Understanding what the Census Enumerator was meant to write (and how that helps you understand your ancestor).

1900 censusIn the Census: Understanding what the census enumerator was instructed to write.

The census is one of the first places we go to when researching our ancestors. We pour over those images, trying to interpret what is on the page in front of us. For the 1880 U.S. census, the Superintendent of the Census offered supervisors some general guidelines in choosing enumerators: “The appointments should be made with reference to physical activity, and to aptness, neatness, and accuracy in writing and in the use of figures,” to “active” and “energetic” young men “of good address.”1 Most genealogists would agree that, “aptness, neatness, and accuracy in writing” is not what we always find on the census. There is little we can do about indistinct handwriting but perhaps gaining some context to what the enumerator was instructed to write in that particular column may help us interpret something which is difficult to read or a mark or abbreviation that makes no sense to us.

An Example

George Everett Zimmerman, my husband’s great grand-uncle, was enumerated on the 1920 U.S. census as Zimmerman, E. George.2 At first glance I may have concluded that while I had previously thought his first name to be George, and middle name Everett, this census entry may make me think that perhaps the initial ‘E’ for Everett was actually his first name and George, his middle name, was the name he went by.

Zimmerman census
1920 U.S. Census for Zimmerman, E. George.

After studying the other families on the page, I could see that all were enumerated as [last name] [initial] [first name]. In fact, all the heads of households in the entire enumeration district were recorded in this manner.

IPUMS (The Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) uses microdata to study the past sixteen federal censuses, looking for patterns of social and economic change. It also contains a record of all census questions, enumerators instructions, and brief histories of every census from 1790-2010. For our example above the enumerator was given this instruction:

“108. How names are to be written. – Enter first the last name or surname, then the given name in full, and the initial of the middle name, if any. Where the surname is the same as that of the person in the preceding line do not repeat the name, but draw a horizontal line (-) under the name above, as shown in the illustrative example.”3

The enumerator misunderstood the instructions and recorded all the names in his enumeration district by last name, middle initial, given name.

Learn More

If you want to get more out of your U.S. census research I suggest looking at IPUMS.org. The instructions to enumerators is invaluable in providing context to the information we see on the census.

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 5 prompt: In the Census.

  1. Diana L. Magnuson, “The Making of a Modern Census: the United States Census of Population, 1790-1940,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1995, IPUMS (https://usa.ipums.org/usa/voliii/enumproc1.shtml : accessed 1 February 2018). 
  2. 1920 U.S. Census, San Joaquin County, California, population schedule, O’Neal Township, ED 153, sheet 28A (penned), dwelling 586, family 586, George E. Zimmerman household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 31 January 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 143. 
  3. 1920 Census:  Instructions to Enumerators, IPUMS USA (https://usa.ipums.org/usa/voliii/inst1920.shtml : accessed 31 January 2018), citing “How names are to be written”. 

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