Expert answers on instructions given to historical census enumerators.
Q. Were census takers told to have residents spell their names and children’s names, or did census takers just record their own interpretations?
Knowing census takers’ marching orders helps illuminate what’s on the records and why. You can download a PDF with all the instructions given to enumerators, as well as sample post-1820 census forms, from the Census Bureau Web site
Beginning with the 1790 census, the enumerators submitted returns in whatever form they found convenient, so long as “each household provided the names of the head of the family.” Starting in 1830, census takers received printed forms to use for recording names.
The 1850 census, the first to list all persons living in the household, had only these directions: “The names are to be written, beginning with the father and mother; or if either, or both, be dead, begin with some other ostensible head of the family; to be followed … with the name of the oldest child residing at home, then the next oldest, and so on.”
In 1870, the directions stated: “The family name is to be written in the first column, and the full first or characteristic Christian or ‘given’ name of each member of the family in order thereafter.” The enumerator was also instructed to use the surname for the first family member with each subsequent family member having a “clear horizontal line” being drawn in the place the name would occupy.
The 1880 census rules stated that the obligation to give the information “is required, if … requested by the superintendent, supervisor or enumerator, to render a true account to the best of his or her knowledge, of every person belonging to such family.” The entry of the name and subsequent surnames was the same in 1890 through 1930.
None of these directions indicate that enumerators asked informants to spell the names of those living in that abode. And as you’ve undoubtedly discovered, enumerators didn’t always get the information right. They didn’t have to be well-educated; they often were political appointments. In some cases, enumerators might not have spoken a family’s language or might’ve misunderstood the name as it was given.
From the November 2009 Family Tree Magazine