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May 27, 2021

The Pitfalls of Census Records

How accurate are census records? I'm sure this question has arisen for every genealogist at some point in their research.

Why does Great Grandma's age change every census by less (or more!) than the 10 years between census? What's up with Great Grandpa's surname being spelled incorrectly? Why does Grandpa have a different first name every census year? Is it even the right man?? And why does great great grandma give a different place of birth for her parents each time?

These are all questions that might arise as you delve into census records. We quickly learn that census records cannot be considered the absolute and final authority. There are good reasons why we see so many discrepancies, but discrepancies doesn't mean we should ignore the information, just that we need to check for other collaborating records (or records which will disprove the anomalous information)

Why Are Census Records Inconsistent?

How can the census be so wrong sometimes? Consider first what question was actually asked by the census taker. For example with ages - did he ask how old the person was, or how old they were on their last birthday or.....

People lie about their ages. In past generations individuals often did not know their exact year of birth. I have a letter written in 1847 by my ancestor Levi Peer to his mother, asking her when he was born! At the time he was 38 years old but he obviously only had a vague idea of his birth year.

Spelling Doesn't Count

What about names? Spelling was not exact back in the 1800s and earlier. A census taker wrote what he heard, and whether or not he was a good speller or was familiar with the surname dictated what we see rendered on the census page. Don't forget that great grandpa might have been a recent immigrant with a difficult accent. The census taker might not have had any idea what name was being spoken.

If great grandpa was German or Polish or.... any other nationality find out what the English equivalent of his first name is. If you only know him as Walter but you know he came from another country, find out what his English name is in his native land. You may find him recorded either with his English equivalent or his ethnic origin name. For example Wladyslaw can be Walter. And on and on it goes...

Different first names? Children were usually given at least two names at birth and a man (or woman) might choose to use his first or his middle, or perhaps a nickname. Your ancestor might not have settled on his or her name until later in life, so may have used one name on one census and another on the next. Parents may have called their child by the name they bestowed on him but when he grew up he may have decided he didn't like his given name and used his middle.

People also had nicknames - Jack for John, Delia for Bridget, Polly for Mary - there are many standard nicknames which we can easily find with a search of Google. But what about invented nicknames? My husband's grandfather had the first name of Leon and middle name of Thomas but was called Charlie his entire life. We have to keep an open mind about whether or not individual A is the same person as individual B on another census!

Who Answered the Census Taker's Questions?

The next question we need to ask ourselves is - who provided the answers on that census? Was it a parent? And if so, was it Mom or Dad. Mothers may have had a better idea of their children's birth years and ages than dad. Was it an older child (perhaps mom or dad were not home) or even a neighbour giving the information? All these factors will affect the quality of the census information.

Immigration and naturalization years are among the most mis-remembered of all on the census. Let's face it, can you recall the exact year you did something? If I am asked what year I went backpacking through Europe, I can only say it was sometime in the mid 1970s. To figure it out more precisely I'd need some time to sit and think about how old my children were, or some other trigger for my memory. The census taker was not going to sit there while mom or dad thought about what year they arrived in this country so the year you see on the census may be pretty much their best guess, given quickly.

As for great great Grandma giving a different place of birth for her parents (or even herself!) remember that she may only have heard how her mother lived in New York, and not have heard that actually her mother was born in Illinois and moved to New York as an infant. She may know that she herself was born in New York but moved elsewhere as a child and considers that her birth place. Again, think about who might have given the information! Perhaps great great grandma was sick in bed and her husband provided the details, or an older child.

Take it With a Grain of Salt

Treat the census as you should every other genealogical source - with a bit of suspicion. Find other records and assess them all before arriving at a decision as to which (if any) is correct. But don't toss away information in one record as being completely wrong until you have thought about all the variables involved. You may find that you are indeed on the right track chasing Jurgen Muzzel even though you were told your great great grandpa was George Maxwell.....


Judith Smith Cassidy said...

Excellent article, thank you so much. Often with former slavs, if their home was down a muddy lane or off the beaten path, the census taker passed them by and went on to the next home. Women often refused to give their real age, because no woman wanted others to know how old she really was, and this exited up into my grandmothers era.

Judith Smith Cassidy

Howland Davis said...

Lorine - Amen to many points that you make.
I had one family with the family surname that I followed for decades and then it disappeared. Another family with the same surname appeared and I followed it decades. The two families were similar but not the same especially the daughters. I finally figured out that, as you suggested, the three daughters all decided to use the other name (first or middle) starting at one decade so the change was abrupt.
As for nicknames, one of my father's best friends had been an English exchange student known as Gus only because the first English exchange student at the school had been a Gus. So looking for Gus in the census (either U.S. or English) would have been futile. His given name was Richard. By the way, he had never told his parents until we blew the whistle.
And as for spelling, my grandfather and uncle, both named Marshal, were listed in the 1930 census as Marshal for grandfather and Marshall for my uncle. Did the enumerator think the name changed as he wrote it down?