Where Did They Get That?

note–this originally ran in 2004–making the 1900 census reference a little dated. 

Confusion is often in the mind of the beholder. The ongoing release of the every name 1900 census index at Ancestry.com has caused me to revisit some relatives in this census. When I viewed one entry, I remembered how confused I was when I first saw it. Like many genealogical records, the enumeration contained an error. And like many errors, the incorrect statement was a clue. In this case it was a clue that I failed to notice.


In 1900, John M. Trautvetter is a 60ish widower, living with his four youngest children on a farm in rural Hancock County, Illinois. The bulk of the census entry is consistent with other records, including John’s age, place of birth, year of immigration, and citizenship status. What confused me was the place of birth listed for the children’s mother–Ohio. No other record ever listed that state.


John’s wife, Frances, was the mother of all his children (there was not a second wife, although different places of births for the mother can sometimes indicate this), and she died in 1888 well
before the 1900 enumeration. Every document indicated she was born in Illinois in 1851 with no hint to another possible state of birth. While I had no direct evidence of her birth date and place, Frances’ parents were known to have resided in Illinois as early as November 1850, and Frances’ guardianship records (created when she was five years old) clearly state she had been born in January 1851. There was no evidence that her parents lived anywhere except Illinois after November 1850. But still, in the 1900 census, entries for four of her children indicate she had an Ohio place of birth.


Frances’ three oldest children were out of the house by the 1900 enumeration, and their entries were also located. These children indicated their mother was born in Illinois. While this was not consistent with the Ohio birthplace listed by the other children, at least it was consistent with what I already knew about Frances.


So Where Did Ohio Come From?

I do not know who provided the information for the Trautvetter household in 1900. But now I do know that the informant was not entirely confused when they indicated that the mother of the children in the household was born in Ohio.


It was years after I first discovered that 1900 census entry that I learned that Frances’ parents were German immigrants who married in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1849. Their stay in Ohio was short, but it was where they were married and where the husband was naturalized. I wish I had considered the Ohio reference as a clue from the start instead of simply ignoring it as some off-the-wall mistake. Whoever told the enumerator the children’s mother was born in Ohio must have known that her family had some connection to that state.


In this case, the error was a lead as to the family’s origins. Some discrepancies in records are clues as to other locations where the family lived. Unfortunately, not all inconsistencies can be understood as easily as this one. However our point is that apparent errors should not immediately be tossed aside.


Many Errors in Records

There are many errors in genealogical records. If all records were completely consistent, genealogy research would not be nearly as difficult (or as interesting) as it is. And some of us become skeptical when all the records completely agree. And while an error is still an error, there are times when the error is a clue. The error can result from many scenarios, but it is worth remembering that we were not present when the information on the record was obtained. We do not know who answered the questions and what distractions might have been in the respondent’s mind. All we have is what is written on the document.


Did our ancestor think the clerk meant, “Where is your mother from?” instead of “Where was your mother born?” Where a person is “from” is not necessarily the same place as where they were born. In the case of Frances, the children still living in the household in 1900 were relatively young when she died in 1888. Their memories of their mother may be very dim, and their only knowledge of her and her origins may come from their father–who might not necessarily know where she was born either.


Other Types of Errors

– Hearing and Speech Problems

Your ancestor’s ability to speak the language of the country in which he or she lived can easily impact how the name is written in various records. Combine that with regional dialects, hearing problems, and inattentive clerks and the problem can be greatly compounded. This topic was discussed in this column some time ago in an article titled “Do You Ear What I Ear?


– Bald-faced lie.

Was your ancestor hiding from his or her past? Was he or she lying to get out of something? Was he or she lying to be able to do something? If your ancestor lied on a document, there is usually a reason. The difficulty lies in determining what that reason was. If your ancestor made up several lies, the problem can be even worse.


– They were not there.

Many documents that genealogist use reference events that took place long before the document was created and, perhaps, even before the informant was born. The amount of time that has elapsed, combined with the fact that a story may have passed through several individuals, can
cause facts to be reported incorrectly. And the mistake may be an honest one, particularly if the informant on a document is an in-law.


– A little detail they did not know.

My parents have lived in the same county their entire lives. And yet they were born in a different state because the nearest hospital was across the state line. I can remember that when I gave the clerk in the marriage records office the birthplaces of my parents, my soon-to-be wife looked at me when I indicted my parents were born in Iowa –and yet they were.


– Sometimes there’s no telling what they were thinking.

One relative of mine said her father was born in Canada, the United States, Iowa, or Kentucky. It all depends upon what census enumeration you believe. This is a case where I just wonder exactly went on when the census taker knocked on the door. (To read our fictionalized view of the census taker read “The Census Taker Cometh.”)


Consider the Errors

Some errors are errors. Some errors are clues. It is the job of the genealogist to determine the difference as best they can. Your ancestor might have been giving you the biggest clue when they gave the wrong answer.

Note: This article originally ran in the Ancestry Daily News on 20 Oct 2004.

Requests to repost or reprint can be sent to Michael at mjnrootdig@gmail.com


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