Census pitfalls

All genealogists avidly use the census for information about their ancestors. Starting in 1790 the U.S. censuses were taken every 10 years. By 1850 all those in a household were listed and in 1880 the relationships were spelled out. What’s not to like about any of that?

The problem is that like everything created by humans the census can have pitfalls and cause endless frustration. How common are these issues? Let’s take a look at what may occur when you research the census.

Your ancestor is missing. This is the most common and frustrating issue. You think you know where your ancestor was but can’t find him.  The odds are strong that he wasn’t abducted by aliens but most likely skipped by the census taker.  Census takers carried a form to record information. But that information was later transcribed onto the official record, the one we see when we do our research. If a line was skipped then your ancestor’s information won’t show up in the census.

The names are wrong. It’s the same issue as above.  Transcribing records is always tricky. Such factors as fatigue mean lines can be missed. In the 1850 census for Detroit, Maine two sets of grandparents lived with their married grandchildren. Both grandmothers are identified as “Lucy” but only one was named Lucy. The other was named Seba, and she was alive at the time. But the census taker wrote Lucy and even today online researchers insist that there was a second wife named Lucy when none existed.

The ages are wrong. Before you research take time to find out the closing date for completing the census forms. If your ancestor was born one day after the official closing date, he or she won’t be in the census. In the 1950 census ages were given for the last birthday which means your 12-year-old ancestor is shown as 11.

Your ancestor isn’t in the index. Indexers are usually volunteers and not indexing an area where they are familiar with surnames. Often, they can’t read old handwriting which can result in your ancestral names being wrong. I recently found a Lilla recorded in the index as “Silla”. If your surname was foreign expect problems. Be flexible and try different variations. My Bragg ancestors show up in indexes as “Gragg,” “Bray,” Hagg” and other interesting concoctions.

The one giving the information about a family could be a neighbor or a child. Census takers didn’t return once they’d done an area. Just imagine what a ten-year-old neighbor might not know about a family. Instant errors!

Keep an open mind. You may think your ancestors were in a certain area, but people moved around, took temporary jobs, and paid visits so check out some of the others with the same names showing in the index. It may be your family.

The census is truly a wonderful resource but watch out for the pitfalls and don’t be surprised when some of these errors crop up.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com. 

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