Genealogy: Reading between the bars

I have had access to the 1910 US Census record for my great grandfather for a long time. Five of John J. and Matilda Peterson Gillis’ then seven children were living at home. That was very helpful information to me. The 1910 census also documents a person’s place of birth, as well as the nativity of his or her parents, and the year of immigration, if applicable. The answers to these questions can help a genealogist know where to search for the preceding generation.

John Gillis and wife Matilda at home with children Minnie (Mary Ann), Margaret, John, Catherine, and Daniel.

John Gillis and wife Matilda at home with children Minnie (Mary Ann), Margaret, John, Catherine, and Daniel.

This record for Rumford, Oxford, Maine was enumerated on 12 May 1910. John (1866-1951) and Matilda (1872-1933) had already lost a daughter and a son to early death: Matilda Mary, and William. (Notice Matilda’s line, columns 10 and 11.) As sad as that is, by tracking a family through consecutive censuses a genealogist can learn when he or she should be looking for death and birth records. This can help ensure that no family members are forgotten.

Now that so many records are being digitized and added to online databases like,, and, it is vitally important that researchers click through to read the images themselves and not rely on the summaries of indexers. Week after week I find examples of people being included with the wrong household or indexers missing handwritten addendum on documents that clarify or correct information. Today, I am sharing one example of the benefits of reading documents for oneself.

During a recent search for one of my numerous ancestors who are named “John Gillis,” I found a second US 1910 Maine Census. I thought it couldn’t possibly be my John J. Gillis, because I’d had his entry with my records for years. But, I clicked through and began to read a list of inmates in the Oxford County Maine jail enumerated on 18 April 1910.

John J. Gillis, also age 44, also immigrated in 1889 from Nova Scotia laboring in the paper mill.

John J. Gillis, also age 44, also immigrated in 1889 from Nova Scotia, laboring in the paper mill.

The real defining piece of information that tells me this is my great grandfather is the column that asks “Number of years of present marriage.” Both records list “13” as the answer.

So, what was John J. Gillis, spouse of Matilda Augusta Peterson, doing in the county lock up on 18 April 1910? Maybe he was sleeping off a night on the town, serving time for jaywalking, or perhaps he got caught up in a factory room brawl. I don’t know. But his sentence was of such a short duration that he was home when the census was taken at 503 Virgin St. on 12 May 1910.

I have decided that this is the census equivalent of standing at the far left of a group panoramic photograph, running behind the camera, and getting back in line at the far right just in time to show up twice on the permanent image. One of the many reasons that we should read documents carefully.

OxfordJailImage of Oxford County Jail (now Hamlin Memorial Library and Museum) in Paris, Maine.

Feature Image: 1906 & 1912 vintage postcard images of paper mills in Rumford, Maine from Maine Transplant‘s Flickr Set.

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4 Responses to Genealogy: Reading between the bars

  1. Tina says:

    John and Matilda Gillis are also my great grandparents. I was excited to find this information on them. I was unable to read a lot of the census report because of the small print. I have recently found information on my paternal great grandparents so I decided to seek information on my maternal great grandparents. Would love to know more.

    • Kari says:

      Hi Tina! Why don’t you send me an e-mail by clicking on the letter icon at the top of the page and we can figure out how we are connected and share information. I am happy to send you documents and photos. In the mean time, you might want to look at this blog post

      • Tina says:

        Kari ,
        Just now looking at the sight again and found your response.
        I couldn’t seem to get anywhere with the letter icon. I am a granddaughter of Catherine Gillis Gallant. I enjoyed reading the blog post.

  2. Karen Cassell says:

    Having access to the full documents really makes a difference. What a fun story to tell now also.

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