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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Are You Reading the Census Page Correctly?
by Rhonda R. McClure

December 12, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Census records are a dream for genealogists. We put a lot of time and energy into finding our ancestors in census records. For a long time this required us to search line-by-line as we cranked each page by. Now there are indexes and even online indexes that are linked to the exact page of the census where the person is listed. Most of these indexes, though, are head of household only. This means if we don't know the name of the father we are still required to look page by page, or at least look at each family of that surname that is found in the index.

Once we find the family in the census though, we often apply our own thinking or our own interpretation to the record. We make assumptions that are perhaps off or not correct based on what we see or don't see on the census page. For instance, a child born in Canada to American born parents who return to the United States and are found in the census records of 1920. The researcher states that the census says that the child, now an adult, has not been naturalized. Is that really what the census says?

Once we find the family in the census, we often apply our own interpretation to the record.

Assumption from Omission?

Often the mistakes in interpretation come from assumptions drawn from the the fact that a column on the census page is empty. The above example illustrates this. The researcher assumed that because the naturalization column was empty that the census was telling her that the individual in question was not naturalized. In reality the reason that column was empty was that he was already an American because his parents were American. As a result the enumerator left the naturalization column empty. Had the individual not been an American already, then the enumerator would have had to supply one of three abbreviations in that column: AL for Alien (someone who has not begun the naturalization process at all), PA (the immigrant has submitted the first papers in the naturalization process), or NA (the immigrant has completed the naturalization process).

It is usually the citizenship columns that is likely to be empty, even when the person appears to be an immigrant. Another time that you often see the columns empty is for women. Women were usually naturalized through their spouse (for instance, if they married an American). More often, though, it was because their husband had gone through the naturalization process. As a result, on the census you will often see the year of immigration for a woman, but seldom will you see information in the other citizenship columns.

This is one example of how our assumptions based on the omission of information on the census page may actually lead to a misinterpretation or a misunderstanding that might lead the researcher to spending time looking for records or expecting to find records that do not exist.

When and Where Was He Born?

We often rely on the census records to tell us when and where our ancestor was born. Since 1850, everyone in the household has been listed along with age and place of birth. Through the years, though, the way in which the place of birth was recorded has changed. Sometimes the enumerator took it upon him or herself to include additional information.

In addition to keeping in mind that the enumerator may not have talked to someone in the household or someone who knew the answers to the questions, you also need to keep in mind the questions that were asked and the directions given to the enumerator as to how information was to be recorded. An excellent resource for understanding the questions and directions to the enumerator is 200 Years of U.S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790-1990. With this book you will find out why the enumerator would record the place of birth as Bavaria instead of Germany. You will learn which languages were to be separate even if spoken within a given country. More importantly by understanding the directions to the enumerators you will have a better understanding of why the enumerator did or did not include certain answers.

When it comes to the age of a person in the census, it is important to remember that the census was taken based on a specific date. It was this date that the enumerator was supposed to incorporate into questions, such as the age of the individuals in the household. For instance in the 1860 census, the date was 1 June. Of course, because it took the enumerators months to gather the information we have to ask ourselves whether the enumerator asked the question so that the answer would be given according to the first of June or was it asked so that the answers given applied to the date of the enumeration (which many have been three or four months later). The 1910 census the date was 15 April. The 1920 census was the first of January, and is the easiest when trying to figure out the year of birth of someone. The other years you have to factor the previous 12 months, which often means that the person was born from either at the last half of one year or the first half of the following year.

Get to Know the Record

Like all records, it is important to get to know the census. I think that most people think they know everything there is to know about the census already, primarily because we spend so much time finding our ancestors in this record. However, I am constantly discovering little nuances to the records or the way the enumerators may have listed information or asked questions. I know that I have found that I can combine information found in say the mortality schedule with the population schedule to make a family connection.

Recently I was looking for a John Stewart who died in Indiana County, Pennsylvania in February, 1870. I knew that because of his date of death he would not show up on the 1870 population schedule, which was taken as of the first of June 1870. However, knowing that there was a mortality schedule, that is a listing of those who died in the previous 12 months up to 1 June 1870, I went looking to see if I could get access to that schedule while I was at the Family History Library that week. Fortunately for me they did have the mortality schedules for 1870 for Pennsylvania. In finding John Stewart listed in the mortality schedule, I didn't just make a copy of the record and move on. After all, it supported what I knew, so I might have thought about doing that, but instead I took a moment to really look at the mortality schedule sheet and see what it was telling me.

In addition to the expected name, age, sex, color, marital status, and place of birth, the 1870 morality schedule also told me if his parents were foreign born, the month of death, and occupation and the cause of death. At the very far left of the sheet was a column that I might otherwise have overlooked that was labeled "Number of the family as given in the 2nd column of Schedule 1." Schedule 1 is the population schedule, the census we spend the most time with.

Instead of moving on with my research, I took the time to see what family John was associated with. His wife predeceased him, so I was curious to see who had reported his death to the enumerator. What I found was a daughter, a married daughter, so I had her husband's name and a listing of her children. And living three doors away was a brother to John, so the time taken in looking at the population schedule offered me quite a bit of information.

In Conclusion

Because we are so familiar with the census we often think that we do not have anything to learn about the census. There were many different schedules recorded, though not all of them are still available. These different schedules may offer specialized information about our ancestors. More importantly, though, knowing the census and what it was designed to record and how the enumerator was to record information and ask questions gives us a better understanding of why a column we expected to have information is empty and what that is really telling us.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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