Five Common Genealogical Mistakes to Avoid When Using Census Records 19


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Everyone makes mistakes … even genealogists. This is especially true when it comes to U.S. census records (don’t ask me how I know). I know what you’re saying: “it’s a FORM, how hard can it be to figure out?” Try this on for size: no two census enumerations are the same. The questions and instructions have changed from decade to decade since 1790. That alone can create problems when zipping from census to census looking for our ancestors. Here are five common genealogical mistakes to avoid when using census records:

1. Assuming relationships. This is probably the most common and the most dangerous from a research standpoint. The census questionnaires did not distinguish relationships of individuals in a household until 1880. If you assume that because 10-year-old Jane was the daughter of 22-year-old Joe simply because she was living in the same house, you would be wrong. First, do the math. Jane would have been born when Joe was 12 years old. Not impossible, but not very likely. Second, if you progress your research forward under the assumption that Joe is Jane’s father, you will spend the rest of your days researching the wrong ancestors. Always err on the side of caution (even when the relationships are given) and seek additional confirmation of the family structure.

2. Believing everything is fact. Census records are the most readily available genealogical resource we have. Unfortunately, you can’t believe everything you read. Just because it’s on the questionnaire doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Until the 1940 census, no indication was made as to the identity of the informant. It could have been your ancestor … or a spouse … or a neighbor … or some kid that happens to be standing in the yard when the enumerator comes by. In other words, since we have no idea who provided the information, it is impossible to determine its validity. Use this resource to provide clues to other information from more reliable records.

3. It’s spelled wrong. Just because a name is spelled differently on the census than on another document doesn’t mean it’s “wrong.” When it comes to genealogical records, spelling counts for very little. It’s the pronunciation that matters, and even that is questionable sometimes. When in doubt, say it out (loud). Sometimes you’ll find your hard-to-find ancestor by using a “sounds-like” approach instead of looking for names spelled the way you think it should be spelled.


4. Not transcribing the records. Census records are deceptively complex, and if you think you won’t miss anything … trust me, you will. Transcribing the data on the records ensures that you read and understand each piece of information. I can’t count the number of times I was transcribing a census record and ended up with a list of questions. I recommend transcribing by hand onto pre-printed forms rather than typing the information into a form, spreadsheet, or database. Hand writing the information solidifies it in your mind and (at least in my opinion) makes it easier to remember.

5. Not looking at the neighbors. You should always look several pages before and several pages after your ancestor on the census. These are the people who will likely show up in your ancestor’s “FAN Club” (Friends, Associates, Neighbors).((A phrase coined by the esteemed Elizabeth Shown Mills.)) When you have trouble finding your ancestor on prior or subsequent censuses, you can look for the FAN Club and see if they are nearby – perhaps incorrectly indexed or misspelled so badly that it doesn’t even qualify as a ‘variant’ of the surname.


About Jenny Lanctot

Jenny Lanctot is a paralegal, genealogist, and writer. In addition to her regular column Getting Started in IDG’s digital magazine Going In-Depth, she writes her personal blog Are My Roots Showing? and is a regular contributor to the FGS Voice blog. Her articles have appeared in the Florida State Genealogical Society newsletter Florida Lines and the Chattanooga Delta Genealogy Society quarterly Southern Roots & Shoots.

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