How accurate is the census? How often did enumerators get things wrong? Expert answers for your genealogical questions.
Q. How accurate is the census? How often did enumerators get things wrong?
A. Starting in the late 19th century, US census enumerators went through training for their jobs. They were often teachers and postmasters in their daily life—in other words, they were used to writing. They sometimes missed families or made errors as a result of communicating with people who spoke different languages, dialects or accents.
A more common source of mistakes was the people supplying the census data: Sometimes just one family member—even a child—reported for the whole household, and other times neighbors gave information for people who weren’t home when the enumerator came through town. And then there were people who misreported details such as age, out of ignorance or vanity.
So although you could say that the census is only as good as the people reporting the information, the great majority of that information was accurate—which is pretty remarkable, considering the millions of individuals listed—and gives researchers a good foundation upon which to build a pedigree. If you look at the accuracy of genealogical records on a continuum, census records probably aren’t as close to error-free as personal documents (such as birth and marriage certificates), but they aren’t nearly as error-ridden as secondary sources (such as county histories).
For a better historical sense of the enumerations and enumerators, read newspaper reports from the time the census was taken, recommends expert Kathleen W. Hinckley, author of the book Your Guide to the Federal Census (Betterway Books). “I found a huge variety of examples ranging from hilarious to sad to historically important,” she says—everything from a woman jumping out a window because she was fearful of deportation to an enumerator who saved someone who was trying to commit suicide.
From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine