When the Census Taker Gets it Wrong

When the 1940 Census came out last April, I was excited to look for my grandparents, Burnell and Emily Batson. The family story was that Burnell and Emily lived in St. George, Utah, because my father was born in St. George six months later.  Because St. George was a relatively small town at the time, I decided to look for Burnell and Emily before the index was finished for Utah. It’s a good thing I did, because it would have been very difficult to find them using the indexes eventually created.

I looked through three enumeration districts searching line by line until I reached an entry listing “Burnell Vatson” as the head of household instead of the expected “Burnell Batson.”  Living with Mr. Vatson was his wife, Emily. Their place of birth and ages matched information I had on my grandparents. I also knew my grandfather was working as a cook in a small restaurant at the time. The 1940 census listed Mr. Vatson as a “dinner cook in a café." This was definitely my grandparents, even though it listed their last name incorrectly as Vatson instead of Batson.

The 1940 Census has a feature that other censuses don’t have. It states who gave the information to the census taker. From the instructions of previous censuses, it stated that when a family wasn’t at home, a neighbor could give information about them. When incorrect names, ages, and places of birth were listed, it was also my first assumption that maybe a neighbor gave the information. On this census, a plus sign with a circle around it indicated who gave the information. Apparently the census taker caught my grandpa at home, because he had the mark beside his name. That meant Burnell gave the information.

So what happened? Well, most likely the census taker did not clarify the name with my grandfather, because I’m sure my grandfather would have corrected him. It appears that the census taker misunderstood my grandfather as he spoke his name.

Some researchers become concerned about incorrect information in census records, even to the point of not believing it’s their ancestor because one piece of information is incorrect. Even though the surname was misspelled it doesn’t mean it’s not my grandpa. Researchers need to remember that records are created by people and people make mistakes. Errors are going to creep into records. We need to properly analyze all of the information to determine if the information matches that of our ancestors.

We also need to remember that the census was not created for genealogists. They are a serendipitous genealogical result of the government’s program to account for the U.S. population. Census takers may have thought the records would never be seen again, resulting in less than accurate recording. Thus, strange or obviously incorrect information is riddled throughout the census records.

As you look for your ancestors, remember to examine each potential record with a shrewd but realistic eye. Understanding the limitations of records such as the census will help you become a better genealogist. It will also save you a lot of headaches!

My family won’t be changing their name to Vatson anytime soon either.

Search the 1940 Census Index on FamilySearch.org

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