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AfriGeneas States Research Forum

[Nationwide] Knowing What Enumerators Were Instructed

Knowing What Enumerators Were Instructed
Originally published in the RootsWeb Review 9 March 2005, Vol. 8, No.

Searching for American families is pretty easy these days --
especially if you subscribe to the U.S. census records at Just type in the names and narrow the search to a
particular census year and state, right?

Alas, it is not always that simple. And, even when you find them, how
can you be sure they are yours, when the ages and other information
do not quite match?

Did our ancestors really lie to the enumerators? Did the census
takers "pad" the records? Of course, there is no way to know for sure
in a particular instance, but knowing what the rules were and how the
answers were suppose to be recorded can make you a better family
historian. Such knowledge might enable you to sort out some anomalies
you encounter during your census searches.

The enumerator instructions for the 1850-2000 census years are online
and well worth the time to read them in order to understand the
questions asked and how the responses were to be recorded. American
censuses are available for searching for the years 1790-1930.

For example, in the instructions for the 1910 U.S. census under "ages
of children" the enumerator was instructed to take particular pains
to get the exact ages of children. The instructions were that in the
case of a child not two years old, the age should be given in
*completed months,* expressed as twelfths of a year. If a child was
not yet a month old, enter the age as 0/12, but note again that this
question should be answered with reference to April 15 [Census Day].
A child who is just a year old on the 17th of April 1910 should
nevertheless be returned as 11/12, because that is the age in
completed months on April 15.

So, if you, like many researchers, have assumed that the ages given
were those as of the day of the enumerator's visit, take a closer
look, noting what the official Census Day was for each census. You
might have made an assumption that is erroneous.

U.S. Censuses for 1790-1800-1810-1820 had a Census Day of the first
Monday in August, which ranged from August 2 to August 7. For the
years 1830-1900, Census Day was 1 June. In 1910 it was 15 April; in
1920 it was 1 January; and in 1930 it was 1 April.

The 1910 instructions pertaining to Column 8 were: Persons who were
single on April 15 should be so reported, even though they may have
married between that date and the day of your visit; and, similarly,
persons who become widowed or divorced after April 15 should be
returned as married if that was their condition on that date.

In Column 12 (place of birth of this person) if the person was born
in the United States, give the state or territory (not county, city,
or town) in which born. The words "United States" are not
sufficiently definite. A person born in what is now West Virginia,
North Dakota, South Dakota, or Oklahoma should be reported as so
born, although at the time of his birth the particular region may
have had a different name.

Enumerators also were cautioned not to rely upon the language spoken
to determine birthplace, noting that this is especially true of
German, for "more than one-third of the Austrians and nearly three-
fourths of the Swiss speak German. In the case of persons speaking
German, therefore, inquire carefully whether the birthplace was
Germany, Switzerland, Austria, or elsewhere."

Column 12--about "mother tongue"--can trip you up if you are not
aware of the instructions given to the enumerators. They were told
that the question "What is your mother tongue or native language?"
should be asked of all persons who were born in any foreign country,
and the answer should be written in column 12, after the name of the
country of birth. In order to save space, the abbreviations (which
were indicated on separate "List of foreign countries") should be
used for the country of birth, but the language given as the mother
tongue should be written out in full. For example, if a person
reports that he was born in Russia and that his mother tongue is
Lithuanian, write in column 12 Russ.--Lithuanian; or if a person
reports that he was born in Switzerland and that his mother tongue is
German, write Switz.--German. The name of the mother tongue must be
given even when it is the same as the language of the country in
which the person was born. Thus, if a person reports that he was born
in England and that his mother tongue is English, write Eng.--

published in RootsWeb Review: 24 January 2007, Vol. 10, No. 4.

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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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