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Tuesday’s Tip: Five Drawbacks I’ve Encountered Using Census Records

Archives.com

Archives.com has recently added the complete 1790-1930 U.S. Census to its already billion-record database. This is great news indeed! And to help them promote this new addition to their service,  they have asked Geneabloggers (via contest) to share any tricks, tips, or words of wisdom for first time users, or, offer some sage advice on what to look for to solve those family mysteries via census records.

Using census records in family research is a MUST and is pretty much a straight forward process. But, there are times when using census records can be  down-right frustrating when there are transcription errors, not enough information, ancestors “twisting” the truth about their lives or they go MIA (missing in action) from one decade to another for whatever reason.

Below are five drawbacks I’ve encountered using census records. I know that my information below is not an exhaustive list of all the problems new users will face,  but they are basic and applicable enough for them to refer to as they seek to learn more about their families via census records:

  1. There’s inconsistent and/or phonetic spelling of surnames.
    These inconsistencies are probably due to the limited education of the census taker recording the facts, and/or the ancestors giving those facts (this is especially true with Emancipated African Americans who could not read and write due to slavery).
  2. The flourishes used in old handwriting sometimes make it difficult to read names.
    Distinguishing a capital “I” from a capital “J” when the name is written as initials, and when the open top of the letter “a” looks more like a  letter “u” or the loop top of the letter “a” looks more like the letter “o,” are just a few of the handwriting problems new users will observe in these records.
  3. Name changes by new immigrants in this county and newly Emancipated African Americans is a common occurrence too! In addition to name change dilemmas, the use of nicknames instead of actual birth names can also be a problem.
  4. Ancestors giving false information (such as their age, their ethnicity/race) for personal or political reasons is a common occurrence in these records.
  5. The 1850 Slave Schedules are one of the most important census records for African American researchers. Unfortunately slaves are not listed by their names;  they are listed by age, gender, and color.  And with regards to color, some slaves are listed as “Mu” for mulatto one decade and listed “B” for black in another decade.

Genealogists LOVE U. S. Census Records and use them regularly.  April 1, 2012 cannot get here fast enough for those of us waiting on the release of the 1940 records. New users of these records who are serious family historians will develop a love affair with them too. But as we all know, no love relationship is free of problems. But having a heads up about some of the most common drawbacks associated with census records is helpful!

 

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