Have You Searched for Neighbors When Researching Genealogy Brick Walls?

Ever have trouble finding an ancestor in a record collection, such as a census? I have a little genealogy hack that you have to try.


German names are quite challenging to find English language records. My 3rd great-grandfather Joseph Geißler has at least seven name variations in documents from 1856-1863!


My Zumstein line, who immigrated to Canada, has also been quite challenging. For one, no family member can agree on how the end of the name should be spelled… Zumstine, Zumstien, Zumstein? Add to that the fact that many government document records are written in terrible handwriting and the search for this family name gets even more complicated. So, when you have trouble finding a relative, be they German or otherwise, use the genealogy hack to cast a wider net by looking for a neighbor.


I couldn’t find the family of Robert Walter Zumstein in the 1881 Census. He would have been in the family of his father Henry Zumstein and Catherine Hedrick as he hadn’t married Adeline Snyder yet. They would marry after another census in the year 1894. I had found his father in the 1871 Census.


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I decided to do a genealogy trick that I’ve heard about but had not tried before. I looked at the 1871 Canadian Census for a neighbor with a common name that could be easily interpreted even if the handwriting was terrible. The neighbor I selected was George Snyder. I could have chosen a few other neighbors as well. I figured I’d try each of these names until I had exhausted them all. Then I returned to the 1881 Canadian Census search.

Digitized page of Census of Canada, 1881, Place, Gainsborough, Monck, Ontario, (No. 144-B, Division 2); Page 16, Family: 80, George Snyder, head of household.

George Snyder was the ticket!


I entered George Snyder, b 1831, into the Ancestry.com website and found one listed in Gainsborough, Lincoln, Ontario in 1881. When I clicked to view the original record, I scrolled down two families and found one with a promising name… Paul Swinstine.

Digitized page of Census of Canada, 1881, Place, Gainsborough, Monck, Ontario, (No. 144-B, Division 2); Page 17, Family: 83, Paul Swinstine, head of household.

I thought, perhaps the transcriber wasn’t able to understand the handwriting. Perhaps the census recorder couldn’t understand the German name. I recognized Paul was Henry’s brother along with his wife’s and children’s names.

Digitized page of Census of Canada, 1881, Place, Gainsborough, Monck, Ontario, (No. 144-B, Division 2); Page 17, Family: 84, Henry Swinstine, head of household.

I looked at one family further and found a Henry Swinstine. After further inspection, I have determined that yes, this is my Henry Zumstine. I don’t fault the census taker for writing what indeed looks like Swinstine or Sumstine.


So, if you have trouble finding your relatives in a particular census. Go to a census before or after the one you’re searching for. Find a neighbor and search for them in the census record you can’t find your ancestor in. It just might be your ticket!



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