Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Coping with Conflicting Census Data

Census records are a marvelous way to discover where your ancestors lived, what they did for a living, and who else lived in the house. But what if you find errors in the census data that call into question whether or not this is the family member you are looking for?

Who the Heck is Elizabeth?

This has been one of the most confusing census conflicts I have come across. I know George Nowell and Rebecca Joplin married on July 4th or 5th of 1894 in Hillsboro, Hill County, Texas. (The family bible says 4, the Texas Marriages index says 5). So in 1900, they would have been married 6 years, as is indicated on the census.

According to the family bible, George was born 9 April 1875, and Rebecca Joplin was born 19 March 1879 (her death certificate says 18 March 1879). So the birth months and years are also a match.

The first child born to George and Rebecca Nowell was Della on 2 June 1895 according to the bible and her death certificate. Now here is the second inconsistency we come across. The census has "Ardella" born one month before George and Rebecca were married.

However, looking to the date the census was taken (29 June 1900), my Della would have just turned 5, so the age still matches. But that brings up another problem - if George and Rebecca were married in July, they wouldn't have celebrated their 6th anniversary yet.

So, back to the family bible, John Nowell was born 6 Nov 1897. Okay, that one fits. Additionally, all of the birth locations for self and parents match what I know.

How do I reconcile the number of hits versus the number of misses? And the wife's first name seems like a huge miss!

Why Errors May Occur on US Censuses

It wasn't until 1940 that census takers began recording who the informant for a household was. Browsing through 1940 census records, I noticed several instances of neighbors or landlords being the informant for a family unit.

Like death certificates, the information found on a census is only as reliable as the person who supplied it. But prior to 1940, there is no way to know who provided the information on US censuses.

But could a neighbor be so close on months and years of birth, but be completely wrong about the wife's first name? Is it possible that the census taker got the names from another source because no one was home, then went back for the rest of the information without double-checking the names?

Other Ways to Investigate

If I had been able to find George Nowell, born in Texas between 1874 and 1876 married to an Elizabeth on the 1910, 1920 or 1930 census, I would have simply dropped it there. But I couldn't find them. This isn't proof, but it does encourage one to keep looking for other information.

Also living in Comanche County in 1900 were my George Nowell's brother, John R Nowell and family, in the same enumeration district. In fact, in order of visitation, John Nowell was 191, and George Nowell was 195.

George and John's parents, Joseph B and Mattie Nowell, are also living in Comanche County, in a neighboring district, with their sister, Bettie Francis. This isn't firm proof, but it is highly suggestive. Oh, and did I mention, there are the only 3 Nowell households in Comanche County on the 1900 census (that I can find, anyway).

In 1910, I find George and Rebecca, in Comanche County, with children Della, John, George, Zula and Maggie. This time all of the names and ages match up. George's parents are still in Comanche County, as is his brother John's family. They are still the only Nowell's I can find in the county.

Again, this doesn't prove that "Elizabeth" was really Rebecca, but I can't discount the possibility that someone simply gave the census taker the wrong name, with some of the dates slightly skewed.

Other ways to confirm the location of your ancestors when census records are somewhat sketchy include tax rolls, land records, and death certificates of children who may have died young.


Have you encountered census data that matched everything but one or two glaring details? Were you able to reconcile the information you found, or are you still trying? Please share your own experiences with conflicting census data, either on your own blog, or in the comments below.

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