It was the first day of census, and all through the land;
The pollster was ready ... a black book in hand.
He mounted his horse for a long dusty ride;
His book and some quills were tucked close by his side.
A long winding ride down a road barely there;
Toward the smell of fresh bread wafting, up through the air.
The woman was tired, with lines on her face;
And wisps of brown hair she tucked back into place.
She gave him some water ... as they sat at the table;
And she answered his questions ... the best she was able.
He asked of her children... Yes, she had quite a few;
The oldest was twenty, the youngest not two.
She held up a toddler with cheeks round and red;
His sister, she whispered, was napping in bed.
She noted each person who lived there with pride;
And she felt the faint stirrings of the wee one inside.
He noted the sex, the color, the age...
The marks from the quill soon filled up the page.
At the number of children, she nodded her head;
And saw her lips quiver for the three that were dead.
The places of birth she "never forgot";
Was it Kansas? or Utah? or Oregon ... or not?
They came from Scotland, of that she was clear;
But she wasn't quite sure just how long they'd been here.
They spoke of employment, of schooling and such;
They could read some, and write some .. though really not much.
When the questions were answered, his job there was done;
So he mounted his horse and he rode toward the sun.
We can almost imagine his voice loud and clear;
"May God bless you all for another ten years."
Now picture a time warp ... its' now you and me;
As we search for the people on our family tree.
We squint at the census and scroll down so slow;
As we search for that entry from long, long ago.
Could they only imagine on that long ago day;
That the entries they made would effect us this way?
If they knew, would they wonder at the yearning we feel;
And the searching that makes them so increasingly real.
We can hear if we listen, the words they impart;
Through their blood in our veins and their voice in our heart.
Not only is that a wonderful poem, it also gives us some good insight into how we should read census information back in those days when a Census Taker traveled throughout the county recording the data that we depend on today.
I’ll share a funny story.
Years ago when I first stated genealogy research, I had the benefit of a friend who had been researching for several years. One day we were having lunch and I was bringing him up-to-date on my discoveries. I said, “I find it amazing that when I look at certain census records all the R’s are living in the same place.” He asked me, “What do you mean?” I went on to explain that when I look at the census for some of the counties and years I’m researching I can see that all the surnames beginning with A’s are in one place, all the surnames with B’s are in one place and so on. I was a novice and he was a “pro” and he had a good time with me for a few minutes, then he explained.
All the A’s and all the B’s didn’t live in the same place! What I was reading was a transcript of the information that the Census Taker had collected. That information was then transcribed by him or a clerk, or in some cases several different clerks, into the document that we now see. This is why you often see a census page that has several different handwritings. Sometimes the transcription was done in a chronological order and we see the actually “route” the Census Taker took on that day. Sometimes the transcription was done once all the data had been collected and was organized in alphabetical order. Sometimes the Census Taker made mistakes. Sometimes the transcriber would make mistakes. Sometimes the Census Taker couldn’t find anyone at home for whatever reason and would skip that homestead to come back later. Sometimes those “revisits” would be recorded at the end of the document. Sometimes he didn’t go back and those homesteads were omitted from the record. Sometimes he recorded what he saw and young male children become young female children and visa versa. Sometimes the person giving the data didn’t know all the details correctly, and very often the person in the rural areas was an older child who was caring for their younger siblings while the parents were working the land. This is why you can’t always depend on the data from one census but need to compile data from censuses over several decades.
And we have to keep in mind that in the rural areas where the farms were 100’s of acres we really don’t know what path the Census Taker took. A county census could in essence come full circle depending on the populated areas. In later census we see how the data is organized in Precincts, Townships, etc. In the early census when such organization isn’t evident, most likely those areas were defined by clusters of families. So someone listed at the beginning of a certain entry could be the neighboring farm of the person at the end of that entry. And that entry could be reflective of the day or the week or the entire county. We just don’t know. What we need to look for in the rural areas are clusters of surnames. The city dwellers’ records are somewhat different in that respect.
The census was transcribed into three copies; one for the County, one for the State and one for the Federal Government. Mostly what we now see is the copy of the Federal Government because so many County and State copies were lost due to fires and War.
And like the poem says, the Census Taker used a quill pen and a bottle of ink to record the data onto forms that were subject to weather and other elements. The possibility of errors is indubitable.
Another interesting twist is that the ethnicity of the Census Taker played a large role in the spelling of names. For example a Census Taker of German descent who spoke German might record an English name that was Steven as Stephen. So not only do we have to take into account the old styled handwriting that would make a double “S” (SS) look like FS, that appeared to add E to the end of many names, but we need to also consider the spellings of names were subjected to native language of the Census Taker and the transcriber. Sometimes the Census Taker wasn’t very literate themselves and spelt names phonically.
As we know the WPA created most of the census indexes and soundexes by transcribing the data from original records. Those transcriptions are subject to that particular persons understanding of what they read. In the early day our family surname was spelled as RUD. I have found that very often the name RUD is indexed as REED because the upper loops of the U are read as EE. This seems to expire once the name is spelled as RUDD. But no doubt many of our early Rudds didn’t know how to write their names much less spell them so when the Census Taker heard the name RUDD, it was recorded it as RUD and then often transcribed as REED.
Can’t you just imagine how much accents played in the recording of our surname? How did our early English ancestors pronounce RUD?
Oh the possibilities!!