Serendipity in New York State: Census Sunday

Anna (Sprague) Bergen (1866-1951) was raised by a couple named William H. and Nancy E. Clapper in Queens, New York.  Anna was very close to her adoptive mother, Nancy, as was Anna’s daughter Edith (Bergen) Hottinger.  Nancy and Edith were even buried together in Genola Cemetery in East Northport, Long Island, where they share a headstone.

Clapper and Hottinger head stone.scan0001(1)

It was believed that Anna and Nancy were somehow related, but no one in the family knew Nancy Clapper’s maiden name.  Searches for Nancy’s death certificate and marriage record were unsuccessful, and Nancy’s will contained no clues to a biological relationship to Anna.

In the course of researching Anna’s husband, Frank Bergen, it was discovered that Frank’s mother’s maiden name was Harriett Vandusen.  A 1916 photograph that had been handed down within the family showed Nancy Clapper with two women who our research showed were sisters, Priscilla Vandusen (who never married) and Julia (Vandusen) Pickard.

Three Vandusen sisters, upstate New York, circa 1905.

Julia, Priscilla and Nancy. Long Island, 1916.

Three Vandusen sisters – Priscilla, Julia and Harriett – are listed with their parents in Brooklyn in the 1860 federal census.  Harriet does not appear in the 1916 photo – she died in 1905.  But why was Nancy Clapper in the photo?

Was Nancy also a Vandusen?  It was just a hunch.  A hypothesis, based on circumstantial evidence.  Pure speculation.  But we had run out of better ideas, so this hunch seemed worth investigating.

Although Nancy, born in 1832, was the right age to be a Vandusen sister, we couldn’t place Nancy in an early census with the Vandusen family.  Nancy married William Clapper in 1856 (according to the 1900 census), and the Vandusen family could not be found anywhere in the 1850 federal census.

At a temporary dead end researching Nancy, we turned to her husband William H. Clapper (1834-1900).  His probate file mentioned his siblings’ names and gave their street addresses, which we used to find them in the 1900 census and discover their years of birth.  This information made it possible to place William with his family of origin and trace the Clapper family a generation further back in the census.  In 1855, a year before William married Nancy, the Clapper family was found in the New York state census living in Brooklyn, Kings County, New York.

I used screen capture software to copy the 1855 New York census page showing the Clapper family from  In the process of attaching the image to my database, I glanced across the page.  I still cannot believe I almost missed it.  There, two families up from the Clappers, was the family of John and Louvina Vandusen, with their six children: Eliza N., Priscilla, Geo. W., Julia, Harriett J., and Annetta.  Eliza N. Vandusen, age 22, was the correct age to be the woman we were looking for, Nancy E. Clapper.

VANDUSEN John 1855 NY Brooklyn Ward 17

So, it turned out that Eliza N. “Nancy” (Vandusen) Clapper was not (as far as we know) related by blood to her adopted daughter Anna.  But Frank Bergen, the son of Harriett (Vandusen) Bergen, was Nancy’s nephew.  He married Anna in 1887.

The lesson: Always look beyond the index.  Pull up the image of the actual census page.  The information recorded by the census taker may not be the same as what is found in the index. Plus, you can see who was living close by.  You may experience the serendipity of finding a missing person, and overcoming a brick wall, just by taking the time to look.

When entering names into search boxes doesn’t produce the expected results, you may not have exhausted your resources.  For some reason, John Vandusen’s family didn’t come up in the 1855 New York census when I searched for him by name on FamilySearch.  But since Nancy married William Clapper in 1856, it isn’t too surprising that their families would have been neighbors in 1855.

Consider looking at the actual census page images in the location where you would expect your family to be residing.  After all, this is how census research was done in the days before online databases and before printed indexes.  The “old school” method required scanning the census on microfilm, one page at a time.