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From Census Pitfall to A Quirk of Fortune

Throughout the history of our country, it has been necessary for our government to collect data on family structures in order to distribute the tax burden and to have a count of men for military purposes. These are known as the federal census records, wh

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Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Sarah Culton
Word Count: 805 (approx.)
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Throughout the history of our country, it has been necessary for our government to collect data on family structures in order to distribute the tax burden and to have a count of men for military purposes. These are known as the federal census records, which genealogists rely on heavily in their research. These records have a lot of potential, but there are also limitations. However, one pitfall of Census records turned out to have some decided advantages for this family researcher.

When census taking started in 1790, it was a lengthy process that took 9 months to complete. This time frame continued through 1840, but was lowered to 6 months in 1850 and to 1 month by 1870. However, the government did grant some extensions. There is more here than meets the eye! Think for a moment about the mobility of American families! How many moves per year? Well, there were many! During the period of time for the census takers to be out on their beats, a family could be interviewed several times! Some families could pack up their belongings and be gone between two daylights! Therefore, it is theoretically possible that there were many families who were listed more than once during any census year.

While being listed more than once during a census enumeration has historically been considered to be a pitfall, it can provide a wealth of information for the family researcher. For instance, in my research I had reached what is commonly called a "brick wall" while trying to find my third great grandfather. I had found my second grandfather whose name was James Alexander, but it seemed as though that was as far as I could go! I couldn't believe so many men could be named James Alexander! Two things I did have were his marriage certificate of 1808 and his listing on the 1820 census in Maury County, Tennessee. His household had two males under 10, one male over 45 years of age, two females under 10 and one female between 26 and 45. I did not know then what I know now, but I moved on by trial-and-error. One of the men by the name of James Alexander was enumerated on the 1820 census in Sumner County, Tennessee, so I decided to take a look.

What a happy accident! The method I actually used was one of comparing the two listings to see if there were similarities. I found the listing for this James Alexander's household was just the same, except (1) one of two children listed as under 10 in Maury County were listed as between 10-16 in Sumner County and (2) two female children listed as under 10 Maury County, but listed as three female children under 10 in Sumner County. Wow, what could this mean? It meant that one boy had his 10th birthday and one baby girl was born between the time one census taker found them in Maury County and another census taker found them in Sumner County! My conclusion was that the James Alexander found in Sumner County in 1820 was the very same man as my James Alexander who was found in Maury County in 1820 - he actually lived in both counties in 1820. It was the second census in Sumner County that told me what to do next.

Further confirming evidence supported my conclusion. There lived a Matthew Alexander in Sumner County who had a Revolutionary War land grant in Bedford County to the south. In 1808, James and David Alexander farmed the land. That same year James married Matilda Kilpatrick in neighboring Maury County with David as his bondsman. Sumner County land records show that a Matthew Alexander owned land on Desha Creek, which flows into the Cumberland River, on which he paid poll and property taxes through the year of 1818. In the year of 1816, his son James Alexander was charged poll tax. He was only there during the litigation over his War of 1812 pay!

James was in Maury County in 1817 and 1818, but back in Sumner County in 1819 where he was charged both poll and property taxes. In addition to being listed on the census there in 1820, he was also charged both poll and property taxes on 178 newly surveyed acres in 1820 and 1821. In 1823, Matthew made out his will in Sumner County. Among his children, he willed to both James and David two separate plantations in Sumner County.

In summary, I had at last found my third great grandfather, Matthew Alexander, a Revolutionary Patriot, on whose record I now belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution, which is a patriotic organization. This all became possible when a census error became a quirk of fortune. It is my hope that the sources and methodologies, which I have presented here, will help you in your research.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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