if your ancestor was a new to America in the 19th century , don't hang your hopes on the census

+19 votes

This could be a true story:

It's 1880

Mr. Smith the census taker got the job because his uncle is a city councilman. Mr. Smith may take a bit of alcohol now and then. He doesn't like to work hard. He's been knocking on doors for hours. He only has one pencil left and he's chewed off the eraser. It's a cold March day and all he had for lunch was a bit of bread and cheese. He gets to the house where your great gramps lives. Gramps has only been in America for maybe three years. His accent's heavy.

Mr Smith: Your name, sir.

Gramps: Wolfgang Dietrich

Mr Smith writes Vulvang Dirtrich

Mr Smith: Where were you and your parents born?

Gramps: Prussia

Mr Smith writes Russia

Mr Smith: How old are you?

Gramps: 25

Mr Smith hears and writes 29

Mr Smith: Your wife's name?

Gramps: Lisoletta

Mr Smith writes Lisleta

Mr Smith: Where was she born?

Gramps: Austria

Mr Smith writes Australia

And in 2019 you start looking for your ancestors Wolfgang and Lisoletta Dietrich AND THEY DON'T EXIST ! Your gramma lied to you, you think. Or maybe she was senile when she told you about Wolfie saving the mayor from being run down by a streetcar.

in The Tree House by Eddie King G2G6 Pilot (534k points)
It seems, in Canada at least, that often the only people willing to take on the job as census takers were lacking on the quality of education side. I have run into some pretty strange spellings.
My mother's maiden name was Kefauver, another good old German name.  I would need a mathematician to calculate how many ways there are to misspell that one, but whatever the answer is, the census enumerators have exceeded it by adding and subtracting letters.

my 3rd great-grandparents Edward and Honora Dillon came to America by way of New Orleans from Ireland in 1848; Edward Dillon died shortly after arrival, and Honora and her two children are not on the 1850 census. They are on the 1860 census, in Louisville, Kentucky, living with a Michael Flaherty (recorded as "Micheal Flaharty"), most likely Honora's brother, with Honora recorded as "Hannera Diller". At least the census taker got the "Ireland" part right.

5 Answers

+7 votes
Best answer

A Saturday Night Live skit with Betty White answering questions from the census taker:


by Michelle Enke G2G6 Pilot (244k points)
selected by Dennis Wheeler


Okay. Michelle wins by linking this video. We can all go now! She wins the thread! Nice vid! =D
I watch it whenever I need a laugh!
hahahaha... "how do you spell that?" "S m i t h" :)

I've always claimed that its anyone's right to pronounce their own name anyway they like, regardless of how its spelled :)
+3 votes
Just found a great example of this.  Dickerson became Dicason, 1880 census.
by Rhonda Zimmerman G2G6 Pilot (190k points)
+2 votes
Yeah, that probably did happen. The 1880 census for my Legault and Cadran family had them all living in one house. They conflated who was who.
by Chris Ferraiolo G2G6 Pilot (386k points)
+3 votes

I wonder if this man actually got paid for his work (though I suspect that enumerating a part of Whitechapel in London's East End (1851) would have been difficult job


( It took a lot of finding, the man was Casten Titgen.Every page in the enumeration book is the same, a garbled version of the head of household followed by just intials and as you get further through the book even the intials are illegible)

by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (303k points)
edited by Helen Ford

And to think that I had formed the impression that English censuses were somewhat more reliably recorded than U.S. censuses!  surprise 

If nothing else, I have found people's ages to be more consistent. If Fred was recorded as age 22 in 1851, chances are good that he was recorded as age 32 in 1861 -- not 25 or 40.

I've just researched a branch of my family and the husband and wife were born 8 days apart in the same year (1868).  In one census the husband is recorded as aged 23 (the correct age), the wife as 25.  The next census has him aged 33 (the correct age), while the wife is now three years younger!  The next (and final, due to privacy rules) census has them both the same (correct) age of 43 years.

I have seen more than one instance of the woman getting younger each census.  Makes me wonder if they weren't members of Wikitree before it existed.  cheeky

Parents are working so the census taker asks the 8 or 12 year old who already knows that his 57 year old mother is 49 because s/he has heard it more than once!
+2 votes
You could be me looking for my ancestors in the 1860 Federal census in the northern section of Shelby county, Alabama where the family has lived since 1820, and they are no where to be found.  The reason they and all their neighbors are missing from the census in this section of Shelby county, is because the census taker never turned in his census sheets.  There is a whole section of the county that does not appear in the 1860 census.
by Carol Wilder G2G6 Mach 4 (45.2k points)

Related questions

+4 votes
4 answers
+3 votes
2 answers
70 views asked Mar 15, 2018 in The Tree House by anonymous G2G Crew (360 points)
+13 votes
1 answer
+13 votes
7 answers
+5 votes
1 answer
+2 votes
2 answers

WikiTree  ~  About  ~  Help Help  ~  Search Person Search  ~  Surname:

disclaimer - terms - copyright