How Near Were Those “Near Neighbors?”

Documents can provide researchers with direct statements and indirect statements. Direct statements state something clearly. Indirect statements are different. They require some inference and “reading into” the document to see information that’s not so obvious.

That’s how it is with certain documents that suggest two individuals were “neighbors.” Tax and census records are organized geographically and were, generally speaking, taken geographically. But sometimes there is a certain amount of meandering around by the census taker or the tax assessor–particularly in rural areas where the terrain and available roads (or lack thereof) may dictate a very non-linear path.

This was driven home to me when I first viewed the 1940 census for my paternal grandparents. I grew up slightly more than a mile from where my paternal grandparents had lived in 1940. My maternal grandmother’s family also lived in the same township. While I was decidedly not living in 1940, many of the families had not moved significantly between then and my arrival on the scene in the late 1960s–particularly those who owned a small farm. As I read the census entries in the order of the enumeration, one thing became clear to me:

the enumerator meandered around the township

People whose farms I knew were quite a distance from each other were on adjacent pages. My paternal grandparents lived in the northeastern corner of the township and families from the central and western portion of the township were enumerated on nearby pages. Landowners who owned adjacent (or very nearly adjacent properties) were several pages apart.

In any enumeration, there will be some eventual backtracking and people who are “near neighbors” will not be enumerated as “near paper neighbors.” It happens in urban areas where people are organized enough to live on perfectly parallel streets that intersect at only right angles. It happens in urban areas where streets are not always straight, not always parallel, and do not always intersect at right angles. It happens in rural areas where roads are not always straight and may meander for one reason or another. And it certainly happens where geography forces the enumeration to be done in a decidedly non-linear fashion.

Being enumerated in the same township (or enumeration district) in a census or listed in the same taxing district means for certain that those people lived (or paid taxes in) the same district. Adjacent names may be near neighbors or they may not.

It’s always worth remembering what a record tells us explicitly and what it suggests to us. There is a difference.



6 thoughts on “How Near Were Those “Near Neighbors?”

  1. This is so true! An example of this: My home was in “Beat 1.” The property across the road from my home was in “Beat 3.” Our neighbors across the road were NOT our “Paper Neighbors” as far as the census was concerned.
    Also, as I read census records of my home county, I know where many of the families lived and can tell when the enumerator meandered.

  2. I’ve always double checked the street name written vertically in the left margin and the house numbers listed to get/keep my bearings: especially when hunting for neighbors/relatives that may have lived across the street! The other fun thing to do is look on Google Earth mapping to see if the house is still there and, if so, how it looks. My family forebears all lived in cities – so some are now only parking lots…

  3. A thought occurred to me as I was reading this. Is it possible that in a rural area, the enumerator made an announcement for everyone to come into “town” and report to him. That could make the families not recorded in neighborhood order. In our area, the tax collector did this.

    • That’s a thought, but I’m not certain how often that would have actually happened. I can see people “going to town” to pay the taxes–in fact, I’ve seen advertisements for this in old newspapers. But for the census and the actual assessment, I’m not certain it would have happened.

    • One way that this could work is if the town had only one church, and the enumerator was the preacher.

      Another way would be if the town had only one saloon, and the enumerator was the barkeeper.

      My ancestors were neither religious nor barflies, so they would stay on the farm anyway. The enumerator would have to try to find them the hard way.

      • After I think about this a little more, I doubt the census was done in this fashion. The enumerator needed to see who was at every residence. If there was a “come here and do it” situation, I’m more inclined to think it was the paying of taxes.

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