Pranas, Primus, Pymus, Primos and Primous – Adventures in census Searching

Some years ago I asked my grandmother about her grandfather and all she could remember is that his name was Primus Anthony and that he was from Brownsville in Haywood County, Tennessee. I had never heard of anyone being named Primus before. I repeated it to her to be sure, and she was sure — Primus Anthony was his name. I don’t have the best memory and a lot of times I have to dig through notes to find a particular name, but his is one name I never forgot. In 1999 I began searching for him in the Haywood County, Tennesse census and quickly grew frustrated after only finding him once, in the 1880 census. Being the amateur genealogist that I am, I imagined all sorts of reasons for his absence from the rolls. Did he die after 1880? Well, if my grandmother, who was born in 1915, remembered him, he should have at least appeared in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 census. I heard stories from older relatives about giving false info to census takers. Had Primus given a fake name? Maybe he wasn’t home on the day of the count. It seemed like he just disappeared. I eventually gave up and put my Primus research on the back burner.

Then earlier this year, while trying to decide if I should keep paying for an annual membership that I rarely used, I remembered my frustrating search for Primus and decided to search for him again using Ancestry’s search engine. I plugged in his name using the exact spelling. I selected Haywood County, Tennessee and neighboring counties and got the same 1880 census hit along with three additional hits. A listing in the 1891 Voters List for Madison County, Tennessee. A listing in the Tennessee State Marriages, 1780 – 2002. A black male named Primus Anthony who was born about 1886, too young to be my great-great-grandfather but very likely related. Encouraged,  I searched for all black males with the first name of Primus in the state of Tennessee. Nothing. Then I searched for all black males with the last name of Anthony in the state of Tennessee. Bingo!

Listed in the 1870 Haywood County, Tennessee search results was a 19 year old black male named Pranas Anthony. I took a look at the microfilm and, in my opinion, the name was clearly Primus, not Pranas. Listed along with him was his father Sam, his mother Betsey, and two brothers, Aurgood and Currie. Elated, I searched the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 Haywood County census for Primus. Only the younger Primus Anthony showed up. I had searched for several hours and decided to call it a night. During the walk from my office to my bedroom I racked my brain for something I could have missed and decided to try one more search before going to bed. This time I searched for black males with the surname of Anthony anywhere in the United States. I hit the Jackpot, and I mean a huge jackpot!

When I scrolled down the list of results there he was, not in a census listing, but an actual photo labeled Primus Anthony, Sr. (1852-1931). Further down  was a photo of Primus and Betsey Anthony, the woman listed in his Tennessee marriage record. I followed the photo to the Anthony family tree. This particular tree was almost identical to my tree up to 1891. Their Primus had been born in Haywood County, just like my Primus. They had to be the same person. Man, my heart was pounding. On further investigation it turns out I coudn’t find Primus in Tennessee because he had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. In the Arkansas census his name was listed as Pymus (1910), Primos Sr. (1920) and Primous (1930). No wonder I couldn’t find him!

When I first started census searching it didn’t occur to me that names would be so badly misspelled (remember, I am an amateur). Finding “Pranas” Anthony was my first clue to look for spelling variations in subsequent searches. The hunt for Primus, aka Pranas, aka Pymus, aka Primos, aka Primous also taught me that people do move from place to place in the census (duh!). My grandmother said that Primus was “from Brownsville” and I interpreted that as him having lived in Brownsville his entire life. Now I know that sometime between 1891 and 1910 he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. I still can’t find him in the 1900 census. But at least now I’m better skilled at searching.


  • Chaps Posted October 2, 2011 6:53 pm


    Please contact me…. ASAP


  • Liv Posted October 2, 2011 9:52 pm

    I’m a genea-enthusiast and this break in your research is cause for a celebration!!

    I know exactly what you’ve been through and feel at this point with your research because I recently went through what I thought was a “dead-end” search issue with some of my Routt ancestors (Rault, Rout, Routt, Routte, Route, Rote). Every variation that I’ve listed here has shown up in birth, census, death, and marriage records. So I’ve been trying to think of all the possible ways census takers (and ancestors too) phonetically spelled this surname. I am a huge fan of and I back up a lot of my research there with death certificates and birth/marriage dates from

    I’ve truly enjoyed my visit at your site lately; thanks much for sharing your frustrations and success with your research!

  • Tom Posted October 6, 2011 2:53 pm

    Pranas is typical Lithuanian name. Maybe this black man had Lithuanian roots?

  • William Durant Posted October 11, 2011 6:19 pm

    What a great discovery and lesson for the rest of us! By the way, I volunteer-index names from 18th- and 19th-century South Carolina Estate Inventories (property listings of the deceased for probate purposes) for in partnership with (now I’ve encountered and indexed “Primus” multiple times. Plantation owners gave their slaves names from mythology or history, Latin, or made them up, as you no doubt know. A Google search yielded several meanings for Primus, including, among other things, first or primitive. Considering the mindset, the latter meaning probably was intended. I’ve also indexed a large number of slaves named Nero, Ceasar, Pompey, Titus, Hector, Cato, Hamlet and Cleopatra. Regarding various spellings: many document recorders wrote down what they thought they heard, and others were just poor spellers. Your experience also shows it pays to look at the original document for yourself.

  • Carolyn Betts Posted October 28, 2011 10:19 am

    I feel your pain….I’m also somewhat of an amateur searching the census although
    off and on I’ve been dabbling in them since the 1980s. I was so glad to hear that
    your older relatives recalle stories of ancestors who lied to Census takers. I thought
    I was “nuts” when I found census records with such a variety of ages for my
    great grandparents. And the names…..would you believe…I looked for a great
    uncle whose name was Stanhope Harris, under the name “Starbuck”…I’m sure
    somebody needed a caffeine shot of Starbuck coffee when they transcribed that one.
    Also, how many ways can you spell my great great grandmother’s name Salina, or
    is it Slina or Celina, or just Lina. For someone with a mind that likes to line up things
    logically and analytical…the Census gives me the shonuff blues….anyway I enjoyed
    your message and be encouraged….I gave up on years ago, but I
    may give it another try.


  • Lynne Taylor Posted November 25, 2011 1:01 am

    Wow, can totally sympathize with the misspelled names thing! I’ve been doing genealogy research for years now and have to keep getting more and more creative with spellings to find records. I just found one for an ancestor with surname “Ball” under “Paul” – do we need audio now to do our research? And is it just me or does anyone else find that Louisiana is absolutely the HARDEST state in which to find AA historical records? It’s like impossible to get anything online. Thank goodness for and the work that’s been done to publish at least some of the information buried in Louisiana parish records. Speaking of Ancestry, I can evangelize a little now about their latest project in Beta called It’s awesome for building family trees and collaborating with current generations or anyone through social media platforms like Facebook. Very cool!


  • Leslie Posted November 30, 2011 4:36 pm

    I’m also having issues trying to find relatives because of different spellings of their last name. We all know them as Humphries. But they’re also listed as Humphrey/ Humphreys/ Humphrie. There is also a mixup with a Great x 4 Grandfather whose first name was Whiatt. But it can also be Wyat / Wyatt / Wiatt/ etc.

    Very frustrating!

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *