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Feature Article: The Mystery of Ammi Ann Ferris

These days, genealogy is easy. Just point, click and shoot. Like taking a picture, genealogy has become simple, even routine. Everything is digital, indexed and online. It is easy.

But wait. Genealogists need to read and carefully evaluate the records we find. Just because a fact is written in an old document, printed in a book, or published online doesn't make it accurate.

As we find an obituary, birth notice or census record we need to ask: "Is this my ancestor?" "Is this record complete and accurate?"

Here is a good example that shows how easy it is to find genealogy information today—and how carefully we have to read and evaluate that information once we find it. This interesting story involves the mysterious identity of Ammi Ann Ferris as reported in census records.

This example involves the Ferris family of Greenwich, Connecticut. (All the digital census records in this article came from FamilySearch.org—Family History Library—and are from the Greenwich, Connecticut, censuses contained in the National Archives.) Here we find the family recorded in the 1850 census:



Look how much information we get from one census record! Here we have a household of seven, six females and a male:
  • Ann Ferris: 23—F
  • Maria Ferris: 43—F
  • Martha E. Ferris: 19—F
  • Sibble M. Ferris: 16—F
  • Ann R. Ferris: 18—F
  • Mary E. Ferris: 9—F
  • Allen Ferris: 7—M
In addition to their name, age and sex, we learn that all seven family members were born in Connecticut—good information to know. The first line lists the head of the household with an occupation. Let's take a closer look:



Here's Ann Ferris listed as the head of the household, a 23-year-old female farmer. It's always helpful when the census transcriber has clear handwriting and it's easy to read the name, as in this example. Here, we clearly see her name is Ann Ferris:



The 43-year-old woman listed after Ann, Maria Ferris, presumably is her mother, and the other children listed are her siblings. Apparently, something happened to the father, and the eldest child—who happens to be a woman—is running the farm as the head of the household. But why isn't the mother listed as the head of the household? And why is there a second daughter in the family named Ann?



Perhaps farmer Ann, the head of the household, isn't the sister of the other siblings—maybe she's their aunt. The closer we look at her listing, the more puzzling it appears. The age and sex of each of the other six members of the family are easily read. The ages are written with clear numbers, and the sex is designated with a distinct capital "F" or "M." But look closely at the listing for Ann Ferris—both her age and sex are written ambiguously:



That listing for her age could be read as "23" or "43." And though her name is Ann, that designation for her sex is not really a capital "F" or "M"—it seems a combination of both. When we look at the age and sex of the people listed above and below Ann in the ledger, we see that the census transcriber wrote each in a clear hand—except for the entry for Ann:



Ann's age could be 23—the "2" is similar to the "2" used for the 20-year-old woman from another family listed above Ann. Then again, it looks a little like the "4" used for 43-year-old Maria Ferris, listed below Ann.

Now, what about the "F" to designate that this is a female? The "F" for the woman above Ann and the women below her are clearly written. But what is that strange letter written to designate Ann's sex? It could be an "F"—but it could just as easily be a scrawled "M."

It looks like the age and sex designation were written as both 23/43 and M/F. Why?

Here is another question: the children listed under Maria are presented in chronological order, except for Ann R., whose age of 18 doesn't logically fall between Sibble, 16, listed above her, and Mary, 9, listed below her:



Now, you might be tempted to enter all this information into your family tree and be pleased with the family history discoveries you've made. But there's a lot of handwritten information here, and remember—this is all a copy of the original, which itself was written in pencil by a census taker who probably didn't know the family personally. It would be helpful to find similar family information in another census, for purposes of cross-checking. This 1850 census record is full of good information—and yet there clearly are some questions still to be answered.

Let's do some more searching, and see what we can find out from later censuses.

The 1860 census helps clear up the mystery:



Once again, we find a lot of information about all seven family members:
  • Ami R. Ferris: 53—M
  • Mariah Ferris: 53—F
  • Martha E. Ferris: 28—F
  • Sibble (here written as Sibbie) M. Ferris: 26—F
  • Ami R. Ferris: 23—M
  • Mary E. Ferris: 18—F
  • Ellen Ferris: 16—F
Compare this to the information contained in the 1850 census:
  • Ann Ferris: 23—F
  • Maria Ferris: 43—F
  • Martha E. Ferris: 19—F
  • Sibble M. Ferris: 16—F
  • Ann R. Ferris: 18—F
  • Mary E. Ferris: 9—F
  • Allen Ferris: 7—M
Aha! The biggest Ferris family mystery is solved by this 1860 census: the head of the household in the 1850 census was not a 23-year-old female farmer named Ann, but instead a 43-year-old male farmer named "Ami." What most likely happened is that the original census taker in 1850 had bad handwriting, so that the transcriber thought the entry read "Ann" instead of "Ami," and had trouble figuring out if the age read "23" or "43." Or perhaps the original census taker very clearly wrote "Ami," but this unusual name confused the transcriber, who decided the census taker must have made a mistake and wrote "Ann" instead—but then had second thoughts, which is why it appears both an "F" and "M" were written for the sex designation.

The other mystery is also cleared up: the children actually were written in chronologically-correct sequence in the 1850 census—it's just that Ann R.'s age wasn't "18" as written, but "13"—once again, that census taker's poor handwriting probably confused the transcriber, making a "3" look like an "8." Her age is correctly identified as "23" in the 1860 census—she was 13 in 1850, not 18.

But wait—look closer. This 1860 census clears up another mistake from the 1850 census: the same Ami/Ann mistake that was made for the father was made for the third child. Once again, she is really a he! Ami R. Ferris named his first—and, as it turned out, only—son after himself, incorrectly identified as "Ann R." in the 1850 census.

We also learn some more family information, and clear up some other questions. The head of the household has a middle initial: "R." It seems the mother's name is not "Maria," but "Mariah." The last child listed in the 1850 census, "Allan," is actually a girl, named "Ellen." In 1860 Martha was a school teacher, Sibble a dress maker, and 23-year-old Ami R., Jr., was a male working on the family farm, with an occupation officially listed as farmer.

TIP: It's always a good idea to find more than one census record for a family, so that you can compare censuses and find mistakes made by either the census taker or the transcriber.

To confirm that Ann is really Ami, let's look at the next census. The 1870 census lists the head of the household as Ami R. Ferris, a male now 63 years old. Note that his occupation has been changed from "farmer" to "gardener":



The 1870 census also makes explicit that Ami named his son after himself, giving the appendage "Jr." to the son's name. He, too, is now listed as a "gardener":



However—the Ammi Ann Ferris saga is not done yet! This Connecticut farmer/gardener's unusual first name continued to confuse census takers and transcribers. We've got him listed as "Ann" in the 1850 census, and as "Ami" (which happens to be the French word for "friend") in the 1860 and 1870 censuses. Now look at his listing in the 1880 census. They have his correct age: he is now 73. They've changed his occupation from "gardener" back to "farmer." But that first name continued to be an issue. We'll never know if it was the census taker or the transcriber who got confused, but someone clearly was. In this final version of the census, Ferris's first name is clearly written as "Amni," and the sex designation is a capital "M" with a capital "F" written over it. Someone couldn't decide if they were dealing with a woman named "Anni" or a man with an unusual first name:



The mystery of Ammi (Ann? Ami? Amni?) Ferris is finally solved by his tombstone, which shows that the head of this 19th Century Connecticut farming family was Ammi Rogers Ferris:


Anonymous. Find-A-Grave.

This unusual first name confused census takers and transcribers in four different censuses, the difficulty compounded by all the handwriting involved: the name was written by hand four times (census takers) and copied by hand four times (census transcribers).

Ammi means "my people" and was used in the Bible to designate the "people of Israel." The Bible often played a prominent role in naming a child in the 19th Century. It was not unusual for early New Englanders to open the Bible, put their finger somewhere on the opened page, and then name their new child by the name closest to where their finger had landed.

The tombstone also confirms that the wife's name was Maria, as reported in the 1850 census, and not Mariah, as reported in the 1860 census.

TIP: If your initial search for your ancestor in any online resource comes up empty, don't give up. Try other searches, using variants of the name—or search only on the surname. In the case of handwritten records, it may be that someone's handwriting caused problems, or that an uncommon, unfamiliar name caused confusion.

By continuing to dig, weighing different sources, you can find enough information and do enough comparisons to reach a conclusion. In this case, our first search for Ammi Ferris turned up zero results—but by combining multiple records and digging deeper the details of a family can be obtained, even when some of the original information was written incorrectly.

When dealing with census records in particular, always remember two important points:

  • The census you are looking at online is not an original—it is a copy. Someone transcribed the original record (either entering it by hand into a record book in ink, or, in more recent times, entering the information with a computer keyboard), and so of course mistakes were made.
  • It wasn't until 1950 that census forms were mailed to individual households. Before then, the original census record was not written by a member of the household, but rather a census official who went door to door—and so, mistakes were made in the original record in addition to the errors made when the original was transcribed.
The census has been an important part of the United States since the country was founded. The U.S. Constitution mandates that a census be taken every ten years, so that the government can apportion the correct number of representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives. The first census was taken in 1790 (it counted 3.9 million people).

From 1790 through the census of 1940, officials went door to door conducting the census, writing down the information in pencil. Then someone else transcribed them in ink. Even after households started writing down their own information using the mailed forms in 1950, the originals were still transcribed by census officials, by hand. That's a lot of handwriting—and we all know how difficult it is to read some people's writing! The transcribers didn't start using computer systems until 1970, but even the use of a computer keyboard doesn't automatically eliminate all mistakes.

TIP: Original census pages were consolidated and recopied for the final version that was then sent to Washington, D.C., and a second copy was sent to each state. You are never viewing an original—you are always viewing a copy, and it may contain mistakes.

Genealogy is easy and the millions of digital records online are making it even easier. However, be sure to carefully study the early handwriting, published newspapers, government records and other sources with care and persistence. Your family history is a great, fascinating puzzle—and you're the detective who has the fun challenge of cracking the mysteries and putting the pieces together!