Monday, February 20, 2012

Making Sense of the Census – sifting through misunderstanding, misinterpretation and errors

Census data is probably the single richest source of family information in the U.S.. Beginning in 1790, the United States began compiling a census every ten years.  This information is held confidential for 72 years following each census; and then it is made public.  The LDS (Latter Day Saints) library has microfilms of every page of every census except for 1890.  A fire destroyed most of the original 1890 census documents.  These records have been indexed; and digital images made available online at Also, the complete information can be found at the LDS Family Search website.

Additionally, a number of states conducted their own census every ten years in the years ending with the number 5 until the 20th century.  Many of these are also available online.

Finding accurate information seems like a simple task (it mostly is) until you take into account the human factor. 

  • Some people avoided the census takers.
  • Names may have been misspelled when the person answering the questions had a thick foreign accent or the census taker didn’t take the time to verify spelling.
  • Nicknames were sometimes used instead of proper names.
  • Immigrants may have changed the spelling of their last name, or even have changed it entirely.
  • Sloppy or hurried handwriting produced interpretation errors by those who compiled the index.
It is important to keep and open mind when searching records that were originally hand written.

Ignatz Ganas, Ignatius Gawnos, Nicholas Ganas, and Nick Ganas are all the same person.  According to different census years, he was born in Poland, Prussia, Germany or German Poland.

Patrick C Perry, PC Perry and Clube Perry are also the same person. It took me a long time to find Clube.  His full name was Patrick Clabron Perry and he was sometimes called “Clabe”.  My guess is that the census taker wrote Clabe but didn’t close the lower case a, so the indexer thought it was Clube.

Go to the LDS website at and enter the name of a member of your family who was living in 1930.  When you get the results page, that person’s name will be a link to the information contained in the record that was found.  All for FREE.  In fact, even though I was not alive in 1930, I’m in their datablase because the state of Minnesota has made many of its birth records index available covering the years 1935 – 2002. has all of the information plus the diitized images of the census record microfilms, but you need to purchase a subscription in order to be able to see them. 

There’s often value in having the census page images available.  You’ll see the immediate neighbors.  Looking at the pages before and after the one with your relative may help find other members of the family if they lived in the same neighborhood.

As I write this, the most current census available is 1930.

But on April 12, 2012, the 1940 census becomes public.  Hooray!

If you’re lucky enough to live near a branch of the National Archives, you have free access to all this census data plus a lot more. And you can make copies of the images.  Every branch has volunteers who can help you find what you’re looking for. 

If there’s a Mormon church near you, there’s probably also a Family Search Center.  They’ll have some microfilms on site but for a fee you can order a copy of virtually any film in their library for viewing at their facility.

If you’ve ever thought about starting a family tree project, go ahead and give it a try.

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