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Census reliability

Census reliability

Posted: 1090602817000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1101163537000
Can anyone tell me how accurate, on average, the data in the old census listings was? I ask, because, while looking up some people in the online 1880 census, I have found several cases where the ages given for these people varies wildly from the ages given elsewhere for them. (In one case, if the age given for one woman in the 1880 census was correct, she would have married at the age of about 13!) I'm not sure if this is from transcription errors when the 1880 census was put on the Internet, or if the old census records themselves were just plain unreliable. What do the more experienced researchers among you think?

Re: Census reliability

Posted: 1090789375000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1165234187000
Any census information is only as reliable as the person who provided the information. Since the USA census was taken during planting season in rural areas, often children or neighbors provided the information. Many people deliberately took years off or added them on, for many reasons, like a boy wanting to go to war or a woman not wanting to be older than her husband. It is almost the norm for ages to change by more or less than 10 years between each census. This was not because the census takers got it wrong, but because they were given wrong information. It is unusual for the transcription to be different than what is written by the census taker, unless the writing is illegible. The only USA census that tends to be a bit more reliable is the 1900 because actual birth month and year were requested.


Re: Census reliability

Posted: 1091722683000
Classification: Query
Edited: 1142174222000
Remember if the folks were not home, neighbours were asked "who lives there", remember accents, colds and literacy rates.

Jump fwd, use transcriptions as a finding aid only...always view the original yourself!

Re: Census reliability

Orlena (View posts)
Posted: 1127765823000
Classification: Query

"(In one case, if the age given for one woman in the 1880 census was correct, she would have married at the age of about 13!)"

Yes, some were actually married at ages from 12 - 14.

Anything being done by human beings is subject to errors. The more times it is redone, the more chance for more errors.

Here's a source I've found interesting.

Check out the information on Census Copies, I found info given for 1850-1870 interesting.

also found here

Be Aware of Copying Errors!

Harry Hollingsworth reported some differences between the state and federal census copies in his article, "Little Known Facts About the U.S. Census," in the American Genealogist, Vol. 53 (1977), page 11:

" I have personally found many discrepancies between the Federal and State copies . . . Whole names have either been changed or omitted. Ages have been copied wrong. Whereas, in the originals, the surnames of each family are generally written over and over again, in the copies the word "ditto" or its abbreviation "do" appears instead. When written over and over, a surname has much less chance of being written incorrectly! In one Federal entry, I find Rebecca Gey but "Grey" in the original. In anther Federal entry, Amanda Vandyke appears, but she is Amanda A. Vanslyke in the original. Esther Hollinsworth of the original — the correct name — appears as Esther Hollenback in the Federal copy!"

Genealogist Leland Meitzler discovered what appeared to be his great-grandfather and family listed in the 1860 Wisconsin federal census under the name "Metzern." But by looking at the state copy of the 1860 Wisconsin census, he found the name was spelled correctly as "Meitzler."

There are many more examples of copying errors between the county, state, and federal copies. The original census schedules were bound into large books and the task of copying the handwritten information from one book to another book was obvious tedious and prone to errors.

Knowing that your ancestor were listed in a microfilmed census record and that record may not have been the original — does that explain why the name of your ancestor is missing, misspelled, or was given a first letter initial rather than the full name?


Re: Census reliability

Posted: 1263172762000
Classification: Query
I have noticed that too with the ages being different from Census to Census...but I've also noticed wildly different spellings of names too. It's like the Census takers didn't even ask them to prove their birth date or even ask "How do you spell that?". I even had one relative named Clarence written as Terrence in one Census. I'm guessing the Census taker misunderstood but if they asked "How do you spell that?" they would have at least cleared up that mistake.

Re: Census reliability

Posted: 1263177856000
Classification: Query

"How do you spell that?"

Sometimes the peoples nationality or first language and how well they spoke English was also a problem.

I certainly wouldn't have done very well myself and I'd have been more than happy to ask how they spelled it.

Apparently many census takers couldn't bring themselves to even ask the "Can you read" and "Can you write" questions or people didn't mind not telling them or even fibbing about it.

I've found census with the questions unanswered or saying yes, when I happen to know they weren't able to read or write even though they had sometimes attended school.

It's also possible those questions weren't considered important and were left out or filled in at a later time. They don't alway seem to go with the person and their age on the line with them.

In many cases it appears those "Can you read" and "Can you write" questions weren't asked of the census taker either. Many of them apparently couldn't spell at all, or for that matter print or write.

I found one census that the lady had tried her best to get all the questions answered and for the most part it was readable, however... when she was to enter her own families information, it apparently wasn't any of the Government's business because most of it was missing!

I believe the upcoming 2010 census has about 10 questions to be answered. It's said to be the shortest census ever. If that's all, I'm wondering if the cost of doing it is even worth it. I imagine people will only answer as they please, not necessarily the truth anyway.

I also imagine that's always been the case.

I do still find the 1850 - 1930 census records help, when I can figure out what I think they say. :-)



Re: Census reliability

Posted: 1263189521000
Classification: Query
I know, and you are probably right. And I'm guessing it was true on both sides. In the case of most of my family, they spoke English just fine. My 94 year old grandfather has done his share of censuses and speaks no other language. But they got his name wrong a few times. I wonder if some of the people hired to take down this info, really cared about quality or just how fast they get it done and go home. Not much has changed. But still, you would think "And how do you spell that?" would be a common sense question and wouldn't take too much time. And, you would think the person offering up the info, would also offer up the spelling. I always offer it up before offer up the spelling of my name when I see somebody writing it down.

As for the 2010 almost seems like they could use the money being put aside to "advertise" it (the largest amount yet) and us it to figure out an easier way to combine with other records that are out there already.

But I guess the old methods still work too :)

Re: Census reliability

Posted: 1282873538000
Classification: Query
Must people back then didnt know how to read or write. So even if they were ask How do u spell that..They wouldnt know. Must of them guessed at how it should be spelled. Thats why from census to census you will have different spellings.

Re: Census reliability

Posted: 1286212370000
Classification: Query
Good discussion of this subject! The moral of the story is
what you find in a census should be verified/substantiated by another source if at all possible. And don't forget to be creative when looking up relatives. I had a cousin who found a grandmother who appeared as "Moya" when her name was "Moyer". ELC

PS Remember other family members may lead to the relative you want to find; that is how the missing grandmother was identified.

Re: Census reliability

Posted: 1291990957000
Classification: Query
I have had great difficulty finding relatives as my grandmothers Surname (as she spelt it was Orsbourn) on the parish baptism records she is listed as Osborn. Other family members on the census returns have been Osborne,Osbourn, Orsbourne etc..

It is just the way the registrar thought the name was spelt, as in previous posts i dont think any of them actually asked the people how they spelt it themselves.
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