The Census is Wrong?

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1929 Shawnee Agency Census

As a researcher, I have learned that records are not perfect. I have also found that many people believe that they are always correct. Records are only as good as the people who provided the information.

The U.S. census was taken every 10 years beginning in 1790. The census only included white people and Indians who paid taxes. In 1885, the U.S. government decided that they wanted to keep a record of all of the Indians living on the reservations after the Dawes Act. So as a result, a census was taken yearly on all the reservations from 1885 to 1940. The Indian agents were supposed to compile a census of all the people living in their agency; however, some were more diligent than others. Some tribal agencies did not take a census every year while others just copied the previous year’s census and submitted it without doing the survey again.

As I was doing my own research I came across an entry of one of my ancestors in the 1929 Shawnee Agency Indian Census. I searched for my ancestor and found her listed as “Mary Ann Crumbo Hurd dead.” I had traced her up until that point so I believed that she had died within that year. I searched for her death record but could not find it. I had just assumed it was because of the lack of records common in Indian research but months later I found one reason why I could not find it. I was working on learning more about her family and  was researching her children when I came across a history written by her daughter, Phoebe, in the Sand Springs, Oklahoma Community History. In it she stated that in the same year she got married (1920), her mother, Mary Ann Hurd Crumbo died. The census was wrong! It had shown Mary Ann Crumbo Hurd living well past 1920.This is a perfect example of how censuses are imperfect. In this specific case, I believe that the Indian agents most likely kept adding years to the censuses without going to house to house every year to check the information.  The agent probably didn’t get around doing an actual survey of the reservation until 1929, and so that is the first year that Mary Ann’s death was recorded.

Censuses are a great resource for information but the information found on them is not always perfect. This taught me to use the information provided on the censuses as a starting point but to remember that they are not always completely correct.

Using the Census

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from the Library of Congress

The census can be one of the most rewarding genealogical resources.  Not only can the name of your ancestors be found but you can also see little glimpses into their lives.  Many people are unaware of how beneficial a census record can be.

 When many people locate their relatives they look at the first couple lines, name and age; they do not realize the wealth of information the other lines can hold.  Reading through the other lines can help give clues for further research. Did your ancestor own land? If he did you now know to look for land records for the area he lived, but if he did not claim land ownership you now know to save land records till the end of your research. Maybe you have never found a record for children born to a relative, but when you looked at the 1900 census the mother lists 11 children who died in infancy. Or you have not been able to find records for your relative’s parents, but by looking at where the informant lists their parents as being born in, you now have a starting place to begin your research.

These examples only skim the top of the many examples of help a census can give.  Some others are but not limited to:

  • Names head of household and household members
  • Land owned
  • Schooling
  • Occupation
  • Color/race
  • Years married
  • Number of children alive/dead
  • Year of birth
  • Marriage year
  • Birthplace (state or country)
  • Birth place of parents

A federal population census is not the only census resource; mortality schedules, state censuses, veteran schedules, Indian schedules, slave schedules, and agriculture schedules, were also taken. These other options contain information that are not found on a federal census; for example mortality schedules contain the names of the people who have died in the last 12 months, their age, month of death, occupation and cause of death.

Through censuses we can learn so much from our ancestors if we just choose to read all of the information they have given to us.

A How-To for House Histories

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My parents recently moved into a charming house that was built in the 1700s. The previous owners told my parents that the house was built by a town local to be a tavern.  That was all of the information they were given about the history of the house.

As genealogists, we spend most of our time researching records that individual people generated during their lifetime, like marriage records and censuses.  We often overlook the fact that objects create records as well.  Tracing the history of the house you live in can be just as exciting and rewarding as doing your own family history, and uses many of the same sources and research techniques.

There are several places to look to trace the history of your house.  Generally, it is a good idea to start with what you know and move backwards from there.   Just like in genealogy, living memory is an extremely useful resource that should be taken advantage of.  We started by looking at the house itself.  The wide plank floors and exposed beam ceilings certainly matched the idea that the house was built around 1800.  The previous owners also left a collection of half pint bottles that had been turned up when they were putting their shed in the back.  We talked to our neighbors, and found out that the owners of the house across the street believed that their house acted as servant’s quarters for the tavern.  When you have gathered all of the information you can from what is around you and your house, it is a good time to start looking for historic documents.

One of the best places to start looking for records is at your local administrative buildings. If your house is old enough, it is likely in the town history sources.  Because my parent’s house was one of the first in the area, the local library actually had a 19th century painting of the house hanging on their wall. We were also able to find our house in one of the town histories, and discovered that it was not only the tavern but also the town post office for about 30 years.

Town halls, courthouses, historical societies, and libraries often hold land and property records.  If you are lucky, you will be able to find a property abstract for your home, a document that should list all transactions (and all owners) of your property.  They are generally held at the county courthouse, and you may have even been given one when you purchased your home.

In my parent’s case, the property abstract was fragmented, and did not go back to the time the house was built.  In that case, more digging at local archives will likely be beneficial.  Because previous owners and neighbors indicated that the house was a tavern, I went looking for proof.  By digging in town records, I was  able to find the tavern license that the first owner of the house obtained from the town council to run a tavern and serve alcohol.  Building permits are usually at the county court house, or possibly the historical society.  In older town records, petitions to build new buildings are often included in the general land surveyor records, and these records will likely give you the dates of construction for the house.

If you are interested in house owners, censuses are a great way to learn about who else has lived in your house.  Censuses tie individuals to a specific location, so all you need to do is find your address on the census every ten years to track the people that came through your house.

Whether your house is 20 or 200 years old, there are a lot of places to look to find out what it has been doing since it was built.  Decorating your house with photographs, documents, and memorabilia from its past is a fun way of remembering what your house has been a part of.  If you enjoy family history, you will likely find property research just as enjoyable!

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