Roots & Branches: New software uses spreadsheet for 'shadow census' data

Original article at Lebanon Daily News, PA

Updated: 05/02/2010 08:56:45 PM EDT

Like many other "hot" trends in genealogy, software applications have come and gone during the last quarter-century, with precious few having staying power in the market.

Names such as the Master Genealogist, Family Tree Maker, Reunions for Macintosh, and the free application Personal Ancestral File were available then and now - while others such as Ultimate Family Tree, Generations Family Tree, Family Origins and Ancestors and Descendants have come and gone.

I don't know whether MagiKey Family Tree will be one of the former or the latter. I'm not enough of a "techie" to judge that. But I will say that this relatively new piece of software did dazzle me with its signature item: "Census Tracker."

To understand my fascination, I need to take you back to the world of genealogy circa 1985.

At that juncture, indexing a record was done by writing down names on one note card at a time, then alphabetizing them and finally typing up that result.

Doing research inevitably meant visiting a local historical or genealogical society - or saving your pennies for a trip to a "big house" such as the Family History Library, Allen County Public Library or National Archives.

And dealing with the U.S. Census - acknowledged by most as the No. 1 record group for genealogists, then and now - meant getting "microfilm-reader elbow" from scrolling through roll after roll of federal headcounts in search of those once-in-a-decade gems of information such as ages, years of

immigration, birthplaces of parents and oodles of other great data.

And, frustratingly for genealogists needing information before 1850, the censuses from 1790 to 1840 named only the head of household and reduced the rest of the population to numerical tallies in age groupings.

As a result, I think it's fair to say that most serious genealogists have developed some tool or shorthand way of using those age groupings to figure out whether the data from the family as seen in other records - from baptisms to deeds to estates - jived with those nameless tick marks in the early censuses.

I called my technique the "shadow census" when I taught college continuing-education courses, since those age groupings kept folks in the shadows without benefit of names until 1850.

MagiKey Family Tree makes the hand-developed "shadow census" log that I had used into an electronic bonanza of information. In addition to the regular database features that any genealogy software program employs, MagiKey has templates for extracting U.S. Census date built right into it - no double-keyboarding here! - and then creates a spreadsheet that allows the user track that census information through the years and compare it efficiently vs. what he or she has learned from other sources.

Since ages (among other data) are often approximate in the census, MagiKey's Census Tracker function helps the genealogist manage contradictory data effectively.

More information about MagiKey Family Tree is available at the firm's Web site,

Beidler is a freelance writer and lecturer on genealogy. His "Roots & Branches column appears Mondays in the Lebanon Daily News. Contact him either at Box 270, Lebanon, PA 17042; or by e-mail at