I believe that the census is one of the most often used genealogical records and it is certainly one of the most misunderstood records. Because it is so easily available at libraries and through the Family History Library and its branch Family History Centers, I find that people use it without understanding what the record is really telling them or not telling them.
One of the biggest misunderstandings is how accurate the census is and where the information came from. In our mind's eye we see the enumerator visiting each home, where there is always someone there. In reality this is not always what happened.
It wasn't always the enumerator's fault.
Enumerators of yesterday must today have broad shoulders. We have determined that any misinformation we find in the census is entirely their fault. An age is wrong? The enumerator's fault. The place of birth is wrong? The enumerator's fault.
If we do not hold the enumerator completely to blame, the next person we blame is our ancestor. Our ancestor lied to the enumerator. Purposely and maliciously lied to the enumerator. After all, our ancestor knew that we would be coming along some hundred years later in search of the family tree, and he or she didn't want to make things too easy for us.
Where Did the Information Come From?
First, let me assure you I am not letting the enumerator off the hook entirely. In some instances the enumerator was to blame. Perhaps he didn't spell the name the way we wanted. Or perhaps he did twist around a couple of numbers. Worse still, his writing may have been so atrocious that today we have difficulty deciphering it. With that said though, let us look at where the information may have come from that was recorded by the beleaguered enumerator.
In a nutshell -- anyone. That's right, the information could have come from anyone living in the household itself or living nearby. Really, though, it was just the enumerator trying to get his job done, but it results in misinformation for us now.
As the enumerator came upon a household, he knocked on the door or rang the doorbell. He was under no obligation to talk to the head of the household or the person most apt to know the information. He could talk to the head of the household. He may have talked to the wife. He may even have talked to a child or servant of the household. And what did he do when no one was home when he came calling? He was allowed to ask the neighbors what they knew about the family.
Perhaps before we decide that all enumerators should be hung, we take a moment to put ourselves in their shoes. They had an area to canvas. They had a set amount of time to do it in. They visit a house and no one is home. Even if he was willing to return a few times to the home, what if they were vacationing? This happened in the city, especially to those of means. They may not have been there while the enumerator was working in the area. He had to write down his information from somewhere, so he goes to the neighbor and asked what they may know about the absent family.
This Date, That Date
Another way that information gets recorded incorrectly has to do with the date. There are actually two dates on the census pages. The first date is that one stamped on the sheet that was the official date for all questions. Depending on the census year this date may be January 1, April 1, April 15, or June 1. It was the date upon which all the answers to the questions were supposed to be accurate.
For instance, the enumerator comes to the door on August 15 and asks who was living in this household on April 15. He would then enumerate them. But what if he didn't ask it that way? Perhaps he just asked who is living in the household. Or perhaps the individual being questioned doesn't remember who was in the household on that date. Many times, I have found that information, especially ages of young children are often figured based on the date the enumerator came to the door not the official date of the census. A goof? Yes, but one that we need to keep in mind when working with the census.
There are mistakes in the census, no doubt about it. While we would like to point the finger of blame, there is really no one person who should have to shoulder the blame for misinformation. Unlike today where our birth date is stamped on our driver's license and we are identified by our social security number, back then, exact dates of birth were not as critical. Even today, though, if the enumerator cannot get in touch with a family, he or she will come to visit the neighbors in hopes of getting the information needed. It happened to me during the last census enumeration.