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How Accurate are all these Records?


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Last time I talked about how important the Federal Census is to the family historian. Now, I’m going to give you a warning about it’s reliability. Don’t believe everything you read. This is something you should keep in mind no matter what source you’re referencing.

Why do I say this about the census though? Since it’s an official government count, shouldn’t it be accurate? The answer is yes and no. Yes it should be, but no, usually in practice it is not 100% accurate. One thinks that today with our technological gadgetry the census would be highly accurate. In the last census, however, there are many people that say the official count was greatly flawed and many citizens were not counted. Many never even received forms to fill out.

So if the census of seven years ago was so flawed, what about those 100 or more years ago, which the family historian references most? The census was taken a little differently back then. Today, we receive forms in the mail, however until the latter half of this century, the census was taken by people going door to door, asking the questions and filling in the answers in their census book.

One might imagine the suspicion that people in isolated rural areas had of someone who just came up the road and started asking such questions as everyone’s name, where they were born, and how old they were. That is the first obstacle to accuracy of these census records. Also, it was probably not uncommon for these census takers to get information on one family from another. Especially in isolated areas in the mountains, it is highly doubtful that the census takers actually visited each house.

So, why am I so concerned about warning you of all this? I have researched people who, according to the census records, aged anywhere from 8 to 14 years between census counts. This is a remarkable feat, since the census is always taken every 10 years. Did the ladies’ just not want to give their right age, or did the gentlemen forget the correct age of their wives and children? Who knows why, the bottom line is that sometimes, the census is not the best source.

So, at least people knew where they were born and could give accurate answers to those kind of questions, right? Wrong. Many times in our history, state or country of origin has been a touchy issue not to be discussed with too many people. Add to that, the slips in memory like the ones that throw off the accuracy of ages and we get someone who was born in three states, at least according to each of his census listings. This can be even more frustrating when the census called for people to list the birthplace of their parents. I’ve seen this lead to a lot of conflicting reports of where an ancestor was born.

You might think I’ve overreacted to a few contradictions, but the lesson of all of this is not only to document all of your sources, but to verify them. For instance, it doesn’t just take a census record to prove the facts that you’re collecting about your family. It takes two or three sources to prove anything. With this high of a standard, you can be confident that you’ve uncovered the true facts of your family.

Next time: The Clues are Everywhere