Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Lot Can Happen to Your Ancestor in a Decade

Population Record, 1890-92,
Western State Penitentiary
Murder, trial, and prison. If you looked at the life of Stewart Cherry based on census records alone, you'd never know that his life was turned upside down when he was 38. Stewart was born in Pennsylvania in 1853, and in the 1880s married Mary Jane Phillips and started a family. He would eventually become the father-in-law of my first cousin 3 times removed, when his daughter Rachel married Harry Monroe Dietz.

The census records seem to show that Stewart maintained a rather normal, routine life:
  • 1900 - oil well driller living in McKeesport, Allegheny, Pennsylvania
  • 1910 - oil driller living in McKeesport, Allegheny, Pennsylvania
  • 1920 - driller for an oil well company in Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania

Decade after decade, it looks like Stewart's life didn't change. And if the 1890 census had survived, it most likely would have showed again that Stewart was a well driller. I base this assumption on a different type of census record: the one shown at the right that was created by the Western State Penitentiary. It provides many details, including his occupation and his crime of murder. Yes, Stewart Cherry's life shows that a lot can happen in between censuses.

Newspapers from 1891 show that Stewart was arrested for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He claimed self-defense. Stewart was released at the end of May 1900 after serving almost 9 years of his sentence (just a few days before the 1900 census was taken). His normal-looking life from census records turned out to be far from ordinary.

The Pittsburg Press, May 11, 1900

You never know what interesting events and facts you may find about your ancestors.


  1. What a wonderful reminder to look beyond the census records. You never know what you might find! What a story!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dana! And I must say that I've been enjoying your blog posts about your success with Gernan records. You inspired me to upgrade my Ancestry subscription so I could access the German church records you've been highlighting. I've found some of my great-grandmother's Laubersheimer family, which may get me closer to finding her birth record. Thank you very much!


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