virginia, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, sheet 11B,

This brings me to my next research tip. It is imperative to talk with parents or other older family members to discover and confirm surnames from your family branches so you will recognize them in the census and other records. For example, if you go back three generations to your great-grandparents there are already 8 different surnames. Having a first name and last name of an ancestor is all the better. When you come across common family surnames (for example-Green, Johnson, Smith etc.), it is especially advantageous to make special note of unique first names, or a middle initial, or middle names of kin so that you are reasonably confident that you have identified the correct set of family members. Even if you don’t have a relative(s) who is well-versed in family history, paying close attention to unusual or rare first names when conducting your own genealogy research can help you locate family members in the records. Speaking of “locating” family members, being knowledgeable about where your ancestors resided (counties/states) is very helpful when searching for them in the records. Interestingly enough, you may also begin to identify the following naming pattern when tracing family history: family members from the past had a tendency to name children after parents, grandparents or siblings so oftentimes you will see the same first names (and sometimes middle names) passed down from generation to generation. Census records reveal that Nana was named after both of her grandmothers and her mother too.

form w/signature and identifying info including: birthplace, residence, age, occupation, family members
William H. Cox (Nana’s grandfather) signature and information for his Freedman’s Savings Bank account, officially opened in 1873 in Richmond, VA. As early as the 1870 census there is evidence that Great-Great Grandpa Cox was literate. Signature Books of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874 (NAID 566522,

In addition to U.S. Census records; military records, marriage certificates, death certificates, cemetery records, probate records, etc. are rich sources of genealogical information and will help you round out the story of your family. While tracing lineages, I have located a variety of records pertaining to multiple great grandparents and other relatives. I have included a Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company document and a WWII draft registration card in this blog. Although I have not included them here, marriage records indicate that all of my 2nd-great-grandparents (Nana’s grandparents) highlighted in this blog were married in 1877 or 1878 – which happened to coincide with the end of Reconstruction in the United States.

Nana’s parents, Charles Peter Cox and Mary Ella Vest married in 1907. Since Charles and Ella’s love story hadn’t begun yet (she was usually referred to as Ella), Nana and her siblings are not listed on the 1900 census. However, by the spring of 1910, Nana’s two older sisters were toddlers living with their mom, Ella, their aunts, uncle, and grandparents as members of the Vest household. Nana was born in 1910, but she does not appear on the 1910 census because the enumerator visited her town in April and she was born on June 27th. Nana was the third of six children. The children’s father, Charles P. Cox is not listed on the 1910 Goochland County, VA census because his workplace was a long distance from his family.  He was a railroad employee (freight handler) residing as a boarder in West Virginia in 1910. It is sad that Nana and her younger siblings never appeared on a census together with their mother, Ella Cox. Great-Grandma Ella passed away in 1919 during the influenza pandemic when Nana was only eight years old. It has been passed down, through family lore, that Great-Grandma Ella contracted influenza and passed as a result of it. However, her death certificate mentions another ailment. It is possible that, as is the case currently, she had an underlying condition and contracting influenza exacerbated it which led to her untimely death. Great-Grandpa Cox lived to be 86 years old and according to Dad was alert and active (traveling to visit his children and grandchildren etc.) even into his twilight years.

census page w/Vest household outlined, Ella Cox and 2 children within household
Allen & Lizzy Vest household (lines 10-17), showing Ella Cox and 2 children residing within. Enumeration District 14, Goochland County, Virginia, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, National Archives Microfilm T624, NAID 2353588,

Whereas my 1st-great-grandparents were born in the decades immediately following slavery, my 2nd-great-grandparents were among the last generation of people who endured the oppressive system of chattel slavery in the United States. They were children and teenagers when the Civil War began in 1861. Finding ancestors in federal censuses and other records helps to rescue them from obscurity and reclaim them. Like many of you, I am eagerly anticipating the release of the 1950 census so that I can continue to learn more about family members. The 1950 census, like the decennial censuses that came before, will help you uncover and discover your family history which is woven into the fabric of American history.

For more information about the release and access to the 1950 US Census, please go here.

You can also view the 1950 Census Genealogy Series on YouTube, and find out more information on other Censuses on

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