Rethinking Your Approach to the Census

Genealogy 101 teaches us to search and use the census as part of fundamental practices.  It seems with that minimal foundation, the collection of the censuses for ancestors can transition into a “check the box” activity.  Sure, we can look at our census data and, perhaps, extract the important data points:  who is related to whom; who was living where; family members and their ages.  Over time we often struggle to fit these pieces with the other data we collect.  There are age discrepancies across a lifetime; surname spellings just do not align.  What would cause that?  Who can we blame?…The enumerator, of course!

Perhaps we need to rethink the role, the requirements, and impact of the enumerator had on the data in the census.  A great deal of responsibility fell on their shoulders.  Collecting district information of people who may / may not have cooperated with the information gathering process; who may / may not have been conversant in the language; or may / may not clearly known the facts themselves is an enormous task.   This compounds their contractual responsibility to gather reasonably sound data that supports governmental and representational needs.

Standing in the enumerator’s shoes, let us consider the following—they were human beings and had many of the same foibles people do today:  

  • Despite best efforts, they made errors. 
  • They were graded on their performance, so records may have been re-written to provide the best example of their work.
  • They may not have had the best day and writing may not be clear or misspellings occurred.
  • It was too much to complete in 1 day, so we need to think about timing. 
  • Sometimes they had to backtrack and fit it when they did.
  • Sometimes they noted gossipy remarks / comments
  • They had codes, markings, notes to make it easier for them to do their job. 
  • They had rules they had to follow

The final point is the consistent point.  Across the country each enumerator was given a listing of codes / notations to use in obtaining data.  This listing is important to the genealogist and should become the next level of consideration when viewing our ancestral data.  What was meant by the questions being asked?  How were they asked?   What is actually being asked?  Could there be misunderstanding or miscommunication?

We need to be thoughtful of the content and consider that there are sources to help breakdown the critical content in the census.  Beyond the census themselves, consider the following sites as your new sources for looking deeper into the census:

1.    Census Instructions By Year – US Census Bureau

2.    Clues in Census Records, 1850-1930 – NARA

3.     Enumeration Forms and Instructions – IPUMS   

4.     History of Enumeration Procedures – IPUMS     

In February, we challenge our members to try these options during our hands on meeting.  Join us as we work together to take a new look at the census!

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