How Accurate Are Census Records?

Censuses are often called the backbone of American genealogy.  They are one of the most essential sources for establishing family relationships within a given household.  While this is true, errors, incompletion, and irregularities do occur in census records. Even though you should keep the following in mind, don’t be discouraged because the truth is out there.

  •  We’re only human. 

Census enumerators visited numerous homes over large areas. Simple human error certainly occurred.  Sometimes individuals who answered the census questions may have been mistaken regarding certain details about their family members.

  •  Communication Breakdown.

There may have been language or literacy barriers.  Immigrants may have had trouble understanding questions and communicating their answers.  Enumerators may have had difficulty understanding an immigrant’s accent.  The uneducated may not have known how to spell their last name or family member’s names.

  •  Missing Persons.

Please stop and ask at the gas station!  Enumerators may have been unable to locate persons in their districts.  Imagine what it must have been like for census takers traveling the early United States without modern means of transportation and navigation!

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.  Some people evaded census takers due to fear.  This is especially true for immigrants.

  • Keep it in the vault. 

Questions deemed too personal were sometimes avoided.  In 1840, residents of certain counties in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana refused to answer economic questions because there were no penalties for noncompliance. Eventually there were laws enforcing compliance.

  •  I CALL DO-OVER!

You may find duplicate entries for your ancestors. Enumerator boundaries were confusing, and an area that fell along a border may have been recorded by multiple census takers.  Individuals that moved during the time allotted to take the census may have been recorded at both addresses. If a couple was married during the census time period, they may have been counted with their families and as a married couple.  Military personnel may have been listed with their family and at a military station.

  • Fuzzy instructions.

Early census records contained vague instructions.  Enumerators may have inaccurately interpreted their duties or census questions.   Instructions became more detailed over time.

  •  It’s my party and I’ll invite who I want to.

Some citizens were intentionally not counted.  In 1870, the South was undercounted due to Northern carpetbagger census takers.  The carpetbaggers wanted to weigh Northern political influence.  A smaller population in the South meant it would have fewer representatives.

  • Census Workers, making copies.

For some years, the law dictated that census copies had to be submitted to multiple government agencies.  Copies were made by hand.  Imagine the hand cramp from that process!  For the years1850-1870, the microfilmed records available to researchers are most likely handwritten copies of handwritten copies.  The 1880 microfilmed records were most likely handwritten copies.

  • Mass Destruction.

Most of the 1890 census records were burned in a fire in 1921.  Only fragments survived (6,160 persons).  None survived for Erie County.

The 1900-1940 original census records were disposed of after they were microfilmed to save space.  Some of these records were poorly microfilmed, making them difficult to read.

  •  We learn from our mistakes.

Sometimes census mistakes are valuable.  For example, in 1850 and 1860, census takers were supposed to ask what state or country persons were born in.  Fortunately for some lucky genealogists, a number of enumerators listed more specific areas such as counties.  Rarely, enumerators added detailed notes about select individuals.

To learn more about census records see:

The Census Book – by William Dollarhide – Gro Ref HA214.D63 1999

Your Guide to the Federal Census – by Kathleen W. Hinckley – Gro Ref HA37.U6 2002

To find out what New York census records are available for research in the Grosvenor Room, see our Censuses for New York State guide.

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