Featured Image: Taking the Census. Illustration in Harper’s Weekly, 1870. Found in Library of Congress Digital Collection.
A few decades ago, it was very difficult to find one’s ancestor in a census record. You had to go to an archive or library and really know what you were looking for to find the record. Today, however, with the wide availability of indexed census images on FamilySearch and Ancestry.com, thousands of people who have had little to no prior experience with genealogical research are finding their ancestors in census records. This is amazing and wonderful. But there is one thing you should be aware of: taking any record at face value is problematic. Any record can have incorrect information on it, even if it is an “official record” or an “original document.” Census records are no exception.
Take this census record, for example. This is the 1880 Census record for Stedman Gray and his family in Norway, Republic, Kansas.
It looks fine at face value. There is S. Gray, with his wife Mary J, and his three sons, James W, Edman J, and Marion E. But there is one big problem: Edman J should actually say Emma J, and her gender should be female. She was a woman. I know this because she is my second-great grandmother. She married a man and had five children. On the day the census taker came, perhaps she wasn’t dressed like a lady, perhaps she looked like a tomboy. She was only twelve years old. Perhaps the census taker never saw her and misheard her mother or father telling him about her. For whatever reason, the census taker just assumed she was a boy.
Here’s another one. This is William Green and his family in the 1850 census in Union, Des Moines, Iowa.
Every other record I have found points to William Green and his family being from Virginia. I believe the recording of “Vt” to be a handwritten error. This recorder wrote “Vermont” as “Vt” and “Virginia” as “Va.” A single letter can make a big difference. I have traced the wife, Mary (Jefferson) Green, and her family family back to Hardy County, West Virginia (which was Virginia at the time), through her brother, Bryan Jefferson, who was appointed as a guardian for William and Mary’s children as recorded in William Green’s estate file. I am absolutely certain the Jefferson family of Hardy County, WV is the correct family. William Green and Mary Jefferson were married in Hardy County, West Virginia in 1829. If I told myself that because the census record says Vermont, then it must be 100% correct and this family is from Vermont, I would be cornering myself up against a brick wall.
I don’t mean to say that Census records are always wrong. More often than not, most of the information is correct. But they can have mistakes. The census forms we see online were not recorded directly by the individuals listed in them. Sometimes the census enumerator didn’t even talk to the family living in a house to get information, but talked to a neighbor instead. Sometimes he couldn’t understand the language they were speaking, so he just counted heads (Thanks to The Ancestry Insider for the post in that last link. It really makes me laugh). There are about as many reasons for census information to get messed up as there are people in the census.
One helpful tool for better understanding census records is this booklet published by the US National Archives (click on the image on the right side of the page to download the PDF file). It contains, word for word, all the instructions given to census enumerators for each census year.
Remember, the main purpose of census records was for the government to get a general headcount. If some information was missing or inaccurate, it did not destroy the main purpose of the census. Unfortunately, the census records were not created with future genealogists in mind. However, the United States Federal Census is still one of the first places you should look for your ancestors. Much of the information you can find there about relationships and vital facts cannot be found in any other record. Good luck in your census search!