Genealogy and Government, Part II

In Part II of Genealogy and Government, let’s examine the U.S. Federal Census and explore examples and barriers about how this record only tells a part of the story.  Be forewarned,  this may call into question its veracity.

As some genealogists have discovered, the earlier Federal Census wasn’t as accurate as one may think and the same could be said of today.  In the olden days, a person went around door-to-door collecting this information.  This person had their own perspective, ideas, thoughts, and opinions.  When they arrived at someone’s door, they would ask the proscribed questions.  Now, there could have been several barriers to recording information accurately.

There’s the language barrier.  The individual answering the questions could have been from another country and unable to speak English well or at all.  An exchange that would have been rife with miscommunication.  For example, a census taker could have asked how many children are living in the house?  But a person, most often a woman, could take that to mean, how many children are at the house, right now.  They would smile and say 4 because that’s how many children are there in the house but what about the two children who are at school?  So, the census taker writes down 4 children instead of 6 children that the woman really has.  So there you have it.  A possible explanation why your ancestor isn’t listed on a particular census.

Another example of a language barrier is the case of my grandfather.  My grandfather’s name was Palmer.  But when I looked for him in the 1930 U.S. Federal Census, I had a hard time tracking him down.  As I clicked through my results, I found him but his name wasn’t spelled correctly.  Instead of being spelled “Palmer” it was spelled “Palma.”  My only conclusion is that the census taker wrote his name down phonetically.  Maybe he didn’t know how to spell it or that’s how it sounded to him.  If I hadn’t thought to broaden my search, I  probably wouldn’t have found him.

Then there’s the racial barrier.  What if the census taker is white and is stopping at  black home.  Here’s a person you don’t know or trust at your door asking you questions about your family.  Would you really answer his questions or even answer the door?

Then there’s the simple possibility that no one was home.  When conducting the census door-to-door, it was usually done in grids.  An area would be divided into Enumeration Districts and divided among several census takers.  Enumeration districts were created by using the most recent copy of a city or town’s map.  Each grid was created based on how many houses the government estimated would take one individual to cover in a certain amount of time.  In a given day, they would try to get to as many houses as they could.  If no one was home, they would make a notation to revisit the next day.  If no one answered, then they went about their business.  Too bad.  They had a deadline to meet.  And there you have it, an entire family not listed on the Federal Census.

It’s important to make mention that the person answering the census taker’s questions may not be a member of that household.  For example, let’s say the census taker comes back the next day and the family still isn’t home.  In most cases, they may ask the next door neighbor.  As I mentioned in Part I, the questions typically asked are very broad.  The neighbor may answer the questions to the best of their ability but even this information could be rife with inaccuracies.

As you can see, there are many explanations why you may or may not find your ancestor.  Don’t get discouraged.  There are other resources at the city, county, and state level to flesh out the full story.

I hope you’ve found this helpful.  May your genealogy search be a little less confusing or filled with frustration now that you know the real deal about Genealogy and Government.


About Ashley S

I'm an archivist!
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