The census could probably rightfully be called the foundational resource upon which much of our research builds upon. After interviewing our family members and elders, and farming the family attics and basements for documents, many of us turn to the census records. It begs a question. Have you learned to sift through each census record to extract every little clue about your ancestors and their communities? Many people haven’t. I’m still learning new ways to do this. And while we know that census records have high levels of inaccuracy, it’s still important to know how to interpret more from them than just the household structures, names and ages.
I’ve posted before about the importance of using the online accessible instructions given to the census enumerators every in every year. Here are just a few examples of some of the things you may be missing–I have cut and pasted images to better convey some of the information:
In 1870 above, would you have seen:
–that dollar value in the real property column 8 for Mary Ross implies ownership of land? You’d want to find those deed records.
–that the high real estate value for Remus Riggs suggests he had been a slaveowner?
In 1880 above, would you have seen that:
–the tickmark in column 20 saying that James Berry was maimed, crippled or bedridden?
–wife Valeria who is “housekeeping” is working for wages outside the house, while the wife Ella who is “keeping house” is more what we would think of as a housewife?
–the tickmark in column 12 indicating that Richard Case and his wife have married within the last year?
–the Matthias Dorsey and Nancy Williams families are living under the same roof (dwelling no. 478 contains families 495 and 496)? It doesn’t mean they are related, but that is a distinct possibility that’s needs exploration.
And, in the final examples come from 1910, my favorite census record to mine for clues. Would you have seen that:
–Harry Haskins “Emp” in column 20 means he was an employer paying people to work for him, while Emmett Fly was working for wages? (In fact, this enumerator did not follow instructions–he was supposed to write a “w” for wages, not a “wa”)
–the “O” in column 26 means Harry Haskins and James Tall own their property, while Emmett Fly and Jerry Bridges are renting, with an “R” in that same column?
–the “H” in column 28 means Emmett Fly is living in a House, not a Farmhouse?
–the “UA” in column 30 means that James Tall served in the Union Army?
–the “Bl” in column 31 for Willis means that he is blind?
–the “OA” in column 20 for John Simmons means that he is working on his “own account”?
Some of these might seem like small things. But as we all know every little piece of information is meaningful and I think these kinds of details are what go into making a fascinating and more accurate story of their lives. There are so many more than I could illustrate here, but I hope it’s encouraged you to make an effort to “see” all the information that’s there and how there is often a lot more there than we think. Especially in those columns wayyy on the right hand side of the page that we tend to ignore.
Here are a few resources in order to learn more:
NARA has a great link on clues in census records
I like Ancestry’s Wiki Template for Census Information
Mark Lowe has a terrific pdf on using early census records
I’ve always been a fan of Michael Neill’s articles, here he links to
several on census records and strategies
My readers, tell me, what clues have you found in the census that surprised you?
Note: If you live in the DC/MD Metro area, I’ll be presenting a lecture this Saturday on my new book about Reclaiming Kin at 1pm at the Central Maryland Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society’s (CMAAGHS) meeting. The group meets at the Owen Brown Community Center. I hope you can come, it’s a great group of people and we always have a good time. I will be signing and selling books as well.