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Overheard in GenForum: Census Birth Year Errors
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

February 28, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: How common are errors on birth year and age that is found on Census records? I have a great-grandfather who on the 1900 Carter Co. Kentucky census his age is given as 33 and birth year as 1866. I find this hard to believe because his son that was born 1880 would had to be conceived when he was 12 years old. This is the only document that I can find so far with a birth year date for him. I recently found a marriage record that could be him as being married in 1877 and on an 1880 census this same person was 23 years old. Because of the birth date on the 1900 census it has been hard for me to find any kind of information about him because I believe it was wrong. -- Alice

A: There are many misconceptions about the census, including how the information was acquired that was eventually placed on the census pages. Often we hear stories from researchers who say their ancestor lied to the census taker to either make themselves older or younger. Some talk about women lying so they are not older than their husbands and so forth.

While I do not believe that women of this century were the first to get age conscious, I do not believe that it happened as often as most people claim in dealing with the census. There are usually other reasons that information is incorrect in the census.

Combine census with other records.

My Ancestor Lied to the Census Taker

If your ancestor didn't lie to the census taker, then how did the misinformation get onto the sheet that you are now looking at? There are a number of possibilities.

The enumerator talked to a child in the household. The enumerator did not need to talk to an adult in the household. Usually the questions were asked to whomever answered the door. This could have been a child in some instances. I know that my children don't have any idea how old I am, and I have had them make me both older and younger depending on when and who you ask.

No one was home. Just as the enumerator didn't have to talk to an adult in the household, they also did not actually have to talk to someone in the household. There were times when they would get to a home and no one would be home. They would then ask the next door neighbor if they knew about the family. While it is true that in many areas the neighbors did know more about each other than most do today, it is likely that they did not know everything that the census taker was asking, or that they thought they knew when in fact they were off, especially on the ages.

There was a transcription error. The census pages that we view are not the original pages that the enumerators carried around with them. In most cases we are viewing a transcribed copy. After the enumerator was through, he would take his records back and a couple of copies would be made, that would be stored elsewhere. Since they did not have photocopiers back then, they would have to transcribe the information by hand, thus allowing errors to creep in.

I really don't know. Sometimes it was the individual in question who just honestly didn't know their correct birth. Unlike today when we are required to have photo ID with our date of birth and residence to prove who we are, they often knew only that they were born about three years after the older brother, and they do the math.

Other Records to Help

You seem certain that you have located your ancestor in the 1900 Kentucky census with his family, and thus the quandary as you try to find out how old he really was. Since you are unsure, you cannot say for certain that the individual you found in the 1880 census is him. You mentioned that there was a second marriage. If you haven't done so already, you will want to search for the records of this second marriage. Marriage records often have the applications attached to them and the application would have asked for the age of your ancestor at that time. This may either corroborate or refute what you know from the 1900 census.

Since this is an ancestor of yours, then he had at least one child from whom you descend. If you haven't already done so, see if you can get a birth record on that child. If one exists, it is likely that the age of the father at the time of the birth of the child will be listed. Another piece of paper that helps you begin to build the case in question.

You mentioned finding the death certificate of the second wife, which proved to you that the census was wrong because the information on the death certificate showed she was five years older than she was. Again, we are talking about a record created by someone who thinks they know the answer to that question. It is possible that the information supplied on the death certificate could be questioned. However, did the death certificate indicate if she was a widow? Or was she still married to your ancestor at the time of her death? This might help you in tracking down his death certificate.

Did her death certificate indicate where she was buried? Have you looked for his tombstone or burial records yet to see what age he is listed at the time of his death or if they chiseled the date of birth on the tombstone or it is listed in the burial records? This may be another option available to you.

In Conclusion

The census is but one of the records we use, and sometimes it causes us more trouble than it is worth when we find we have misinformation on the census. The key to looking for an ancestor where the information is sketchy is to do so with an open mind. We need to look at what we find of those with the same name as our ancestor and see if it is possible that it is him. Sometimes this requires researching all records in the locality for that given individual to see if you can prove that it is indeed your ancestor.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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