Friday, January 6, 2012

The Darned Lazy Census Enumerators

Records say the darnedest things

We depend upon records to reveal the “truth” about our pasts.

Yet sometimes records have anomalies.
Some are amusing or humorous.
Some are interesting or weird.
Some are peculiar or suspicious.
Some are infuriating, even downright laughable.

Yes, Records are the Darnedest Things.”

Records Are the Darnedest Things: Lazy Census Enumerators

Reader TomVote wrote to point out a darned record. He “thought [we] might get a kick out of it.” In the 1870 US Census, search for Busti, Chautauqua, New York. Here’s what you’ll get:

1870 census: Swedes Can't Talk

And there’s a lot more where that came from.

By the way, don’t bother trying to find this example on If you get the same results I do, FamilySearch will block you at every avenue.

Don’t bother searching for Busti or Chautauqua. As nearly as I can tell, FamilySearch doesn’t know about these places in their 1870 census index. Strange, because they are present in the browse hierarchy.

Don’t bother searching for “Swedes Cant Talk.” Or “Swedes, Cant Talk.” Or “Cant Talk, Swedes.” Or any other combination of wildcards or permutations. Did they remove these entries? I hope not. I consider it arrogant whenever a genealogical publisher thinks they know more than all the genealogists in the world. (Remember removing census images without names?)

Thank you, TomVote, for pointing out this example of records saying the darnedest things.


  1. A couple of years ago I ran across an 1870 Federal census record on Ancestry for T W Flournoy, age 39, in Atlanta, Fulton, Georgia, that caused me to chuckle. Don't want to spoil it by coming right out and saying what caught my eye. It is a bit of challenge for those who don't know their history to get the joke.

  2. There are many wonders in US Census enumerations, such as the fellow who used the blank lines on the pages of a mortality schedule to detail geological formations in his County, and the 1860 enumerator in Iowa who carefully noted who had "gone to Pikes Peak."

    Prejudices and limitations of records-makers are not limited to the Census. Some German pastors in the 18th century had trouble with the names of English-speakers in their neighborhood (records of the Konnikum family would be hard for a Cunningham researcher to find), reversing the more frequently found difficulty that English-speaking records-keepers had with items from German-speaking persons. Some County Clerks simply omitted details of records prepared by German-speakers.

    In April, 1777 a heterogeneous group of POWs in British hands were interrogated regarding status of fortifications and troops in the areas they'd come from. A few gave elaborate accounts -- as related by the interrogators -- but when the questioners came to Nicholas Keltch and Michael Widrig, the entries give just names and ages, and "a German - knows nothing." The captives included others who lived in the same neighborhood as these two men, and Nicholas and Michael had been in the area for at least 10 years, rubbing shoulders with at least some English speakers. So the interrogation report allows speculation that they just refused to let on whether they knew any English, and their comrades declined to work as translators.

    Thus we can learn a little from even the reports of ignorant and/or lazy records keepers.

  3. Late to the discussion, but I'm still trying to figure out why Ancestry thinks my my deceased aunt was married to someone named "June." All I can guess is that she and my uncle were married in the month of June, and some transcriber was tired. Similarly, I just found a Family Data - Individual Records submission that claims Hannah Tolman and Deborah Butterworth were married in Massachusetts in 1661. Who knew the early colonists sanctioned same-sex marriage?

  4. well they did transcribe correctly according to what the enumerator wrote. I could see how it may have been difficult for them to write swedish.. they did at least put all the ages and Genders down..


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.