Why would a person's birthplace and year be different on every census?

+3 votes
I was looking for info on James king (married sarah mcvay in minnesota abt 1868 or 69) And looking for census' for the places they lived (Ramsey co. Dodge co. Winona co.) And it seemed strange that every census was different... 1870 u.s. census for Elba, Winona, Mn. In the household of Michael McGuire says James King 22yrs old born 1848 Pennsylvania..( there is also a patrick king 34 yrs listed in the home) 1875 mn. State census for Ellington twp, Dodge, Mn. Has the same James King listed as being 26 yrs born 1849 Iowa. 1880 U.S. census for Ellington, Dodge, mn. Lists same James King as 33 yrs born 1847 New York... I thought maybe he had some reason for giving totally different info on place of birth?? I know Civil war soldiers deserted sometimes.. is there a common reason for this that I am unaware of? Frustrated because I can't find his parents or any other information. I do know his parents were born Ireland as was his wife. Nothing showed up on the death master file.. maybe James wasn't his first but a middle name? Any tips or ideas or info would be appreciated. And no I only have a cell to use and can't download familysearch..so pls don't suggest it. Thanks! Heather.
asked in Genealogy Help by Heather Shaw G2G1 (1.2k points)
retagged by Ellen Smith

9 Answers

+7 votes

Different ages often crop up in the UK. In 1841 the ages were rounded down to the nearest 5 except for under 15s. Except where the enumerators didn't follow instructions!

In other censuses some people didn't know their ages and guessed. or someone else filled in the census and guessed. Censuses were not always on the same date. Also women often lied about their ages smiley.

In place of birth, I've met differences. Again it can often be someone else filling in the form and guessing. Or more frequently the enumerator wrote it down wrongly or copied it up wrongly.

I appreciate that the US censuses may be different, but i expect some of the reasons are the same.

answered by anonymous G2G6 Pilot (253k points)
+2 votes

This may or may not be a death record for James.  The location is correct but the image is not online.  It might be worth a followup - I am wondering if the transcription is in error and it should read Spouse: Sarah McVey - instead of Mother?  Maybe you know his death date and could determine if this is a related record?

Minnesota, Deaths and Burials, 1835-1990

Citing this Record  "Minnesota, Deaths and Burials, 1835-1990," index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FDQZ-VP8

James King Male

Death 31 Jul 1927  Fort Snelling, Hennepin, Minnesota

Age: 80 Birth Date: 1847

Father's Name: John King

Mother's Name: Sarah Mcvey

Indexing Project (Batch) Number: B02485-4

System Origin: Minnesota-EASy

GS Film number: 2223129

Reference ID: 4958

answered by Chris Hoyt G2G6 Pilot (612k points)
+6 votes
In addition to Martin's excellent answer, I would also add that you see this frequently with young children (as an example in 1880 bob is 2 and born in A, and in 1890 bob is 8 and born in B when you expect him to be 12 and born in A); a family that loses a young child named in honour of a specific person will often 'recycle' the name for the next child born, or in essence name the next child in honour of both the special person and in rememberance of the child that died.

Another factor of course is whether you are using an original source, or a transcribed source/index where another set of typos are made in addition to any errors made by the enumerators - just today I was searching Library and Archives Canada Census records for a Sproul, who I knew from previous research had been erroneously recorded by the enumerator as Sroule in a specific census year - but the index/finding aid had them as Groulx.

Also enumerators would sometimes just write down ages or birth years and go back and do the math later which even excluding errors can make a 1 year difference depending on when the census was held in relation to when they were born.

And sometimes a person turns out to not be the same person at all. David sells a piece of land to his first cousin also named David (both named for patrilineal grand father), both happened to marry an Elizabeth, but their birth years are 1 or 2 apart.,,,
answered by Rob Ton G2G6 Pilot (272k points)
One of my ancestors came to New Hampshire from Cape Breton, Canada, with his wife and kids.  Two of the daughters started changing their ages once they were married -- and, oops, the enumerators started recording them as born in "England".  At first I thought this was an isolated error, until I found BOTH sisters recording this "fact" from one census to another. Their death certificates, however, correctly recorded Cape Breton.  I can't help but wonder what they were thinking.

I found an 18-year-old who was listed twice:  once at her parents home, and once at the home of another family, where another 18-year-old (this was a boy) was listed.  Sadly, she died before the age of 25 -- while visiting her brother who lived across the river in Vermont.

Sometimes the answer to one question leads to several more.  What a hobby!  -- Janine
+4 votes
I'm in agreement with other answers. Birth years are most often estimations made by the enumerator.  What is odd in this case is that James King is born in Pennsylvania, Iowa and New York.  Is his address different in each census?  Is the family composition different in each census? Do you find some of the same family members from one census to the next? Who is Michael McGuire in relationship to James?

1870 - Winona, Elba, Minnesota. James King, 22, born in Pennsylvania in household of Michael McGuire; others in same household: Sarah King, 24, b in Ireland; Etta King, 1, b in Minnesota;  Ellen King, 0, b in Minnesota; Patrick King, 34, b in Ireland.  (Note: Estimated year of birth 1848. Also there are more than a dozen other James Kings in Minnesota census in 1870...)

1875 - Winona, Elba, Minnesota.  James King, 26, born in Pennsylvania in household of Frank and Mary Rodmaker. No image available. (Note: Estimated birth year 1849. These two James King's look like the same one, given age and birth place. Was he a boarder?  Don't know)

1880 - Winona, Elba, Minnesota. James King, 30, born in Pennsylvania, head of household, married to Amelia, 28, born in Germany. James has 3 children born in Minnesota : George age 4; Charles age 2; Unnamed King age 0. He has one stepson, presumable Amelia's child: Louis Bohn.

These three James King's appear to be the same person.  The estimated birth years do vary frequently.  But the birth place in my experience is more often exact, and that's the case here.  Also, the sequence is coherent.  Single in 1875, father of three in 1880.  All in the same town :)

Now the question is, is this the person you're interested in or was it another James King you were looking for?
answered by C Ryder G2G6 Mach 2 (24.3k points)
I looked at the image of the 1870 census and it looks like Sarah is James' wife; Etta and Ellen their children. Not certain. Could she be a widowed sister? His occupation is farmer. Michael McGuire is also farmer, born in Ireland, age 50.  Could Michael be an uncle?

Here is another James King, about the same age, found on Minnesota Census of 1870:

1870 - Sharon, Le Sueur, Minnesota. James King, 26, farmer,born in Indiana, married to Harriette, 24.  Three children: Alfred, Latta, Edgar.
+3 votes
So I think that the age of course has a lot to do with the person collecting the data and the age of the individual.  When a person spans several censuses, generally the earlier one is more accurate.  

I had a particularly profound case where it was apparent that my elderly fourth great grandfather's age and waning communication skills and perhaps the sheer impatience of the young census taker lead the last census age to be off 15 years, whereas all others had been accurate,

The impact of this was as a public figure, his obituary was well published but the press rather than asking about his age picked it up from that last census.

Until the earlier censuses had been released we were unable to place him - but now have him well ensconced.

In terms of nationality, a number of European nationals particularly in the 18th and 19th century would be able to work in another country from anything from general labour, military and even good civil service positions.

What happened is that as the political situation, borders, etc changed there, the nationality actually changed several times within an elderly persons lifetime.

So they would correctly cite the nation in the appropriate context.

For fun, even saying that a person is German, Italian etc is a relatively new thing and time lapse photography of a country say Poland,is a sight to behold
answered by Lloyd de Vere Hunt G2G5 (5.1k points)
+4 votes
Can't take dates in census returns as gospel. I've often wondered how illiterate people with 8 or 9 children remembered where they were all born let alone when. How hard did they try to give the right info. Just imagine Lizzie Smith, widow, 38 with 7 children and a grandchild running around, wanting fed, and she has to talk to the ennumerator and try to remember what really happened.
answered by C. Mackinnon G2G6 Pilot (133k points)
+1 vote

A nice read on the first 11 US Censuses is this free to read book.

The History and Growth of the US Census

This gives the who, what when and where of how the US Census developed over the course of it's history till 1890.  A very good overview for understanding what was included and importantly for us, how.

I bring this up as because how an enumerator was paid may have something to do with, shall we say discrepancies in the finished product.  Example from the book:

The amount and kind of information collected grew with each census. As a result, the basis on which enumerators were compensated reflected their increased labor. For the 1850 census, for example, enumerators were paid 2 cents per person enumerated (living or deceased), with a 2% supplement for collecting "social statistics," 10 cents per mile traveled, 10 cents per farm enumerated (where crop and livestock production figures had to be collected), and 15 cents per "establishment of productive industry."

Being paid on a per person basis may induce haste and thus likely errors in the recorded data.  Food for thought.

answered by L J Russell G2G6 Pilot (104k points)
edited by L J Russell
Interesting.  I have been wondering why there was no census data for some places, like Indiana in 1810 and Western Pennsylvania in 1800
+4 votes
In most of the US Census, there wasn't a birth year. It was "age at last birthday" or "age on the date of the census" so even if that was always given correctly, that gives a natural variation since the census wasn't taken on the same date each time. In those census, the birth year should be a range since you have a full year to choose from and that may cross back into the previous calendar year. The birth year in the index is going to be wrong about half the time just due to that.
answered by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (267k points)
+2 votes
My experience over almost 60 years of doing genealogy is that age variation on censuses is more the rule than the exception.  Doug McCallums's and C. MacKinnon's answers are some of the better scenarios of explanation.  Basic variation of a year was built into the system, depending on whether the census was taken before or after a birthday.  And nobody wanted to waste time on a fool censustaker; doubt that anyone likes it today.  Many have been inclined to give guesses, "best I can recall" without bothering to dig out the family bible or whatever.

One other basic explanation however is that, in the U. S., people have generally never like the govt messing into their business and Many people have always given false answers because they felt it wasn't the gov'ts business.  I rememeber, when I was a young lad many decades ago, older folks talking about foolin' the govt spy.

I had one ancestor who added a year to his age with every census.  Why? Who knows and we probably never will, but he brought a laugh to an old researcher decades later.
answered by Art Black G2G6 Mach 1 (19.4k points)

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