It’s Wrong…But Why?

Genealogists often lament errors in census records. I’m not certain census records contain any more errors than any other record where there’s not really a punishment for providing incorrect information. The errors are easier to notice and remember because virtually every American researching their ancestry in the US before 1940 has a census enumeration on at least one family member.

Most of us have seen or used significantly more. That frequency of use makes the probability we’ve seen an error fairly high. Genealogists tend to remember the errors more than the times they’ve seen things correct.

But there’s more to something being wrong that simply saying it is incorrect because we want it to be. If I think the 1930 census enumeration for my grandmother is “wrong,” I need to be specific, I need to have reliable information that goes against what is listed in the enumeration. Is it her age that is wrong? Is it her place of birth? Is it her occupation? How certain am I that that piece of information on her enumeration is incorrect?

“My gut tells me” is a reason to change my diet, not a reason a record contains an incorrect piece of information.

If it is her age that is off, how reliable is my information about her age or date of birth? The same goes for any other fact that I think is wrong. If the entry on Grandma is “really” off, how certain am I that the enumeration actually refers to her in the first place?

The years of birth for two of my grand-aunts is wrong on their tombstone. The date is not wrong because I say so. The date is wrong because in both cases because both women’s certificates of birth and census records between 1910 and 1940 all provide a consistent year of birth. In one case every record (including military records) continues to provide that same year of birth up through her death certificate. Then the tombstone has a different date. In the other case, after 1940 the age and year of birth move by two years and stay the same throughout her life.

But the tombstones are not wrong just because “I say so.” They are wrong because a variety of original records (some contemporary and some not) provide other consistent dates.

If something is wrong, it is wrong. But there needs to be reliable documentation and analysis to back up that statement that something is wrong.

“My gut says” as a reason is better left to a taste test of Grandma’s cookie recipe than it is for a discussion of her date of birth.


One thought on “It’s Wrong…But Why?

  1. You explained once how you can sometimes tell who in the household answered the census taker’s questions. Who the source is might be an additional way to assess the validity of a “new or alternate” fact. There are lesser bits of information on some census forms that aren’t quite as easy to link to a second official record. When my aunt was 22, and still living at home, her mother was the source and stated my aunt’s highest level of education, which was contrary to family “lore.” Had the source been one of my aunt’s younger siblings the “new fact” might be less trustworthy… and just a mistake, not something for further research.

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