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When the Census Seems Senseless

1930 blank Census

Can't find your family in a census? Do the names look different from the last census? How does this happen? What to do?

The first census conducted in 1790 was carried out by US Marshals on horseback. They received very little, if any, formal training. They received $1 for every 150 people tallied in the countryside, and $1 for every 300 people counted in the city. The population of the country on August 2 of that year was 3,929,214.

By 1850 the population was 23,191,876 and enumerators got paid 2 cents per person living or dead (Mortality Schedule), plus a mileage rebate, and extra funds for conducting the agricultural census.₁

Basically, you had men travelling house to house, ascertaining who the head of the household was, and handwriting the info on the census sheet as seen above. They were given specific instructions about how to survey from block to block, and if no one was home, they were to leave a blank with sufficient spaces for family members to be filled in when the enumerator came back.

They were allowed to ask a neighbor for the missing family census info. This accounts for a lot of inaccuracies about names and ages of children as well as inconsistencies as where the occupants were from or born.

A lot of census inconsistencies can simply be attributed to human error or dare I say, laziness? In my own family, there were several brothers living on adjacent farms in the Catskills in New York. One census year, the children all got swapped between two of the families from the prior census year! Seems like the kind of mistake that would happen when you write something down on the back of an envelope intending to enter it later. Don't do that!


Be sure to check multiple spelling variations when you are searching. The enumerators may have been making a best guess at deciphering an accent, and in the earlier days of the US not everyone was literate. The adult at the home and not in the field or in town working was often uneducated.

Some immigrant families made use of this opportunity to shorten or Americanize their names as well. If you find a close match, check birth dates and locations. Do the children's names match? Don't overlook the "Smythe" that was "Smith" in earlier records.

But what to do when your family does not appear at all in a census?

One family I have researched appears in 1900 at Chickasaw Nation, Oklahoma but they do not appear anywhere in 1910. None of the 7 children can be found as individuals either. Somehow, they were missed by the enumerator(s)? Perhaps they were in transit moving from OK to TX? Surely not all dead?

The easiest next step was to look at the 1920 Census. The parents were found in Childress, TX and the younger children were with them. Where were the older siblings? For the males, the World War I military draft/registration records were consulted and they were found in various nearby counties. The missing daughters were found in the marriage records for Texas.

man reading newspaper

Where else to look? Newpapers. The patriarch of this family died in 1928 as a resident of Lubbock, and his obituary claimed he was "a pioneer resident" of the city which was formed in its current locale in 1891.2 So perhaps a little stretch of the truth, but this may explain where he went in 1910. Search by name for marriages, hospitalizations, visiting relative news, lawsuits, unclaimed mail, etc. as well as the obituaries.

You can also check county and state records for any land transactions, wills and probates, church records, and city directories. All of these methods can also be used to double check tht seeming name changes from one census to the next.

Always double check your sources. If your membership site lets you save various records to the ancestor's profile, do it! You will automatically have your citation to prove your argument about the relationship.

There are lots more interesting little factual tidbits about the development of the census taking in our country at the US Census Bureau website. I have included a link for the article from Mississippi Valley Publishing about the wages of the enumerators below.

How about that groundhog this morning, eh? Six more weeks of winter means more time "trapped" indoors doing genealogy. Darn!

If you'd like some help with your family tree and a census, send me an email. Let's talk!

Thanks for stopping by, and especially for sharing this blog,

Leslie Ryan

No compensation for any links or referrals. No Copyright infringement intended.

2 Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Nov. 4, 1928 from last checked 1/31/23


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