How reliable are census records?

+5 votes
My grandmother divorced Wm Chas Bullock in florida

Have 1940 census that list her as Grayce Bullitt

But her fathers name on census is incorrect but it is the address she grew up in.

She did tell me one time that she changed the last name but i thought it was from Bulloch to Bullock.

1940 census has her married to WC Bullitt not Bullock.

What do i trust???
WikiTree profile: William Bullock
in Genealogy Help by Matthew Bullock G2G Crew (310 points)

7 Answers

+9 votes
Best answer
Hi Matthew, I echo the answers already given as census records are literally all over the map. Many times the record is transcribed wrong when digitized, or the enumerator didn't have good handwriting, or the person giving the information did not know exact spellings.

In addition to collecting other sources of information it sometimes helps to make a timeline/chart for the person whose name (and name changes) you are investigating. You can do this in excel or in word. Put the date in one column the name at the time in another and your source for each in a third. I do this often starting with birth working toward death or present day. For the years in between consult the local newspapers in the area. I've also had success in contacting the local genealogy society where the person lived and asking them where local repositories of records are and for their suggestions. You might find a savvy member that makes a huge difference in your research.

Good Luck!

by S Leeland G2G6 Mach 6 (66.4k points)
selected by Susan Smith
+8 votes
Welcome to WikiTree, Matthew. Accuracy of census records is all over the map. Was it done by mail (only after a certain date), was it done in person, who was at home at the time the census taker was there, were the residents literate, did they actually know all of the information asked, etc.?

Your best bet on unraveling questions such as you have is to look to primary source records such as birth, marriage and death records. Then check secondary sources you might be able to find such as church membership records (which might also contain birth, marriage and death records), newspaper obituaries (notorious for having wrong info).
by T Stanton G2G6 Pilot (391k points)
+7 votes
Pretty handy as most people don't want to lie to the authorities. However some people had to lie, some couldn't spell their own names, some forgot. Can you imagine sitting down one evening after a hard day's work and trying to remember where and when each of your children was born when you have a dozen or so? My great grandma seems only to have lived 8 or 9 years between censuses.
by C. Mackinnon G2G6 Pilot (340k points)
I've seen lots of women like your great grandma.

Also women who were widows but their husband in the same census was divorced.
+11 votes
in addition to the other answers...

Are you looking at the image of the record? Or just the transcription of the record?

Often times its just the transcription that's incorrect, and it can often be obvious from actually looking at the images.
by Dennis Wheeler G2G6 Pilot (580k points)
+5 votes

At best the Census provides a snapshot of the household at a specific time.  Each one can provide variations on names and can also give hints on how to vary a search for more information.  They often are not accurate.  My preference is to add as many Census records I can find including who is in the household and including a link to a picture of the Census document.  This helps the reader get a clearer picture with out doing much editing.  For example see 

by Norm Lindquist G2G6 Mach 7 (75.5k points)
edited by Norm Lindquist
+5 votes
In addition to what has been said:

1) census records are has perfect as the humans interviewing, responding and writing are:  Not very perfect.

2) illiteracy and semi-literacy are compounded by those who spoke English as a second language.

3) if you rode by horse or buggy for 15 minutes to conduct an interview and no one was home, you might ask their neighbors.  Or consult the latest city directory.

There are lots of reasons for inaccuracy and ALL governments records, even today, need to be corroborated with other sources to ensure accuracy.

Genealogy is more about the preponderance of evidence, rather than absolute certainty,

Gravestones can be carved inaccurately; registrars might mishear a response or in a distracted moment write the wrong thing.

And names do change: Sometimes even in a single nuclear family in a single lifetime.  Rabenstein, Robenstein, Robenstine, Raubenstine and Robinson all in the same family in a generation.
by Kathy Rabenstein G2G6 Pilot (324k points)
+4 votes
All census records probably have some holes in them. but on the whole fairly reliable.The 1784 Cayman Islands census records had some, but Edward Long was at a disadvantage as that was the first census done there.  He couldn't double check the census against the real evidence.  Nowadays, things are more concrete.
by David Hughey G2G Astronaut (1.7m points)

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