By Jan Mayer
On the first U.S. census day (August 2, 1790), 17 United States marshals and around 650 assistants1 began the task of finding and recording the population of the United States. These were the first U.S. census takers.
In 1880, specially trained census enumerators (census takers) were hired to replace the federal marshals in counting the population. A national census is taken every 10 years in the United States, and the information is then used to allocate congressional seats, electoral votes and funding for government programs. Census information is also used by businesses, community organizations, historians—and genealogists.
From the very first census, incorrect census information has been a concern. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both speculated that the population of the country was higher than the 3.9 million counted in the 1790 census.2 Although early censuses recorded comparatively few names and gave a basic population count, more recent census records have much more information about individuals and households. As you search U.S. census records, understanding census errors can help you with your family history.
Why Are There Mistakes in Censuses?
Most census mistakes are simply human error. Census takers risk severe penalties if they disregard confidentiality or deliberately misrepresent data. In fact, Census Bureau employees have always been required to take a nondisclosure oath and are sworn to protect the confidentiality of census data for life.
Nonetheless, inaccuracies do occur. Some of the most frequent reasons for incorrect census information include the following:
- A focus on counting. Counting the population has always been the main focus of the United States census, not keeping perfect historical records. In fact, census questions from past censuses may have been answered by any member of a household, a boarder, or even a neighbor who agreed to be truthful.
- Spelling errors. Looking for ancestors, genealogists may be stumped by name spellings that vary from census to census. Some of this variation comes because many U.S. schools taught spelling by phonics (by sound) in the 1800s. Also, in 1790 only about 65 percent of the United States population could read at all, so spelling a name was up to the census taker, according to Bill Dollarhide, author and census genealogy expert. Thinking of different ways to spell or misspell a name can help you identify your ancestors despite spelling variations in the census data.3
- Copying errors. Each set of census records has a different history of copies. Sometimes the copying process resulted in the county, state and federal governments holding separate copies, all of which may have slight variations. Genealogists usually view the copy from the National Archives and Records Administration and may not realize they can also check state and county records to see if the forms contain copy errors.
- Missing or false information. Citizens are sometimes wary that the U.S. census is for tax collection or may dislike answering census questions. Misunderstanding can also arise from language barriers between a census taker and the person being interviewed. Especially in older censuses, people responding may also not have had precise answers for some questions. For example, Dollarhide notes that birthdays weren’t widely celebrated in the United States until the 1880s, and even parents may not have remembered exact ages for each family member.3
Today, the U.S. census is conducted initially with mailed questionnaires, which prevents many recording errors. Census records have also been partially or fully processed by machine since as early as 1872. The Census Bureau is always working on improving the enumeration and processing of future U.S. censuses.
Can Incorrect Census Information Be Changed?
According to the United States Census Bureau, it isn’t possible to correct an error in a census record. The census records are historical documents, and historical documents are not perfect. The Census Bureau recommends the following, “Our advice to genealogists who find inaccuracies is to make a note in their family history that the census record may contain errors.”
The Census Bureau also points out that some of these errors can actually teach us about our family members. Families sometimes provided alternate or “Americanized” names, left illegitimate children out of their household count, or misidentified their racial heritage when answering census questions. These intentional differences teach us about the culture surrounding our ancestors and may help us identify missing or interesting stories in our family history.
The Value of Census Records
While U.S. Census Records are not the only resource for tracing ancestors, they are freely accessible at FamilySearch.org and also available on other genealogy sites.
Finding an ancestor in a census record can be a great start to building or extending a family tree. Although census data may not have the same level of accuracy as other genealogical records, censuses can help you discover family stories. They also contain vital clues for locating other records. With the information from one or more census records, you may be able to locate a birth, marriage, or death record for your ancestor. You also might be able to track down naturalization papers or learn where ancestors lived and traveled within the United States.
- “Heads of Families at the First Census,” United States Census Bureau, accessed September 27, 2018, https://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/1790j-02.pdf
- “1790 Overview,” United States Census Bureau, accessed September 27, 2018, https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/1790.html
- Bill Dollarhide, “Census Mistakes,” Genealogy Blog, last modified April 13, 2012, https://www.genealogyblog.com/?p=18199