Puzzling Over Census Enumerations

By Carolyn L Barkley

I can remember giving lectures not that many years ago in which I said something along the lines of “Everything will not be on the Internet, for example, don’t expect to find the census online.� How times have changed! Census data, although easily available on ancestry.com and heritagequest.com, represent a resource that perhaps more than any other raises expectations of problem-solving success only to have these same expectations dashed in the course of searching the files. How many times have you heard someone say, “I looked, but they aren’t there�?

Sometimes they are “not there� due to the vagaries of on-line indexing that turn us into detectives and prompt us to try increasingly bizarre search strategies to locate the missing individual. Stories abound, my favorite being the free blacks in 1860 Virginia’s Princess Anne County [present day Virginia Beach] who were indexed as Filipinos when the indexer did not realize that entries that looked like “fl� were really “fb.� While Virginia Beach now has a large Filipino population, it definitely did not in 1860!

Sometimes the inability to find a specific name is not the fault of the indexing. For example, what possessed the enumerator in Jamesville Post Office, Martin Co., North Carolina, in 1860 to omit the names of children, merely noting “familyâ€? along with sex and age? Check out Celia Davis, a widow aged 49 who is living with two spinsters, aged 27 and 25; two male field hands aged 19 and 17; two younger females, aged 12 and 10, and a 23 year-old female named Sally James. All of the unnamed individuals are listed individually as “familyâ€? – and to add insult to injury are often indexed on ancestry.com as “Farnley.â€? I discovered this issue after wondering why there were so many people in this area indexed with the given name of “Farnley!â€?

In addition, they may not “be there� due to our undernourished understanding of what was enumerated in each census cycle. Authorized in 1790, the census was a result of the continuing controversy between large and small states. The Articles of Confederation had created a single chamber legislature with one vote for each state. At the Constitutional Convention, the smaller states lobbied to maintain their representational equality with the larger, more populated and more wealthy states. A compromise created a bicameral legislature with the Senate meeting the needs of the smaller states for equal representation, the House of Representatives meeting the needs of the larger states to have representation based on their population and wealth. Leaders at the time realized that a growing nation would require adjustments in the states’ representation in the House and thus decided to enumerate the population every ten years. As the subsequent enumerations were conducted, a numerical count to insure proper representation was no longer sufficient and the government began to ask for a more detailed measurement of factors that were having an impact on a developing nation. These additional measurements add to our understanding of our ancestors and the times in which they lived. For example: 1820 added occupation and the number of unnaturalized foreigners; 1830 added a count of blind slaves and colored persons, white deaf mutes, and white aliens; 1840 enumerated individuals engaged in mining, agriculture, navigation, etc., as well as the names and ages of military pensioners, number of students, and free whites over 20 years of age who could not read or write; etc. Special agricultural and manufacturing censuses painted a detailed picture about the country and our ancestors. More modern censuses enumerated such things as households with radios, value of property, rent or mortgage payments, etc. A wealth of information became available describing the world in which our ancestors lived as well as the particulars about them as individuals and families.

An understanding of what the enumerator was supposed to do (and how he may have deviated from his instructions) will assist you in unlocking the puzzle. The instructions and forms are available at http://usa.ipums.org/usa/voliii/tEnumForm.shtml.

The following titles are among other census related materials available from genealogical.com:

  • Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses 1790-1920. Thorndale, William and William Dollarhide. This title, published in 1987 and reprinted in 2007 is indispensable for conducting census research. The guide shows all U. S. county boundaries from 1790 to 1920 with old county lines superimposed over the modern ones to highlight boundary changes. A must for any researcher starting research in a new state.
  • State Census Records. Lainhart, Ann S. Published in 1992 and reprinted in 2004, this title shows describes what is available in state census records. These records are an important resource standing as substitutes for some of the early census enumerations that have been lost. In addition, enumerations may have been conducted in the middle of the ten-year span of the federal decennial censuses and can therefore locate individuals on the move.
  • American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790. Green, Evarts B. and Virginia D. Harrington. This 1932 publication, reprinted in 2006, is an exhaustive survey of the population lists, estimates, and statistics that were produced in the American colonies before the first federal census of 1790. For each type of list, Green and Harrington provide the location of the manuscript source or a reference to the published account.

The following titles are also useful in supporting successful census research:

  • The Census Book: A Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules and Indexes. Dollarhide, William. (Heritage Quest, 1999).
  • Your Guide to the Federal Census for Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians. Hinckley, Kathleen W. (Betterway Books, 2002).
  • Finding Answers in U. S. Census Records. Szucs, Loretto Dennis & Matthew Wright. (Ancestry, 2002).