Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
Tips for Using the U.S. Census
The U.S. Census was never designed for family historians but it remains one of our most useful research tools. We can be thankful the founding fathers found it necessary to count our new nation's residents for political purposes as we have benefited as much as they.
Still, the census taken every ten years since 1790 is far from a perfect tool. Early enumerations from 1790 through 1840 are replete with errors and omissions. Names were usually spelled as they sounded and people often spelled their own names inconsistently. Surnames and given names are sometimes reversed. The more unusual a name is, the more apt it is to be misspelled by the census taker and/or misread by the indexer.
Consider all possible spellings particularly phonetically. The Soundex system was invented to assist with finding names in the index, but if the first letter of the name was incorrect or misread it's nearly impossible to locate in Soundex. I searched unsuccessfully for Myron Bly in the 1820 Indiana index until I finally found him by accident one fine day indexed as "Aby miron."
While pre-1850 censuses named only the head of household, other residents were represented by the number of males and females in pre-set age groups; for example, age under 10, 10-20, 20-30, etc. Some researchers tend to ignore these early records: remember, families can be reconstructed by compiling comparisons of the various census years. The drawback is that it's impossible to know if every person represented in the count is a family member, and not a hired hand or visiting cousin.
Always copy the entire census page. Groups of relatives often lived near each other. Relatives and neighbors tended to migrate in groups. If you can't find your family in an earlier or later census you may be able to find others who lived nearby and find yours at the same time. If a teenager is missing from a family, it may be he/she was working for a farmer or tradesman who may or may not list him as a resident. Pay particular attention to household residents with differing last names - they may provide clues to the wife's maiden name, or a hired hand may become a son in law a few years later. You never know what clue is hiding in a census record.
Discrepancies are common from one census to another, particularly in ages and birthplaces. When used in conjunction with other records, it's usually possible to determine the most accurate information. It is possible for a family to be missed entirely by the census taker. Censuses were taken over a period weeks or months. If a family moved from an area prior to the census man's arrival there into an area already canvassed, they will not appear in either place. The reverse could cause them to be counted twice.
Beware of ditto marks. Some enumerators dittoed the surname for each resident rather than writing the surname for each. This shortcut may cause a person to be entered with the wrong surname. Due to the ditto, my ancestor Polly Vosburg appears to be Polly Remington in 1850 when she was living with her sister and brother in law.
When the original census was taken a copy was made. One set stayed in the local county and one was sent to Washington, DC. Errors were easily made in the copy, but we have no way of knowing today whether the record we see is the original or the copy. Many county copies no longer exist for comparison. For various reasons several enumerations prior to 1830 have not survived at all. In some cases county tax lists, if available, may be consulted as substitutes but list only the taxpayer not other household residents.
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19 March 2010