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Occupations Listed in Census Records are Sometimes Surprising
Published: 16 April 2010
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Census records are quite fascinating. Many times they will make your dear departed ancestor sound like the pillar of the community that you hope that they were. We know, of course, that we can't always believe everything we find in print even if it was on the census. These records sometimes give us wonderful clues of other places to look.

There are times when we find things that we would not have expected to find. We have to understand that our ancestors may have been very honest when they answered the questions or the enumerator may have made some judgment calls.

Occasionally we find something that causes us some concern. In the 1880 Chicago, Cook Co., Illinois census John Slaterly is listed as a "scalper". This doesn't mean the same thing as it might have in earlier census. I found an entry in the 1800 Decatur (third ward), Macon Co., Illinois census that provided a little more clarification. I found Wilbur Bullard who gave his occupation as a "R. R. Ticket Scalper".

(Census Year: 1880; Decatur, Macon, Illinois; Family History Film: 1254229; Page: 361. ED: 150; Image: 189.)

You may have heard that your great grandfather was a gambler. With the census you might even be able to find out his specialty. I found Dan McNeary in the Yolo, California census. He listed his occupation as "Poker Shark".

(Census Year: 1880; Winters, Yola Co., California; Family History Film: 1254086; Page: 340; ED: 160; Image: 257.)

You have to keep a sense of humor when you are doing census research. When I found Elizabeth McDonald in the Moultrie Co., Illinois census I discovered that she "Does Dirty Wash". It made me wonder if she earned more money than those who just did regular wash. (Census Year: 1880; Sullivan, Moultrie Co., Illinois; Family History Film: 1254239; Page: 443; ED: 172; Image: 142.)

We also find people involved in occupations that we might not expect to find them in. In the Orleans Co., Louisiana census we find two women, Emma Davis and Mollie Shephard, who are listed as "prize fighters". The entry just prior to them shows us a gentleman, Henry Kennedy, whose occupation was listed as a "rag picker".

It is so incredibly important that we always go to the films to check things out. If people only use the indexes or census extracts for information they can be horribly misled. This is certainly the case for poor Mr. Melvin D. Poor. He is clearly identified in an extracted index as having the occupation of "Killer". When we check the films we discover that he was a "Miller."

(Census Year: 1880; Antrim, Hillsborough Co., New Hampshire; Family History Film: 1254762; Page: 239; ED: 105; Image: 0481.)

Whether people were rich or poor, normal citizens or famous individuals we should be able to find them on the census.

We need to realize that finding an individual on a census only tells us what they were at that point in their lifetime. In order to really learn about them we need to find them on every census available and to also locate them in every other record that we can. A great example of this would be the record for Sojourner Truth found in Calhoun Co., Michigan.

(Census Year: 1880; Battle Creek, Calhoun Co., Michigan; Family History Film: 1254574; Page: 93; ED: 43; Image: 188.)

Granted, Sojourner Truth was a housewife in 1880 at the age of 104. However, she had been a former slave, abolitionist, preacher and advocate of women's rights. We need to make sure that we are always telling the complete story.

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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