Robert Lee Frost: Following Families Through the Census
Named after the Southern general Robert E. Lee, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lee Frost has an interesting family tree reaching back to colonial America, Scotland, and England. But you can begin with the basics gleaned from just about any biography — his date of birth and death and his parents' names. These are facts that you would be likely to learn about your own grandparents or great-grandparents from living family members before heading online to trace your family tree.
Begin with Death Records for Twentieth Century Ancestors
Because Robert Frost was famous, his obituary (www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0326.html) appeared in the New York Times on 30 January 1963. But millions of obituaries for ordinary people can be found online as well, making them a good place to begin your online search (see Chapter 5). From his obituary you can learn that his father, William Frost, had “run away” from Amherst, Massachusetts, to go “west,” and that he died when Robert was about eleven. You'll also read that his mother, “the former Isabelle Moody,” was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and immigrated to Philadelphia when she was a girl. Plus, you learn that Robert's grandfather was William Prescott Frost, and that he married Elinor White, a teacher, in 1905. The obituary also mentions that Robert Frost was buried in the “family plot” in Old Bennington Cemetery, Vermont.
These are a lot of good clues to help with a search for Frost's family tree, but instead of getting distracted by so many details, you might want to first continue with the death records. A Google search for bennington vermont cemetery frost leads us to a photo and description of Robert Frost's tombstone at Find a Grave (www.findagrave.com), which includes the birth and death dates for Robert, along with those of his wife and five children. An article by the Friends of Robert Frost (www.frostfriends.org/bennington.html) on why he is buried in Bennington also turns up in the Google search. A search of the free Social Security Death Index at RootsWeb confirms his dates of birth and death — born 26 March 1874 and died January 1963.
Because he was born between 1873 and 1900, you may next find it helpful to search the World War I Draft Registration records at Ancestry.com for robert frost born 1874 +/−1 year. This returns two results, one of which is the correct Robert Frost, working as a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Work Backward in Time
There are 274 men named Robert Frost in the 1930 census at Ancestry.com. Narrowing the search down to men with a birth date of 1874 +/−1 brings the results to three, making it easy to find Robert L. Frost and his wife, Eleanor, living in Shaftsbury, Bennington, Vermont. You will find you'll have to expand that search to 1874 +/−2 years for the 1920 census to locate Robert and Eleanor living in Amherst, Hampshire, Massachusetts with four of their children. The same technique for the 1910 census finds the family in Rockingham, Derry, New Hampshire, where you learn the name of Eleanor's parents, Edwin and Henrietta White. This type of additional detail is why all available census records should be searched for every ancestor in your family tree.
Robert Frost is a bit harder to locate in the 1900 census, however. The standard name searches don't locate the man, so try using some of the details you gleaned from previous census records to narrow the search. Searching for robert (no last name) born 1874 +/− 2 years in california with spouse name eli* and ele* (to cover the two common spellings of Eleanor) doesn't work either, but how about the same search with his mother's name belle? (You already know his father died before 1900 from Robert's obituary.) This search finally found him, incorrectly indexed as Robt Front with wife, Elmor. Since his mother, Belle M. Frost, is living with the family, you learn more about her as well, most significantly that she was born about September 1844, had two children (both of whom are still living in 1900), and emigrated from Scotland in 1854.
Continuing backward in the census, it is now time to find young Robert Frost with his parents. Since the 1890 census was mostly destroyed, you'll likely begin with the 1880 U.S. census, free online at FamilySearch.org. A search of the census records for robert frost with head of household william frost turns up the correct Robert L. Frost among the results, living in San Francisco, California, with his father, William P. Frost, a thirty-year-old journalist born in Massachusetts (he was actually born in New Hampshire); mother, Belle M. Frost, age thirty-five and born in Scotland; and sister Jeanie F. Frost (misidentified in the census as a male), age four, born in California. You also learn that the father of William P. Frost was born in New Hampshire and his mother was born in Massachusetts. Clues like these make it easier to identify the correct family as you search for his parents.
Remember that obituary? From it you learned that the paternal grandfather of Robert Frost was named William Prescott Frost (also the name of his father). This clue helps to identify the preceding generation of the Frost family in the 1860 census of Worcester County, Massachusetts. A search for william frost born 1850 +/− 2 years turns up William P. Frost born about 1850 in New Hampshire with parents William P. and Judith C. Frost. Going back to the 1850 census, however, the search isn't quite so easy. After standard searches turn up nothing, you might want to try searching for Judith Frost by first name only, choosing her over William Frost because her first name is a little more unusual. Using the details learned about her in the 1860 census, a search for judith (no last name) born 1820 +/− 1 year in new hampshire finally found them — indexed in the 1850 census at Ancestry.com as William P. and Judith Tross (instead of Frost), living in Kingston, Rockingham County, New Hampshire.
Identify the Parents
Since the 1840 and earlier censuses only identify the head of household by name, you really need to identify the father of William P. Frost to take this family any further back in the census. A Google search for New Hampshire Marriage Records leads you to Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records (www.deathindexes.com). Although you're looking for marriage records, not death records, a look at the New Hampshire page turns up a database titled the Vital Records of Kingston, New Hampshire, 1694–1994. This leads you back to Ancestry.com, where a search for william frost turns up nothing. Searching for just the surname frost, however, locates the marriage of W. Prescott Frost of Kingston to Judith Colcord of Kingston on 27 September 1846. A search of the International Genealogical Index at FamilySearch brings up several user-submitted entries for William Prescott Frost married to Judith Colcord. Several of these identify William's parents as Samuel and Mary Frost, which is definitely not proof that this assertion is correct, but does offer a new avenue for further research.