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Archived Articles
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Census Enumerators' Remarks Can be Revealing
Column published: 22 March 2010
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

The response to my census articles has strengthen my opinion that many Canadians are interested in learning more about the U. S. census. Because many of us have ancestors on both sides of the border it does help to become familiar with the different aspects of these instruments.

As I indicated in my last article, in this article I will explore some of the ways that we can learn about our ancestor's lifestyles and living conditions.

I find that often times I learn as much from the comments made by the enumerators as I do from the actual record. We get an idea of the real living conditions from some of the comments that they included when completing the record. They probably had no idea that someone would be seeing them in a hundred years. If they had, they might not have been quite so candid.

Many of the enumerators were clergy, teachers or businessmen who volunteered as they had the required level of literacy to complete the forms. The schoolteachers who were unemployed during the summer or a farmer who wanted to supplement his income were, like us, just regular people. Some were conscientious and took their job seriously while others were just out to put as many names down as possible to collect their pay just as some people do today. Before the establishment of the census bureau the taking of the census was under the direction of local US Marshals. It was up to the Marshals to hire the census enumerators. Unfortunately, not every census enumerator was chosen for their ability to write and spell.

I thought readers might enjoy this paragraph written by census numerator Mary Ames Atkins at the end of the 1880 Salem, Massachusetts's census.

(Census Year: 1880; Salem, Essex, Massachusetts; Family
History Film: 1254532; Page: 882; ED: 240; Image: 785.)
    "A thorough, patient, faithful canvass, which I have prosecuted in spite of dogs, an ignorant post-master, pitiful penny-a-liners (livers?), 'bad whiskey,' a too sadly frequent assurance that my employer was 'a meddlesome fool', and long journeys, often with no one to enumerate for great distances."
The encounter with the Hrontile? Family in Montgomery, Virginia apparently really offended that enumerator's sensibilities.

Mr. Hrontile? was listed as a roaming basket maker. The entry that the enumerator wrote across the occupation session was very unusual.

"This family lives in the woods and you can hardly tell whether they are Humans or Brutes."

(Census Year: 1870; Christiansburg, Montgomery, Virginia; Roll: M593_1664; Page: 157; Image: 315.)

It is amazing what you can learn about your family from the census records. This is the record for my parents. They were married in 1928 so this is the first census that they appeared on as a couple. I was pleased to see the R on the form. This meant that they had a radio. My parent's names were Dale and Fern B. Gage. On the index my mother is clearly indexed as "Tom B.". There were 16 families listed on that census page and only 6 families had radios.

(Census Year: 1930; Cato, Montcalm Co., Michigan;
Roll: 1013; Page: 3B; ED: 7; Image: 699.)

Because there was a lot of interest regarding name patterns and trends I will do follow-up on that topic in the next article.

Until next time :)

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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