ANCESTRY TIPS

The Gift of the Double Census

Megan Smolenyak
The Shadow
Published in
4 min readFeb 10, 2021

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Census records are a building block in genealogy for the simple reason that they provide so much information about our ancestors, particularly those since 1880. Every ten years, we get a snapshot — if we’re lucky, Mom, Dad, the kids, maybe another stray relative or two, their ages and birth places, occupations, and other data genealogists crave.

Admittedly, they can be frustrating as the details contained are only as accurate as the combination of census taker and respondent allow. Was the enumerator meticulous? Did he or she go to every door, rely on neighbors, or maybe skip some residences? Were they careless with spelling and names unlike their own? And what about the person answering the questions? Did they knock a few years off their age? Guess incorrectly at the birth places of their spouse’s parents? Anyone who’s been poking into their forebears’ lives for a while can tell you a tale or two of census-based confusion.

That said, they’re critical to our sleuthing, and as you get to know your ancestors, even misleading information can be valuable as it can give a sense of them as living, breathing people. You know for a fact that great-grandpa was born in Poland, but he kept saying New York in later census records? Here was a fellow who was in a rush to leave the old country behind and become as American as possible as fast as possible. And that relative of yours who kept adding extra years to her age every ten years? It wasn’t all that long ago that living into your 80s or 90s was the exception, so being elderly gave you bragging rights. Why not pad your age to get a little attention?

So yes, we roots-seekers will take any census we can get regardless of the inherent flaws. And every once in a great while, if we’re genealogically blessed, we’ll get that rare gift: ancestors who show up twice in the same year. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Maybe they moved or were visiting relatives, or someone messed up and visited the same residence a second time. Whatever the cause, we welcome it.

Double Exposure

That’s what happened recently while I was researching Amanda Gorman’s roots. A pair of her third great-grandparents, Henry and Bettie Wicks, appeared in the 1880 census twice. Taken together, they offer an…

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Megan Smolenyak
The Shadow

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (www.MeganSmolenyak.com)