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Take care when relying on census records

Among the first records genealogists use in research are those from the U. S. census, but we regularly are cautioned about the reliability of information in these records. They are filled with errors for a variety of reasons: The person giving information about another member of a household might have guessed at some details (such as a person's age or where he was born). The person giving the information might have spoken little English and the census taker guessed at the spelling of foreign-sounding names. The person giving the information about himself simply might not have wanted to share things truthfully. But we can't blame all the confusion on the census taker or the informant. Sometimes our own ignorance blocks the understanding of information in the records. Some things may seem so obvious to us that we don't realize we need to educate ourselves. This is especially true when studying occupations entered on the census.
Although the government began taking the census in 1790, it wasn't until 1850 that a column for "occupation" was added. For the 1850 and 1860 censuses, the enumerator was to enter an occupation for everyone over the age of 15. In 1870, enumerators were told not to ask the occupation of infants or children too young to take part in production. Domestic errands or family chores were not considered occupations. Beginning in 1880, census takers were told to record occupations for everyone over the age of 10 years. For a time, I puzzled over how someone could be a "mechanic" in 1870. I had closed my mind to think of a mechanic only as someone who worked on automobiles. My confusion came not only from ignorance of terms used during that time period but also because it seems most census takers didn't follow their instructions not to "describe a man as a mechanic if it is possible to describe him more accurately." The instructions offered painter, carpenter or brick mason as more specific substitutes for the term mechanic. Aha! In 1900, census takers were told that a butcher is someone who slaughters the animal, but the person who processes and sells the meat is a "provision dealer." I'll remember that the next time I talk to the guy I thought was a Publix butcher. Two other occupations often confused are "housekeeper" and "keeping house." There is a BIG difference. A housekeeper was one paid or hired to keep house for someone. A woman who was "keeping house" was doing so for her own family in her own home. A sharp research eye sometimes will find entries that tell much about those in a community. In the 1880 Ellsworth, Main Ward Five, I found Mary E. Black listed as "lady of the house." Likely I'll never know whether it was Mrs. Black or the enumerator who elevated her to that point, but examination of others on the page hinted at how she attained that lofty position. Her neighbors Nancy Foster, Nellie Moores Georgette Harden, widow Hannah Smith, Sarah Redman and Alvonid Perry were each listed as "keeping house." Their husbands — a cabinetmaker, a Methodist minister, a book and shoe dealer, a grocer and lumber dealer, and a clerk — held what would have been respectable positions in the community. Mary's husband was a lumber manufacturer, which might have elevated him to the top of the community's social ladder and raised her above the others listed as "keeping house." But the real difference jumped off the page: Mary had two servants, including a housekeeper. The other women did their own housework. The 1880 census not only required an occupation but also an entry for each person's "health." Very seldom does a researcher find entries in the health column, but in the Senachwine Township of Illinois, Austin Kibber, 62, was listed as an "abortionist" and over that word the census taker wrote "six wives living." When I initially saw the entry, I thought the census taker had confused polygamist with abortionist. But in the "health" column for his wife S. Maria Kibber, the census taker had written "absess of womb caused by an attempt to produce abortion after being drugged by husband A. D. Kibber." But was Austin really an abortionist by trade, or was this an editorial observation by the census taker? Instructions to census takers were that they were under no obligation to give any man's occupation just as he expressed it. They were told they could "find out what he does and characterize his profession accordingly." This situation is like so many genealogical quests where one factual discovery simply raises several more questions that demand more investigation.

Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Baylife, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.
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