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The Census Code

Judy Rosella Edwards recently sat in on a beginner's genealogy class to jog her memory about the beginner's experience. She came away with the realization that many genealogists don't know the secret code of the census.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1376 (approx.)
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Most of us complete quite a bit of research on our own families before we realize there is a code for determining relationships. Genealogy is all about learning and applying that code, and being sensitive and quite literal about data.

The Value of Transcriptions

First of all, use those beautifully typed census lists merely as a guide. They appear everywhere. They have been published, and republished, and uploaded to websites galore. Use them as a guide, but always, without exception, look at the original.

Keep in mind that no one edited or proofread many of the published census schedules volunteers so painstakingly typed. At the local genealogical library, you will find an abundance of censuses that were typed onto mimeograph paper and duplicated. Compare them to the original documents and you will find they contain errors. Some errors come from typographical errors but many originate from transcribers guessing at names.

One of my co-volunteers at the local Family History Center spent years of frustrated and fruitless searching for her grandfather, Clarence. Eventually, she went to the original census and discovered some well-meaning and dedicated transcriber misread the handwriting and transcribed his name as Florence. To make matters worse, the transcriber took matters into their own hands and identified Florence as a woman. After all, Florence would probably be a woman!

Professional genealogists avoid correcting history unless there is a wealth of documentable evidence for doing so. My personal method is to require at least two independent primary sources as proof before I even consider the possibility that Clarence – I mean Florence – might have been female if the census schedule lists that person as a male head of household.

Question Relationships

Names are not completely randomly listed on the more recent censuses. The head of the household was listed first. You can usually count on that person being the person who pays the real estate tax on the property, if the family owns their home.

If the family was renting or squatting, the eldest person in the family was usually listed first. Sometimes the eldest person was a mother residing with her grown child and perhaps their family. But, the role of head of household does reflect the household's finances, in addition to relationships.

It is important to look at gender. Again, ignore the transcription and look at the original. Almost always, the head of household was a male. If they were female, they would almost assuredly be the oldest person in the household. Even if they were renting, if the eldest person listed as head of household was a woman, she probably was paying the rent.

Putting On Your Thinking Cap

But, of course, the fun of genealogy is the exceptions. If Clarence was not the head of the household, he might appear farther down the list within the dwelling. This is significant. It means he was part of another nuclear family or he was single.

Once the Census Bureau decided to identify everyone in the household by name, they developed a system. It is like a secret code to the novice researcher and it means so much. The rule is to list everyone in each family at a residence beginning with the head of household, then their spouse, then each son or daughter by age beginning with the eldest child.

It gets confusing when the second, or third, nuclear family within the same household is actually related to the head of the household. That is when genealogists put on their thinking caps.

Everything Relates

Let's try to simplify it. The first nuclear family at an address will list the eldest taxpayer, or whoever is considered the head of the household. The eldest man will then be listed, followed by his wife, and then his children. For example, if Barry Davis was married to Mary Davis and lived with their five children, including their married daughter and her son, Barry and Mary and their unmarried children still living at home would be listed first.

Barry Davis, 56, M
Mary, F
Jonny Davis, 17, M
David Davis, 15, M
Maeve, 13, F
Mavis, 4, F
Each nuclear family will list the "head" of that nuclear family first. Therefore, if their fifth child, Sherry, was married to John Barry and they have a child named Mavis Barry, the completed list for the household would look like this:

Barry Davis, 56, M, Head of Household
Mary, F, 55, wife
Jonny Davis, 17, M, Son
David Davis, 15, M, Son
Maeve, 13, F, Daughter
Mavis, 4, F, Daughter
John Barry, 23, M Son-In-Law
Sherry, 21, F, Daughter
Mavis, 1, F, Granddaughter

Sherry was listed as a daughter, but everything within the household relates. First, she relates to the male listed prior to her. He was the son-in-law of the head of household for that dwelling. This is the secret code that tells us that Sherry was part of the nuclear family headed by John Barry. But, before that, she was the daughter of the head of household, Barry Davis, who is her father.

John and Sherry Barry's daughter, Mavis, was the granddaughter of Barry Davis. But she appears below her parents. It is important to look at the identification of each person. Mavis Barry had an Aunt Mavis Davis living in the same household. We can differentiate between them by age and by relationship to the head of household: one was a daughter and the other was a granddaughter.

It is Never Easy

Just when we think we have it all sorted out, along comes another exception. Let's say we find someone named Clara Barry living in the same household and listed as a 22-year-old boarder. Where she falls in the sequence has meaning.

If Clara was listed before John Barry, it would mean that she was a relative of Barry Davis's nuclear family. I intentionally chose names that are similar and confusing because that is what you find in actual census schedules.

We should consider the possibility that Clara was a daughter of Mary Davis's from a previous relationship. She should be listed as daughter or stepdaughter, but you may find a daughter from a previous marriage just listed as boarder.

Maybe the census enumerator gave up trying to explain that Clara was really Clara Oborn who was Mary Davis's stepdaughter from a previous marriage, to Alexander Oborn, who died and left Mary a widow and Clara an orphan. Clara, therefore, was not biologically or legally related to anyone in the Barry Davis household –- but everyone considered her to be Mary Davis's daughter.

Another Exception

If Clara was listed below John Barry as a boarder, then she probably would have been an employee in the household, or renting a room. Clara would probably have an occupation listed on those census schedules that collected such information.

We can determine this because Clara would be a 22-year-old person listed sequentially after a one-year-old child. Remember that the ages help identify who belongs to each nuclear family. Each nuclear family, consisting of one or more persons at the same address, was identified from the eldest to the youngest as many times as necessary until each person was counted.

The Financial Connection

Sometimes boarders were nothing more than boarders. If Simon Worthy, age 45, was also living in the household, was listed after Clara, and identified as a boarder, he probably was just paying rent to live there.

While it is not solid evidence, consider where Simon appears in the sequence. If he is listed last, it could be that the enumerator considered Clara, who was younger, to be "sort of family" because she was Mary Davis's stepdaughter.

If Simon had been listed prior to Clara, I would assume that Clara was completely unrelated and her relationship within the household was purely a financial one. She was a boarder who paid rent to live there.

In either example, I would not consider that Simon might be a relative based purely on the census. If he was related in any way, he probably would have been identified as a brother or other relative.

Anyone Can Do It

Not only can novice researchers resolve these little puzzles, that's what genealogy is all about. Census returns hold so much more than random names. There is a code and it was designed as a means of establishing relationships. Learn the code, and many pieces fall into place.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

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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