Many years ago, when I was taking a class on genealogy
at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the instructor assigned us
the following exercise:
We were handed two pieces of paper, each a copy of a
page from the U.S. Census for the Arizona Territory for 1880. The pages
were not related, other than coming from the same census. Among the
entries on each page was a man I will call William Smith (since I don't
remember his actual name) and the members of his family. Our assignment
was to determine whether two men named William Smith were enumerated in
the Arizona Territory in 1880 or whether the same man was counted twice.
To help us, we could draw on other written sources (this was the
pre-Internet era), but we had to use the Census as the basis for whatever
conclusion we reached.
Needless to say, the instructor deliberately picked a
tricky case to throw at us. The listings for the two families did not
agree in several respects. Worse yet, the two families were enumerated on
different days in different parts of the territory. On the face of it,
there was not much to suggest that the same man (or his wife) could have
talked with a census taker twice within a matter of weeks.
That, however, turned out to be the explanation. And
the only way to figure it out was to carefully compare the two listings,
noting where they were consistent and where they were not, and then to ask
whether it was physically possible for a family to move from the first
location to the second in the amount of time in question. In other words,
you could only build a credible argument working from internal to external
Unless you are exceedingly lucky (or exceedingly
sloppy) in your research, it is almost impossible to trace your family
tree in the United States today without using the U.S. Census as an
investigative tool. But as my experience in the classroom illustrates,
federal census records can be full of traps if you fail to appreciate the
many quirks and complexities those records contain. If you happened to go
looking for a William Smith in the Arizona Territory in 1880, you would
encounter the same dilemma I did, except that I only had to deal with the
problem hypothetically, whereas you would have to resolve it for real.
There are a number of general publications you can
consult for assistance with census research. Two that come quickly to mind
are The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood
and The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Arlene Eakle
and Johni Cerny. But as helpful as such books can be, other books have
appeared in recent years devoted entirely to census research--a welcome
development for anyone wanting to go beyond the basics to dig deeper into
the potentially rich layers of census data. Here are four such books you
may want to consider:
1. The Census Book--A Genealogist's Guide to Federal
Census Facts, Schedules, and Indexes by William Dollarhide. It really
doesn't make much sense to jump into census records without first
understanding what they are and how they were compiled. We are not talking
here about abstract issues. Historically, census records were created the
hard way: page by page, in longhand, by people traveling house to house as
best they could, never knowing what would await them at the next gate or
doorway. Consequently, your ability to extract useful information from
censuses depends to a considerable degree on how good you are at
remembering what the census taker was doing when he wrote down what you
are reading. It was not exactly a scientific process.
In this book, William Dollarhide does a nice job of
getting you oriented on the background of the Census and on how this
history can impact your search. Wisely in my opinion, he moves quickly to
make you aware of one of the most important--and most overlooked--facts
about the Census: the census taker was not hired to record a household as
it existed on the day of his visit but rather as it existed on "Census
Day." If you don't understand this concept (and, therefore, don't know
which day "Census Day" was in any census year), you are virtually certain
to draw false conclusions from the data. This is a good example of where a
little knowledge can go a long way, or where a lack of same can be
Dollarhide's book includes a sizable section organized
by census year (1790-1930) so that you can look up a particular year and
determine what census records are available for that year, including what
states and territories existed that year and which census indexes have
been published for that year. He also provides charts showing whether the
Family History Library in Salt Lake City has indexed (on microfilm) a
particular county for a particular census year. Most such countywide
indexes go back to 1850 or 1860 but not (with some exceptions) much
Dollarhide also provides a lot of information about
non-population censuses, such as agricultural and slave schedules.
2. Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records by
Loretto D. Szucs and Matthew Wright. In terms of general layout, this book
is similar to Dollarhide's in that it begins with an historical overview
of the Census and proceeds to examine in detail the records for each
census year, followed by a discussion of non-population schedules. It
differs, however, in that it includes numerous illustrations of actual
census pages to give you some feel for the documents you will be working
with. It also includes various tables of information, such as phonetic
substitutes for letters in people's names, frequently misread letters in
census entries, and a checklist of records you may want to examine when
census records are illegible or missing.
Another feature of this book sure to be of interest to
readers is the section on Internet sites where you will find census
information. Although the descriptions of each site sound like the
companies in question may have had a hand in writing them, the
descriptions are still quite useful.
Both Dollarhide's book and this one provide
reproducible worksheets for collecting census data. The sheets vary in
format according to the questions asked in each census year.
3. Your Guide to the Federal Census for
Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians by Kathleen W.
Hinckley. If you want to pursue census research to even greater lengths
than the above two books contemplate, you should consider Kathleen
Hinckley's in-depth survey of census records and how to work with them. By
necessity, Hinckley covers essentially the same ground as Dollarhide,
Szucs, and Wright, but she does so in more analytical detail, with
numerous asides to help reveal the amount of personal history buried in
the enumerators' script.
For example, in her chapter on "Research Strategies,"
she cites the case of James and Margaret Brown, who appear in the 1900
Census for Denver, Colorado. James is not someone you have ever heard of,
but Margaret most assuredly is. You know her as the steamship Titanic's
"Unsinkable Molly Brown." Hinckley recreates the day the census taker
visited Molly's neighborhood, showing the exact route the enumerator (a
woman) took as she made her rounds of a section of downtown Denver. As we
follow the enumerator door to door, we learn a great deal about the
families in question, at first by studying the census page and then by
drawing on other sources that Hinckley consulted to flesh out the story.
As it happened, neither Molly Brown nor her husband was home when the
census taker arrived, leaving Hinckley to speculate that Molly's mother,
who lived with her, was the informant.
Hinckley's book offers many other valuable insights.
She reminds readers not to repeat the common error of depending
heavily--much less exclusively--on census indexes. To prove her point, she
compares four different indexes of the first 50 names from the same record
(the 1870 Census for the Colorado Territory). One of the indexes was
prepared by a local genealogical society, one was prepared by a
professional indexing company, one was prepared by a genealogical software
developer, and one was prepared by a genealogical publishing company. By
arranging the four indexes side by side in her book, Hinckley shows where
they agree and where they disagree. Amazingly, of the 50 names in each
list, only 12 names appear on all four lists. That is an agreement rate of
only 24 percent. Obviously, indexing of handwritten documents is a very
human undertaking. The lesson for the rest of us? Don't stop at indexes;
go to the original source.
I was also gratified to see that Hinckley's book
provides a short explanation of "enumeration districts" for census-taking.
If you are not familiar with this term and how it applies to census
research, you should check this book. William Dollarhide's book (above)
also explains the term.
4. The American Census Handbook by Thomas J.
Kemp. This book is completely different from the first three. Of the four,
this is the biggest (over 500 pages), and its size is a tipoff to its
content. Although the title might suggest otherwise, the book is devoted
entirely to the subject of census indexing. If you want to know if someone
somewhere has produced an index for a particular state, county, or town
for a particular census year, this is the reference to consult.
The author has attempted to run down every obscure and
not-so-obscure source for published census indexes. If an index is
available on either of two Internet sites (ancestry.com or rootsweb.com),
he tells you so. Most of the book is arranged by state, then by county, so
you can quickly narrow down on the areas in which you are interested.
There is also a much smaller section arranged by topic, such as
African-American, Native-American, Military, etc.
Probably for reasons of space, Kemp does not give you
any guidance on using the indexes in his book, so you might want to refer
to Kathleen Hinckley's book before diving into this one. You will,
however, find here a full citation for every listed index to facilitate
locating the index in a library or buying it from a publisher.
Let's say, for example, that you are curious whether
any index is available for Harlan County, Kentucky, for any census year.
Kemp's book identifies ten such indexes: one for 1820, three for 1850, one
for 1860, one for 1870, one for 1880, two for 1900, and one for 1910. None
of them, according to Kemp, was accessible on the Internet at the time he
compiled his book.
William Dollarhide's book (above) overlaps with Kemp's
to the extent that both men list countywide census indexes. But Kemp's
listing in this regard is much more detailed. Dollarhide is only working
with indexes available on microfilm at the LDS Church's Family History
To obtain any of the four books reviewed here, contact
the publishers as follows:
1. The Census Book
Heritage Quest, $24.95
2. Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records
3. Your Guide to the Federal Census
Betterway Books, $21.99
4. American Census Handbook
Scholarly Resources, $29.95