Friday, July 6, 2012

The Census - The Personal Public Record

(By Candice Buchanan)

The Census is a wonderful record revealing to researchers trivia about their ancestors every ten years of their lives. Censuses 1790 to 1940 are now accessible to the public, with one exception being 1890, which burned, almost completely, leaving one bothersome (sometimes maddening) blank spot in our decade by decade details.

Census records make a great foundation for further research by outlining where and with whom our relatives lived, in addition to details about birth, occupation, education, income and more. What is really exceptional about the Census though, is that it goes a step further - a step taken when the Census taker walked into our ancestors’ homes.

The Census asks for a particularly family-oriented set of data unlike most other records. By viewing household members and their individual details we gain insight into the day-to-day home operations, like which son or daughter cared for the aging parents; which aunt or uncle took in orphaned nieces and nephews; how many children could attend school vs. how many were needed to work the farm, and so on. Additionally, the Census has a certain lack of formality that allows a more personal element of every day family life to present itself. For example, misspellings or unusual variations of common names can clue us in to pronunciations or nicknames used at home. Educational and occupational information let us know who in the home could read and write, and what role each person played in household labor.

The tricky part of Census research can be simply finding who you are looking for. That personal touch and lack of formality that makes the Census so unique can also make it more challenging to search. Aside from the frequent spelling errors, there are always those ancestors who decided not to live where you expected them to be – and you are left with a whole nation of possibilities.

Advice to conducting a successful search of the Census can be reiterated to apply to almost any record genealogists consult. Most particularly, you have to keep an open mind and you must look at the original record. Be prepared to accept entries that are not exact and be sure to consider every possibility. Don’t ever assume that "this is not my family" because a name, age, birthplace, etc. is not just right. Many ancestors could not read or write and even if they could someone else often did the paperwork, such as the courthouse clerk, lawyer or, in this case, the Census taker.

Consider the source. There is no way to know who answered the Census taker’s questions when each house call was made. It could have been one of the eight children, Grandma who spoke broken English, or worse, a neighbor down the road. How many members of your household today could provide correctly spelled names and accurate birth days and places of everyone living in your home? Not to mention how many children Mom had given birth to and how many still lived, as asked in 1900 and 1910? Or how old Dad and Mom were when each was first married, as asked in 1930? Even if the head of the house was home to do the interview, it is impossible to know how meticulously he or she responded. Perhaps the family Bible was pulled for accuracy, or maybe the cow was milked between rushed answers.

Researchers seem particularly negligent about viewing the original when it comes to the Census because so many records have been transcribed and published for us. While such works are excellent aides and provide many research leads, they are not a replacement for the real thing.

Consider a researcher who was frustrated that George Cumberledge could not be located in 1810. A closer look revealed that Cumberledge had been misspelled and then mis-transcribed. A look at the original document shows "George COMBRIDGE" enumerated in Wayne Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania on page 15 (stamped). A popular 1976 publication, Pennsylvania 1810 Census Index, by Accelerated Indexing Systems, Inc. (AIS), shows him as "George CORNBRIDGE." Though otherwise correctly referenced by AIS, this combination of misspelling and mis-transcription made George challenging to find. It was necessary to take a more liberal look at the spelling possibilities and return to the real document to make an independent assessment. Sometimes a familiarity with local names and families can help to read a sloppy or unusual entry.

Similarly, I was having no luck exploring a name index for the family of Harriet Eldora (Mitchener) Baily in 1920. I tried searches for every potential member of the household with no result: soundex, various spellings, nicknames – nothing. Finally, I went to the original Census and scrolled page by page through Cumberland Township until a suspiciously similar family appeared under the Gwyne surname. Ultimately, the census taker made an error when recording this Baily household. Instead of writing Baily into the surname field, he continued to use his mark quoting the Gwyne surname from the previous neighbor's home. Consequently, the Baily family members are listed as Gwynes. To make matters worse the Gwyne surname, misspelled to begin with, was poorly written and has been transcribed in at least one interpretation as "Guyme."

Know that the Census record, like any other piece of evidence in your search, does not stand-alone to establish proof of your family history. Each fact should be compared with other records for support or contradiction. The Census is one of those important records to be included in your family history, however, and can offer a unique addition to your genealogical knowledge.

(Originally published by Candice Buchanan in Greene Speak, January 2007. Updated July 2012 for

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