Why can’t I find my ancestor in the census?

One of my research strategies (and I think this one probably applies to most family researchers) is that I like to try to find an individual in all the available censuses that span that individual’s life – particularly the censuses from 1850 on in which all the household members were identified by name.  So it always bothers me when an individual or family “goes missing.” Now I do realize that on occasion an individual or family actually was missed by the census taker; but more often than not, the family (or individual) was enumerated but the name was misspelled or misinterpreted or a birth date or age is so far off it that it appears to be a different individual. So I thought that I would list some of the reasons that these elusive ancestors cannot be found with a follow-up post on strategies that can be used to find them.

Now there are a few different online sites available which have searchable census records, and we’ll talk about them more in the follow-on post. But regardless of which online site you use, the census images are only searchable because they have been indexed – and the indexes have been built by humans. The quality and accuracy of the index is dependent on the ability of the people who build it to 1) read/interpret the census images and 2) type that information correctly into the index. If the index does not accurately represent what is on the image, there are transcription errors.

Most transcription errors occur because the person/people who create the index do not interpret what is on the image correctly. This could be because the census image is damaged or faded, the quality of penmanship of the person who wrote the census may be poor or the indexer may not be familiar with old-style cursive script. Also, the indexers are human and even if they read the data correctly, they may type it wrong! Most of the major companies that sponsor the building of the indexes have checks in place that are designed to catch transcription errors, but some always seem to sneak through! In other words, the person being researched is correctly represented on the original census image, but the data in the index is wrong. And since it is the index that is being searched, a match is not found.

The other main reason that families or individuals cannot be found is because they are incorrectly represented on the census form itself. One example of why incorrect information may be on the original image is that the further back we go, fewer people could read and write English. And often their spoken English was heavily accented. So the census taker would write what he heard and the individual was not able to correct him.

Another problem is that the person supplying the information to the census taker may have given him bad information — either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes information was supplied by neighbors or children or extended family members and things like ages, dates and places of birth were “guessed.” In fact, ages are often inaccurate either because they were estimated or intentionally “fudged.” Even last names may have been altered. I have seen quite a few times when the youngest child was born considerably more than nine months after the death of the mother’s deceased husband, yet still carries his name. Often step-children from a mother’s previous marriage were incorrectly enumerated with the name of the current husband. I even have a case where a young girl was living with her older, married sister and was listed with the last name of the sister and her husband.

Another “bad” data problem I’ve run into more than once is that since divorce and separation used to carry quite a stigma, often-times people told the census taker they were single or widowed rather than divorced. This has tripped me up more than a few times because after seeing that the man or woman was widowed, I would not bother to even look for the spouse in another household. It also tends to really throw you off when you’re looking for an obituary or death record in the wrong decade!

Yet another way errors were introduced is that multiple copies of the census were generated to collate and also for different levels of jurisdiction. So errors could have been introduced or lines missed when coping from one form to another. (Remember, there were no scanners or copy machines!)

So the bottom line is that your ancestor may be “hiding” due to a transcription error, bad or inaccurate data on the census form itself or a combination of the two!! Now that we’ve discussed various reasons why we can’t find someone in the census, my next post will contain some strategies for finding them!

UPDATE: If you are interested in some of the strategies I used to successfully find some elusive relatives in the 1920 census, check out my success story here.

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s