Relative Something

*this* John W. Hays' take on things and experiences

Census Love

with 2 comments



s a genealogist, I find that I have a great love for census records. More than any other resource (birth, death, and marriage records, do provide plenty of hard data) I prefer the census for the picture it can paint. Or, more precisely, the picture that a series of decade’s census records can paint.

There is actually a limited period of time for which this works best. If you get too far back, say, into the early 1800’s, the information is less complete. You might only get the name of the head of household and a tally of how many free white males of a range of age groups, then free white females, and lastly, slaves. I get to overlook my disgust for the slave category because for the geographic areas I have been researching, either people were too ashamed to report such or they didn’t keep any, because I have yet to see any entries listed under that column. Race discrimination, demonstrated by holding whiteness specifically worthy of counting, above all other humanity, is as blatant as can be, right from the very start. But that is straying back to yesterday’s topic and away from what I had in mind for today, and it totally interrupted my point…

If we look too recent, we don’t find anything later than 1930, because individual information is kept confidential for 72 years by Federal law. In a couple more years, we will finally have access to the details of the 1940 census. Inbetween the early, rudimentary records of the early 1800’s, and the most recent available data of 1930, there is an opportunity to uncover some amazing portraits. Records reveal people growing up in households filled with siblings and hired help, children mature and leave home, and frequently, elderly parents end up living with their kid’s families. It is so great to pull up a record in hopes of attaching it to someone I am researching, and then discovering the familiar names of brothers and sisters listed in the household results.

It is also exciting to view the records for people of the houses nearby, sometimes on the same page, or maybe 1 or 2 pages either direction, to discover relatives by marriage. They often really did marry that girl/guy next door. I have seen people counted as children, and then by the next census, they are married to a neighbor. I like watching the parents age, 10 years at a time, and seeing the number of children grow. Then the older kids disappear, sometimes even as new young siblings continue to be added. Some folks had a heck of a lot of kids, back in the day. Occasionally, parents might be found living alone in their 70’s or 80’s. After all those kids, I can’t say that I blame them.

It seems like people didn’t count so well, because it appears rare that folks actually aged 10 years between decades. That level of detail can matter a lot when you’re trying to make a solid confirmation a couple of hundred years later.

I hardly need to point out how that silly habit of naming children the same as a parent is a nasty hassle for researchers. I never can be sure if, when the numbers seem off, it is because it is actually a different generation person by the same name, or if someone erred on reporting the age of the person I am seeking.

If you are reading here today, I encourage you to do all those future ancestry hunters out there a big favor by thoroughly and accurately filling out your census forms, and doing so promptly. But if you want to mess with those researchers a bit, fudging your actual age is too obvious. How about under the question for race, you select, “Other” and write in Oak or Pine or Maple.

Written by johnwhays

March 17, 2010 at 7:00 am

Posted in Chronicle

Tagged with , ,

2 Responses

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  1. I shall be the l O N G living saguaro cactus!


    March 17, 2010 at 1:01 pm

  2. How about, Race? White during the winter months and golden brown during the summer.
    And of course that is a “non-hispanic” golden brown.

    Steve R.

    March 17, 2010 at 9:22 am

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