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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Learn About the Record
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 11, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

As I was working on an article, I found myself reading up on the intricacies of the particular record type. In this case it happened to be census records, however, it could have been any kind of record.

We get so caught up in the chase for the next record for our ancestor, that we often fail to stop and truly understand the information supplied in the record we just found. We don't stop to compare the information with the history of the record type. Why was the record type created? What is unique about the information gathered for that record. These are just two of the questions we should be asking ourselves as we work.

Stop to think about the record type itself.

Why Was the Record Created?

Census records are a perfect example of a record that genealogists rely heavily on, but was created for a completely different reason. The same could be said for passenger lists, the Social Security Death Index, or even vital records.

Each of these records was created to solve a problem. U.S. census records were begun, and continue to be used, to determine the number of seats in the House of Representatives each state will get. The more people enumerated in a given state the more seats in the House of Representatives they will earn. The most recent enumeration, taken in 2000, will reflect changes as the numbers are crunched.

Vital records were begun when the local and state governments began to be concerned about such things as epidemics. If they were not tracking the deaths of the individuals, it was not possible to truly grasp the seriousness of an epidemic. Thus that is why there was a place for the cause of death on the certificate. Changes in privacy issues though are now affecting what portion of that information is protected as others request a copy of the death certificate. For instance, Florida blacks out the cause of death fields, when someone writes to them requesting a copy of a death certificate.

What Is Unique?

In addition to understanding why the record has been kept, it is also important to understand the idiosyncrasies of that record. For instance, the date the census was taken in the United States. As each census was taken beginning in 1790, the enumerators have been given a certain length of time to collect that information. They were also given strict directions on how to ask certain questions.

As they visited a dwelling, they were to ask who was living in the household on a given date. This date has varied from census to census. The early censuses 1790-1820 were begun in August. The 1830-1900 were begun on 1 June. The 1910 was begun on 15 April and the 1920 was begun on 1 January. These dates affect who may appear enumerated in a given home. It will affect the age of the individuals as they are recorded. These are just two instances to keep in mind when working with the census records.

The Social Security Death Index also has its idiosyncrasies. For instance, the Residence at Death does not necessarily mean that is the place the individual died. While it certainly gives you a clue that the individual was living there, they may have been visiting family in another county or state at the time of their death.

In Conclusion

All of the records, with the exception of family histories, that genealogists and family historians use were created for a different reason. While we benefit from the information asked, we need to stop and keep in mind why the information was requested in the first place. It may affect how we evaluate the details found in that particular source.

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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