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Looking "Into" Rather Than "At" Census Returns

It was not until I began transcribing census returns that I realized the depth of what I was reading and how important the details are. It was also then that I realized how critical the details are, even the ones that are not obvious and sometimes eliminated by inexperienced transcribers.


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I have recently become involved in a census transcription project for a volunteer web site. I have never been enthused about transcribing something that has already been transcribed by others elsewhere, but I recognize the value of census transcription as the handwritten records are difficult to read.

Of course, I began by trying to find a way to format the data so it fit on a single web page. Logic told me to look at how other volunteer transcribers were formatting census data. What I found was that some volunteers were simply leaving out details which I consider essential to good research and the path to ancestral connections.

Let me share with you the value of those details. The first piece of information transcribers were eliminating in this project is the data the enumerators recorded at the top of the individual census forms. A serious genealogist will want to know what day the census enumeration took place. It is of value to know whether the enumerator recorded information on a Sunday, for instance – or a Saturday, or a Friday. That information tells you a number things about the enumerator.

If an enumeration was never conducted on Sunday or on Saturday, it might indicate which day the enumerator considered to be sacred, or the Sabbath. This information could indicate the religious background of the enumerator. And, don't forget that the census also serves to document the whereabouts of the enumerator. In a sense, the census becomes additional genealogical information about the enumerator as much as the enumerated.

Of course, the date is important, as well. It is proof that on that exact date, the person enumerated was at the address given. If other records indicate that your ancestor lived in the first ward of Macon County, Illinois on September 27, 1860, their name might not appear in the 1860 census for two reasons, both of which have to do with the census not being a self-reporting process.

The first reason is the census reported who lived at a given residence on June 1, 1860. If your ancestor was living there on September 27, 1860, when the address was enumerated, the resident would not be included in the 1860 census: the purpose of the census was to record where everyone lived on June 1, 1860.

It is also important to retain the information identifying all residents of a given household. I found transcribers omitting the columns listing this information. In removing that information, the transcriber eradicated the very information that might tip you off that a group of seven people might be related, if they were all living together in the same house. Otherwise, their names appear as merely random individuals or neighbors, at best.

A second, more intriguing reason relates to the fact that the census was not self-reporting. In fact, it was not until a century later that U.S. residents were given the opportunity to record their personal information themselves. Even then, they were to hold on to their questionnaires until an employee of the U.S. Census Bureau arrived to review that information with them.

In 1860, census enumerators obtained the information and wrote it down on behalf of citizens. The census enumerator was responsible for locating each person and recording their whereabouts as of June 1, 1860. The census was only as accurate as the enumerator and the information given them.

No wonder my great-great grandmother's name is recorded throughout the years with several different spellings. Her name was probably Effie Electa. However, she lived in South-Central Illinois where the Southern Uplands dialect greatly influenced the local vernacular. As a result, her name is variously spelled Effelecta, Effa Lecta, and so on. The enumerator was doing his best – and they were typically men – to record names as he heard them spoken. Don't forget this was a time of transition. The enumerator and the enumerated were arriving in great-great-grandma's kitchen table from all corners of the globe and bringing with them a variety of tongues, dialects, and education.

We assume that enumerators in 1860 had to know and visit every single household in their enumeration district. By law, enumerators signed their name as the "Assistant Marshal" legally responsible for conducting the census. But that assumption is quite likely inaccurate. Let's take a look at the 1860 Macon County census signed by William Prather who was a retired judge. He was 56 years old, and a local history notes, "He always had very infirm health."

Let's take a peek at a day in the life of this enumerator. On Thursday, July 7, 1860, he claims to have enumerated 156 individuals living at 39 separate addresses in the first ward of the City of Decatur in Macon County, Illinois. Those households included 80 individuals employed as follows:


Apprentice Cooper


Black Smith








Day Laborer


Dealer in Cattle












Lumber Merchant




Mill Wright






R. R. Master


R.R. Agent




Teacher com Schools




Telegraph Builder




Washer Woman


Wool Carder

According to the records, this retired gentleman known for being frail reported the name, age, gender, color, employment, personal and real estate value, birthplace, education and marital status for 156 men, women and children in 39 homes all in a single day. Let's assume that Mr. Prather spent a solid eight-hour day accomplishing this, with an hour off for lunch. In order to accomplish this feat, Mr. Prather would have spent a three minutes per person obtaining and hand-writing this data on his forms.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked as a follow-up enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. My task was to personally knock on the door of anyone who failed to return their census form and attempt to obtain the resident's information. It takes a lot of time to knock on 39 doors. A lot of small talk eats up the time when you are trying to get answers to these basic census questions. Life does not stop for the residents you are visiting. They are trying to go about their daily tasks while you are asking personal questions. Three minutes per person is not a lot of time, and it does not account for the time spent walking door-to-door and convincing residents to open the door and talk to you.

Remarkably all 156 residents happened to be at home on a Thursday, July 7, 1860. Even the 80 individuals who should have been at work that day were home to answer Mr. Prather's questions. Even if Mr. Prather waited until they all returned home that evening, that was still a lot of households to cover in one evening stroll through the First Ward.

The McKinley family was among those residents. Frank McKinley was a 30 year-old day laborer. He and his wife Bridget were born in Ireland. They had a two year-old child and a one month-old infant. The census reports that neither Frank nor Bridget could read or write. Yet Mr. Prather reports their personal estate to have a value of $100.00. If Frank and Bridget were illiterate how were they able to report the value of their personal estate? This was not the value of their real estate, that was reported separately. How did Mr. Prather come to obtain this information? Was it because of his standing as an attorney and former judge?

Mr. Prather was well-respected in the community. But, I doubt that he personally visited each household he enumerated. That quite probably was the case in many census enumerations, if you look at the time and effort it would have taken to gather the information from the residents.

It is likely that only one person needed to be at home when the information was taken, if the enumerator did, in fact, visit in person; and it is reasonable to assume that one person likely reported for anyone who was not at home. It is also possible the enumerator, familiar with the community, may have filled in at least some of the information from personal knowledge or other sources.

That would explain why two of the residents' places of birth were recorded on this particular census as "unknown." One of these residents was a school teacher. Wouldn't you expect a school teacher to know where they were born?

Without the details, a census only documents a part of what a researcher probably already knows. That is what I call looking "at" a census. I prefer to look "into" census returns to glean what I don't already know. A well-transcribed census provides a road map, a trail of facts, a tip-off that fleshes out genealogical research. It provides insight into relationships and connections that is lost when only part of the data is transcribed.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

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

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