Who does the census think you are?

WDYTYA and Ancestry’s commercials. Oh, boy…

Oh, puh-leeeeeze, Ancestry.com. I mean seriously. I love the show Who Do You Think You Are? and had a wonderful time Friday night with Martin Sheen’s fourth great grandfather the judge trying to chase down and prosecute his fourth great grandmother the young woman with the … um … unfortunate personal liaison.

But Ancestry’s commercials are about to send me around the bend.

First we get the leaf. No fuss, no muss, no effort — just click on the leaf and you reach genealogical paradise. Yeah, and if it were that easy, I wouldn’t be writing blog posts about how I can’t find my first cousin twice removed Myrtie Henson Law or about needing to track down a documented male Faure/Fore/Ford from Manakin Town for DNA testing.

Can the leaf already yet! Doing genealogy, and doing it right, isn’t that easy and never will be.

I really thought maybe we’d turned the page when the commercial came on with the guy who wanted to see if his family story that an ancestor had been born on the ship coming over from Europe was true. Now I love the idea of telling people to be wary of oral family traditions. Stories passed down are often just plain wrong.

But noooo… couldn’t leave it there… had to go pull up a census record (the Fourteenth Census of the United States, in 19201) and announce that it proved the ancestor actually was born in Poland.

Uh… not so fast.

We don’t know who it was who said that the ancestor was born in Poland. We don’t know what the person who answered the question knew about where the ancestor really was born. We don’t know if the person who answered the question even understood what was being asked. And we don’t know if the census taker understood the answer. We don’t know if there’s a death certificate or a birth certificate or a baptismal record or another census that contradicts this census and says he really was born on the ship. One single solitary census record can’t answer the question for once and for all.

Remember that records are created for specific reasons, and the degree of accuracy for any specific piece of information in any record depends in large measure on just how important it was — to the person providing the information and to the person writing it down — to get it right. In those cases where there are legal penalties attached to providing false information, it’s likely to be more accurate than if there weren’t any penalties. But before you think that alone is enough, remember tax returns. It’s a felony to try to cheat the government on taxes.2 And that hasn’t stopped Americans from making tax evasion our national sport starting about a nanosecond after the country was founded.

In the case of census records, only once — in 1880 — did the instructions given to the census enumerators even mention the issue of false answers. It noted that people were legally obligated to answer the census questions and that the enumerator wasn’t supposed to simply take the word of whoever it was he found at home that day. The instructions told the enumerator that he was

“not required to accept answers which he knows, or has reason to believe, are false. He has a right to a true statement on every matter respecting which he is bound to inquire; and he is not concluded by a false statement. Should any person persist in making statements which are obviously erroneous, the enumerator should enter upon the schedule the facts as nearly as he can ascertain them by his own observation or by inquiry of credible persons.”

And, he was told, if need be, his own personal knowledge or “information ascertained by inquiry from neighbors, … should be entered on the schedules equally as if obtained from the head of the family.” 3

There have only ever been a few prosecutions arising out of any census — usually for refusing to answer questions,4 though at least once for trying to weasel out of providing information about the value of a wife’s farm.5 There are no reported cases, ever, of a census taker being prosecuted for writing down the wrong information.

So take the word of the census taker at your peril. Me, every time I’m tempted, I remember the lovely little seven-year-old girl Birdie, born October 1892, entered as the next to the youngest child in the household of my great grandfather Martin Gilbert Cottrell in Iowa Park, Texas, in 1900.6

1900 census, Birdie Cottrell

And I also remember what that child’s information looked like on a death certificate 70 years later:7

1970 death certificate

Birdie. Right. Excuse me, please, Great Uncle Bert and I are off to go prosecute a census taker…

At least, that is, right after I take just a minute to celebrate… (If I haven’t mentioned it before, I am a dyed-in-the-wool lifelong fan of two sports teams, one of which did something quite extraordinary yesterday… in case you hadn’t noticed…)


  1. Jason G. Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000 (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Bureau of the Census), 134.
  2. Title 26, United States Code. Section 7206 provides that “Any person who… willfully makes and subscribes any return, statement, or other document, which … he does not believe to be true and correct as to every material matter; … shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $100,000, … or imprisoned not more than 3 years, or both.”
  3. Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000, 19.
  4. See, for example, United States v Rickenbacker, 309 F.2d 462 (2d. Cir. 1962), cert. denied 371 U.S. 962(1963).
  5. United States v. Sarle, 45 F. 191, 193 (C.C.D.R.I. 1891).
  6. 1900 U.S. census, Wichita County, Texas, Justice Precinct 6, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 127, p. 238(A) (stamped), dwelling 86, family 86, Birdie Cottrell; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 1679.
  7. Texas Department of Health, death certif. no. 49224, Gilbert Fleetwood Cottrell, 11 July 1970; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
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21 Responses to Who does the census think you are?

  1. Taco Goulooze says:

    First of all, love your blog. The way people take information from census records for the absolute truth is also one of my pet peeves. I’ve blogged about how census records can be wildly inaccurate, and I found this to be a wonderful example: The incredible ageing man. “This man died 120 years old. The death certificate said so!”

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words — and I LOVE your ageing man!! And then, of course, we have the never-aging ladies… like one of my however-many great grandmothers who was 35 in one census, and 35 in the next census, and 35 in the next census…

  2. Celia Lewis says:

    I agree with you, Judy – those oh-so-easy successes that leave me (and others) with more questions than the original searcher… As my not-so-sweet mother would have said about that conclusion: “Interesting……… but, not impressive!” And like you I’ve found women aging not at all, or only a year or two between censuses. Entertaining information, but not definitive proof of age! Cheers.

  3. Good post, but you are confusing marketing and genealogy.

    Two totally different things!

    Ancestry is simply marketing their product, not teaching research and genealogy.

  4. Wendy says:

    Yeah, I have some of those ancestors who had a sex-change operation between census records too! One didn’t like it and switched back.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Wendy, your comment had me laughing out loud. Funny how those operations were so easily reversible back then!

  5. Barbara Schenck says:

    So glad the Giants pulled it out. I didn’t have a dog in this fight (can you say, “Packers?”) But, given the alternatives, very happy the Giants came out on top.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I’d have been happy to root for the Packers had they been representing the NFC (but please don’t tell my Chicago Bears-fan nephew I said so!). But I was even happier to be able to root my own team on!

  6. Clare Turncliff Gunning says:

    Love your blog. No nonsense. I’m so glad to find other people have had an issue with sex change in the census. I’ve got an great great aunt who was a 2 year old Jerome on the 1870 census who became a 12 year Nannie on the 1880. The names aren’t even similar.

    Was a really good game. Glad the Giants won although I would have rather seen the Buffalo Bills in the bowl. The only NY team.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Clare! Jerome to Nannie?? That’s a bit of a jump! I have a Mathew to Martha change but nothing like that!

      And yeah, yeah, I know the Bills are the only New York team. Not an issue for me — I’m a Garden Stater. (But hey — I’d happily give the Jets back, if NY will take ‘em!).

  7. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who had a problem with that commercial. The first time I saw it, I jumped up and yelled (because I thought they might hear me, I guess) “THAT’s not proof!!” My daughter came out of her room and asked who I was yelling at. I replied, “Ugh … an Ancestry.com commercial.” Her response: “Again?” LOL

  8. Vicki Wright says:

    Judy, LOVE your blog. Sorry for shouting. But it’s a joy to read every time. Perfect blend of humor, big knowledge, teaching moment.
    I was moved to write this time because I, too, am around the twist with that darn leaf.
    I’ve just spent 48 hours straight (and 3 1/2 years sustained effort) trying to find Waskis/Vushko/Wuska ‘s, and Webers right where they should be, and aren’t.
    Every time I see that leaf commercial I’m afraid I’m going to have a coronary, or a break-down, or both. Please, Ancestry! Stop torturing us!

    Congratulations, Judy, on your superb blog. And thanks for sharing your knowledge and point of view with us!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Vicki, you are FAR too kind in your comments.

      But please… no coronaries.. no break-downs. They’re messy … and expensive!

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  10. Your Blog’s are great!! This problem is not with the census, but with a birth certificate. When my husband’s mother was born in 1913, instead of her name, her birth certificate said she was an unnamed male child. In those days, the hospital would give a gown when little girls were born and a cute little pair of pants when a boy was born. Because her birth certificate said she was an unnamed male child, her mother received the small pair of pants. We have them in a shadow box in my house. Anyway, when she died, my father in law really had a hard time getting her birth certificate changed. So, pay attention not only to census records, but to birth certificates and other documents to.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s hilarious, but apparently not uncommon. There was a news report yesterday of a former Marine in New York having to fight to get his birth certificate changed to reflect that, yep, he really honestly actually had been born male.

      • Betty Clay says:

        My birth certificate was correct in every way except for the wrong race. My mother learned of it when we needed my certificate so I could enter college. It caused quite a stir.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Good heavens, Betty! That’s a bit of a mistake to make. Maybe not quite as big as male versus female, but still!

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