Census records can be misleading

I enjoy watching  “Forensic Files” and other crime investigation shows.  Genealogy work, in someways, is similar to “Forensics”.  A critical source of information when performing genealogy tasks are Census records. However, as in “Forensics” these records may not be a “smoking gun”. They often must be supplemented with other records.

Prior to 1850, census records do not contain the names of individuals in a household. The only name is the “Head of Household” followed by a categorization of the number of males and females in an age distribution. For example: the number of males age 0-5. Beginning with the 1850 census, all of the individuals in a household are listed. If the census taker correctly transcribed the information then you can see both the Given name and Surname of everyone in the household.

I know that a lot of people search the census records for an exact match to the family that they are searching for. For example, if you are looking for a family in Virginia in 1840 and you know that there should be: 1 male 20-40, 1 female 20-30, 1 male 5-10, 2 females 5-10, and 1 female 0-5, then some tend to discard all records that do not exactly match the profile. I’ve seen many emails and post on “Rootsweb” sites that bear this out.

In my own work, I’ve seen how census records can throw you off.

  • Some time ago, I was looking in the 1860 US Federal census for some of my ancestors.
    I discovered that members from the same household were not in the right place or state. In this case, for whatever reason, most of the family was in Virginia, but some of the “youngsters” were in the Kentucky census with a relative.
  • On another occasion, I was looking at the 1850 US Federal census for an ancestor.
    This time, I discovered an older woman with a totally different Surname listed with the family that I was searching for.

As result, I’ve realized that if you are looking for exact matches in the census then you may be ignoring some important clues that you need to find your ancestors.

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