Making the Most of Census Records

Oct 7 21:00 2004 Andrew J. Morris Print This Article

Census records are one of the most basic ... used by ... These records include a wealth of ... that is ... useful to ... as well as hidden clues that are less ob

Census records are one of the most basic resources used by
genealogists. These records include a wealth of information that
is obviously useful to researchers,Guest Posting as well as hidden clues that
are less obvious but equally useful. Their use must be tempered
with a good dose of skepticism however, as they are by their
nature full of flaws.

Census records can give us clues that open up our family
histories. Many beginners get so enthusiastic with what they find
in census records that they go no further -- that is a big
mistake. Others take down information that looks helpful, then
never give that census another thought. That can be a mistake
too, as we will see - it is often useful to go back to the census
records as we uncover further information from other sources.

There are a wide variety of census records, from various
countries and many time periods. It is an ancient form of
governmental record-keeping. In the Bible it was because of the
census that Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem. One of the
most famous surviving census records is the Domesday Book from
England, which dates from 1085 A.D.

In addition to actual census records, we often have recourse to
what are termed 'census substitutes' -- records that have some
of the characteristics of censuses, and that may be used to the
same end. Early census records are often what are called "head of
household" censuses, since only the head of each family is
mentioned by name. Certain tax and property records may serve the
same function as a head-of-household census, if it is widespread
enough to encompass a large proportion of the households.

Censuses were primarily designed to allow the government to
assess taxes, or determine what the pool of available
military-age men might be. They also provided a count of
citizens, and perhaps a count of eligible voters for a particular

Beginning in the 1800's, various governments were persuaded that
the census could serve certain social ends, in addition to their
traditional functions of property evaluation and/or military
assessment. To this end, additional information began to be
gathered. The birthplace of individuals could help identify
migration patterns. Questions could be asked regarding literacy,
fluency, race, occupation, religion, relationships, mortality and
more. ALL of the additional data these more modern censuses
provide can be used by the genealogist to better understand their

However complete or incomplete the information a particular
census provides, the genealogist needs to keep in mind that
census records tend to be full of errors. One need only consider
the source of information, and how it is collected, to understand
how errors are likely to creep in. Some people are suspicious of
government in any guise, and purposely mislead the census taker.
Others simply give erroneous information because they don't know
the correct answers. The census taker is likely to be
over-worked, and may get careless. It was not unusual for records
to be taken down in the field, then transcribed onto clean,
official forms at some later date -- and any transcription is
subject to errors. No census is complete, there are always people
who get missed, either through mistake, or because they don't
want to be included. It has also been known to occur that
persons, or entire families are listed more than once. Remote
communities sometimes expected to gain from inflating their
populations! Unscrupulous census takers who were paid according
to the number of entries they made were also motivated to repeat
-- or create fictitious -- entries.

Census records are often indexed, some of those indexes provide
every name in the census records, others only the head of each
household and others in that household with surnames that differ
from the head of household. These indexes are wonderful tools.
Like the census records themselves, they are rife with errors,
but if you keep that in mind, and use them judiciously they can
save you hours of searching. Since the original records are
usually handwritten, it is easy for mis-readings to occur. The
motivations of the persons doing the transcription must be
considered -- if they get paid regardless of how accurate the
transcription, some people will not make an effort to be
accurate. The qualifications of the transcriber can also affect
quality. Volunteers are hard to find, and experienced volunteers
are even more elusive. When the original records are faded, or in
the hand of a poor writer, even the best transcriber will make
some mistakes.

The novice genealogist will sometimes make the grand gaffe of
citing a census index as if it were itself a source. An index is
a finding aid, it should never be used as the source of
information. True, an index may indicate the place of residence
for an individual at the time of a particular census, but always
go to the original census record for full details. First, there
will be much more information there, and secondly, you avoid
perpetuating many of the mistakes inherent in the index. As a
rule, all indexes should be treated as finding aids, not as
sources in and of themselves. The only exception is in those rare
cases when the original records have been destroyed, but an index

This sounds like an intolerable situation doesn't it? Census
indexes full of errors, based on original records that are
themselves full of mistakes! But if you are aware of the
potential problems, there is still a wealth of information
available from census records. I like to think of the census
record itself as a kind of index -- it provides an approximate
date of birth, which allows me to find the birth or baptism
record more easily; it provides an approximate marriage date, so
I can find the marriage record more easily. If I don't find those
records in the time and place suggested by the census, I suspect
error in the census, and begin looking for other clues. By the
same token, if I don't find someone listed in a census index
where I think they should be, I may go directly to the census
itself, assuming there is an error in the index.

Whenever possible, you should retain copies of the census pages
where you find an ancestor, and even a page or two preceding and
following the entry you are interested in. This will save you a
great deal of time, since it is often helpful to go back to a
census record in search of additional data, when new information
becomes available. Look at the names of the neighbors. Are they
the same folks who lived nearby in an entirely different location
ten or twenty years earlier? They may have migrated together. Did
an individual find a spouse from a neighboring farm? Are there
relatives settled in the same area?

Look at all of the information available for any particular
census. Don't neglect the information at the head of the page,
or sometimes on the first page of the census for a locality,
which gives information on the exact date the census was
compiled, who was recording the information, and details about
the location being surveyed. Is the recorder of a different
nationality or religion than the family you are researching, and
how might that influence the recording of details? Name spelling,
in particular, is often influenced by the recorders idea of what
is 'right' or reasonable.

In the 1900 U.S. census, the year of emigration is given for
persons born in other countries. Are there others from the same
country who arrived at the same time living in the same area? If
you later find a ship's list, and these others are on the same
ship as someone with the same name as your ancestor, you have
supporting evidence that you have located the correct person, and
not just someone of the same name. Also, you have identified an
important relationship. Human social activity is based on
relationships, and identifying those relationships can be

America, for example, is made up of immigrants from all parts of
the world. Very rarely do people new immigrants settle in some
particular location just because they have heard it is a good
place to be. Most will have friends or relatives who preceded
them, and will choose to settle in the same area those kith and
kin reside. Such relationships help the immigrant in finding work
or a place of residence, and will be reflected in voluntary
associations, such as fraternal groups and religious communities.
These same social and kinship relationships will also be found in
the sponsors and witnesses for vital and legal records. Each time
you find evidence for an association, such as the witness on a
marriage record, you should go back to the census to see where
the new-found person resides, and any similarities in
socio-economic status, migration patterns, or other factors for
which the census provides evidence.

Census records can also help with the process of elimination that
is sometimes needed. If you can show through a thorough search of
the census that your John Smith is the only John Smith in a
particular area, then that heightens the probability that the
John Smith mentioned in a particular record for that region is
indeed 'your' John Smith. Thus it is important to note other
families in the area with the same surname as your ancestors.
Sometimes these will turn out to be relatives, while in other
cases they help with the process of elimination.

When looking for records, be sure to check every census
available. Cross checking will help determine which facts are
correct, and which are questionable. Don't forget that more than
one level of government may conduct censuses, as for example in
the U.S. where there are both Federal and State censuses
available for most areas.

Check too for all of the census schedules available. There may be
separate schedules for farms or businesses, special groups like
slaves, veterans of a particular war, etc. There may even be
mention of people not alive at the time of census, as in the case
of mortality schedules. Mine all of the schedules for the area of
interest for any facts they may yield.

Finally, compare what you find with the published census
summaries. These summaries do not usually include the names of
individuals, but they will give statistical information about a
particular area. You can compare the details from the actual
census for your ancestor with the statistics for that area,
which will tell you how your ancestors fitted into the local
society. Were they typical for the area, or in a small minority
in one or another respect? Such evidence can enrich your
understanding of your ancestors lives, and with better
understanding you can better predict where to find further

Census records are a great boon to genealogists -- extract every
bit of information you can get from them, then verify those
details with supporting evidence from independant sources. Your
knowledge of your ancestors will be richer for the effort.

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Andrew J. Morris
Andrew J. Morris

The author, Andrew J. Morris, is a writer, programmer,
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