Thursday, November 15, 2012

Anatomy of a Census Record (or Confessions of an Intermediate Genealogy Noob)

I've been doing some beta testing for a new software product that (for now) shall remain nameless (until I get permission to blab).  In any case, this certain software requires that I enter my sources (with citations) and then enter all of the individual fact claims for each person on each source.  Ultimately, this is going to help me with my proof arguments for ... well, everything.

I had barely gotten started when I had to stop and ask myself, "have I really thought about the individual claims made in every source I have?"  Nope.  Do those sources really make the claims I think they make, or do I see them because that's I want the source to tell me?  Hmm ... good question.  Let's take a look.

I'll start with a census record, since that's pretty much the first thing I look for when trying to flesh out a family.

This is the 1870 U.S. Census record for Saunders County, Nebraska.
You can see that it lists the Bourke household about halfway down the page.  My great great grandmother, Eliza Bourke, is highlighted.

The first thing to note is that (unlike the 1940 census) the person providing the information to the enumerator is not indicated.  Therefore, right off the bat, we can't say whether the information is reliable.  We'll put that aside for now.

It clearly shows that Eliza is 9 years old at the time of the census.  Nice!  A clue to her birth date.  But ... when was the census taken?  There is no date at the top of the page.  Fortunately, I referred to my source citation and went back to the source, kept going backwards page by page until I found a date.  Unfortunately, it was on the very first page.
So Eliza was 9 years old on the 6th or 7th of August, 1870.  This places her birth date between August 7-8, 1860 and August 5-6, 1861.  Here's the big question: Does the census record tell me that? Or is it merely inferred?  Technically it is inferred.  It's still evidence for "When was Eliza Bourke born?" (because you can't have evidence without first having a question), but in this case the evidence is indirect.

The next major fact is that Eliza was born in Illinois.  This is direct evidence for the question "Where was Eliza Bourke born?"  Pretty straightforward.  Not very precise, but it will do for now.

Now comes the hard part.  Does this record tell me that Louis Bourke and Mary Bourke are Eliza's parents?  It does not.  What it does tell me is that Eliza was living in the same household as Louis and Mary Bourke and supposedly shared the same last name as Louis and Mary Bourke.  It also tells me that both Eliza's father and mother are of foreign birth (as are Louis and Mary).  We could infer that Louis and Mary are Eliza's parents, but that would be risky, as there simply isn't enough evidence to make that connection.  We can't even say for sure that Louis and Mary are married.  They might be brother and sister or cousins or any other relation - or no relation at all.

The bottom line is that this 1870 census record is helpful for clues, but not much more.  The only "facts" I can really take away are that Eliza was born in Illinois, that she did not attend school within the year, and she can read and write - and that's without taking the reliability of the information into account.  The one thing I can count on from this record is that Eliza Bourke was in Township 14, Range 9 of Saunders County, Nebraska between August 6 and 7, 1870.

In the grand scheme of things, it's not much, and at first it seemed like my "reasonably exhaustive" search would quickly become an unreasonably exhausting search.  Fortunately, subsequent census records contain a little more information that I can (and will) use to help make these connections.

Between my NGS Home Study Course and the beta testing for this yet-unidentified software, I am looking at my research in a whole new way ... and that's turning out to be a very good thing!


Do we share any ancestors?
Please email me at lostancestors [at] gmail [dot] com

5 comments:

GeneJ said...

Was "age at last birthday" intended to be as of the date the enumerator visited, or as of 1 June 1870? The census instructions are pretty clear on this for children under the age of one, saying "Children, who, on the 1st of June 1870, were less than a year old, will have their age stated by the fractional part of the year, as ... 1/12 ... 3/12 ... 9/12 ... &c. Instructions are here: http://www.census.gov/history/pdf/1870instructions-2.pdf

Susan Clark said...

So glad you're a beta tester, Jenny! I am most interested in this. And in the NGS Home Study Course as well.

Jenny Lanctot said...

That's a good question, GeneJ. The instructions all appear to refer to everything "as of June 1, 1870." But doesn't really specify whether "age at last birthday" is as of June 1. It doesn't help narrow it down that her actual birthday (at least what I believe it to be) still falls within the parameters of 2 Jun 1860-31 May 1861. Guess this little tidbit will require an asterisk!

Jenny Lanctot said...

Susan, I can't wait to start talking about it. It looks really promising!

The NGS course, I will say, is totally worth it. I am getting ready to turn in my 4th lesson, which makes me 25% done. Baby steps. :)

Price Gen said...

Great research Jenny, I think the NGS Home Study Course is really awesome.

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