What would you make of these ancestors showing up in the census after they had died?

+6 votes

In researching my fourth great grandparents, Francis Reynolds (Reynolds-3581) and Margaret Chamness (Chamness-75), I've come across a puzzling mix of data: they are listed in the 1850 census, even though both supposedly died at least a year earlier. There is a record in Hinshaw as well as a Find A Grave memorial saying Francis died in 1849 and a Find A Grave memorial saying Margaret died in 1847. Yet they both are listed in the 1850 census as living with their son David and his family. The names, ages, and location all fit--except for the fact that they are supposed to be dead! Unless they were counting ghosts in the 1850 census, it is hard to imagine why they would be listed if they were actually dead.

Were the death records for someone else with the same name? Were the death records simply wrong?

Could the census be wrong in that way? Census reports sometimes have errors, but I haven't seen that kind of error before.

I haven't been able to confirm any of those explanations and would welcome any input as to how we might make sense of this. Thanks!

WikiTree profile: Francis Reynolds
asked in Genealogy Help by John Hodson G2G3 (3.7k points)
Sometimes, John, the census taker didn’t talk to anyone in the household. Sometimes it was neighbors or guys hanging out at the shop. I’m not saying this is the case for the records you’re looking at, but it happened often enough.

And, while I often use FindAGrave to give me clues, I also know that errors there can propagate. Just take care. Even a photograph of a gravestone is not proof enough.
Yes, I'm leaning toward concluding that the census just got it wrong somehow . . .
What Pip said.  Census takers were paid by names recorded, not paid by the hour.  We often see incorrect census information that can be attributed to census workers trying to get out of work.  It is possible that in this case the worker went to the local post office and copied the (outdated) resident list for the town.
I know I am late in this conversation, but I have never forgotten the time I had a death certificate for a child (accidental drowning) in my family who had died a few months before the census was taken. As he was listed I really wanted to know what was going on. I was told that some were required to list who 'had' lived there recently, even if they were dead. I only came across that again once after that, but then I knew why. It has been a while so I don't remember if there was a specific time frame on it.  I just thought that was so sad.
I have seen a few cases similar to the one under discussion. It appears that the census takers often could not make contact with the family so decided to do the old hand written version of " copy and Paste ".

3 Answers

+11 votes
Best answer

Francis was in the 1850 Mortality Schedule for Wayne County, showing he died Aug 1849.  It says he was born in Pennsylvania, though.

"United States Census (Mortality Schedule), 1850," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MS1C-8SJ : 4 August 2017), Francis Renyolds, Wayne county, Wayne, Indiana, United States; citing line 9, NARA microfilm publication T655 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 2,259,481.

Side note - please spell out the place names in the profile, for our international cousins.

Edit to add:  The person in the mortality schedule was an 84-year-old male.  The person in the population schedule was an 82-year-old woman (also born in Pennsylvania).  She and 73 year-old Margaret (preceding line) were apparently a gunsmith and a carpenter, respectively.  For what it's worth.  wink

answered by Herbert Tardy G2G6 Pilot (318k points)
selected by Fann Fann
Thanks for the mortality schedule--that adds weight to the sources supporting the 1849 date of death
The source for the 1793 marriage also mentions "Chester Co. PA"


Thanks for the star, Fann Fann!  smiley

+9 votes
I would start by looking for death and burial records for the two people in the 1850 census who fit your 4xgreat grandparents' profiles.

I couldn't even see a photograph of the gravestone in Findagrave . Unless you can see the stone or actual monument, I wouldn't take it as fact. Also, as Pip says, even dates carved in stone can be wrong. I've found at least one where a will was written after the death date on the monument.
answered by Joe Farler G2G6 Mach 4 (44k points)
Good idea, thanks.  To make it even more tricky, of course, Francis had two grandsons, by two different sons, also named Francis Reynolds, so the potential for mix-ups is very real.
Joe, I found a stone that had one digit carved over the other as a correction. Grrr.
John, yes that does make it tricky. Too many Francis Reynolds... Death registrations in England give age at death ( as do some burial records ) which helps to narrow it down.  I must admit that I am not familiar with the U.S.A. records. Likewise the US censuses. If I was working on English profiles I would assume that a census listing meant that they were alive :-)
Pip, yes, if only they had  used liquid stone correcting fluid .
0 votes
it's also possible the property had not gotten out of probate at the time of the census, so the census worker may have used that as a proxy marker to boost head count (more likely scenario if location was same as prior census)

FindAGrave can be more reliable if an actual burial site is located/documented, but as has been described, sometimes headstones aren't reliable (false positive match, have errors) or are transcribed incorrectly. Many contributors are glad to accept suggested edits, especially if you supply a source, but even that's not guaranteed to result in a corrected memorial page.

Lastly, FamilySearch researchers sometimes attach incorrect sources. If you find the data doesn't fit and have other data that proves the source was attached at FamilySearch in error, there is a detach option.

Good luck on the trails.
answered by Fann Fann G2G6 Mach 2 (23.2k points)
edited by Fann Fann

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