Skillbuilding: Censuses — The Often-Overlooked Basics
- Newsletter of the BCG
Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Censuses - Often-Overlooked
Basics," OnBoard 4 (January 1998): 8.
“I checked the 1850 census of Jones County and
did not find Peleg Pettipool.”
As genealogists, we have probably seen or heard such a
statement at least 4,327 times. It comes to us from relatives
working the same family lines. We hear it from fellow members
of genealogical societies. If we are professionals, we get
it from clients. We read it in reports written by people
who have been paid to do research for others. BCG even sees
it in applications.
Such a barebones account of census work raises several
- Was the actual census read—or did the searcher
rely upon a published index? If so, which index? In many
cases, more than one finding aid is available, with quality
varying widely between them.
- What census was checked—federal, state, or local?
In random years and places, counts were taken by multiple
levels of government.
- If the federal census is meant, which schedule was
searched? In 1850, five different schedules listed people
by name—i.e., the free population, slave (which
listed owners or overseers, when owners were absent),
industrial, agricultural, and mortality schedules.
- If the general free population schedule is meant, which
copy was used—the one forwarded to Washington, the
one sent to the state government, or the one deposited
locally? Differences very often exist between one version
and the other.
A generation ago, available resources were much more limited.
American genealogists who spoke of “using the census”
almost invariably referred to the National Archives (NARA)
microfilm of the population schedule of the federal copy
of the U.S. census.
Today’s genealogists have far more options available.
Thorough researchers use them all—and take care to
identify exactly the record they consulted.
Proficient use of today’s supply of census records
is a complex process requiring a broad knowledge of research
methodology and human nature. The following are just the
- Identify all available resources.
Censuses and indexes vary widely between areas and
across time. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of those
relevant to your place of interest.
- Begin with the indexes.
Primarily, these treat population schedules. Whether
you use the Census Bureau’s miracode or soundex,
or the various commercially prepared indexes, the principle
is the same. The index is not the record. It
is only a finding aid to the actual record—and
invariably it is a flawed one. Any data found in
an index is used only to locate the actual entry.
- Find and use the actual population return.
Extract all data. This includes all information on
the page heading, all page numbers penned or stamped
on the sheet, all details for the entire household in
which the relevant person lived, and identification
of neighbors. Judiciously consider all other individuals
of the same surname in the same district—if not
the same county. Their identities may be meaningless
to us now, but they often hold the clue to our ancestor’s
birth family and origins.
- Read all other relevant schedules.
The detail provided by the population schedule normally
suggests whether the ancestor should be found on another
schedule as a slaveowner; a farmer; a craftsman; or
the owner of a business, mine, or fishery. If so, additional
information should be available on the related schedule.
In all cases, the mortality schedule (when available)
should be checked—as should any extant state and
local copies of the population schedule.
If the ancestor does not seem to be in indexes, then we
have several additional steps to perform.
- Recheck all index(es) for all conceivable variant spellings.
- Read the original population schedule line by line,
to be certain the indexers did not (a) misread
the name; (b) omit it entirely; or (c)
fail to pick it up simply because the person was living
in a household headed by someone else of the same surname.
Stay alert to erroneous renderings of his name made by
the original enumerator.
- If relatives or neighbors are known from other records,
attempt to locate them—then scrutinize their neighborhood(s)
- If the problem persists, check pagination throughout
the entire census to be certain that pages are not omitted.
- If pages appear to be missing, contact the National
Archives and request a check of the original returns for
the missing sheets—but do not ask for a name
- If NARA does not have the missing page(s) and Step
4 of the simple search has not been performed, do it!
Many people omitted from the federal copy can be found
on state or local copies. Others who cannot be located
on the population return can be found on the agricultural
or industrial or mortality or slave schedules.
Above all, we keep a full log of the efforts we have made—the
exact schedules we checked, the exact variants we searched
for, the exact materials we tried to find but could not
locate. We owe this “track record” to ourselves
and anyone else to whom we report, “I checked the
1850 census but could not find Peleg.”
Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL
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