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.
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 illustration of the utility of these records in spite of the head-scratching they might induce. I’ve summarized the similarities and differences in this chart so you don’t have to squint at the handwriting in the documents above.
The first thing that jumps out is that that neither got the family’s surname of Wicks correct, but that’s not all that unusual (consistent spelling being a 20th century development) and both are at least phonetic versions. And while the husband’s and wife’s names were the same in both, his age was off by one year and hers by four. All indications are that she was closer to 19.
There’s also conflicting information about their birth places. In this case, it’s most likely the second census taker who’s wrong as other records for this couple give Mississippi as their place of birth. The only birthplace noted for the husband’s parents is Virginia for his mother, and additional documents support this. Sadly, the remaining vagueness is a legacy of slavery. He probably didn’t know his father, much less where he was born. As to the wife, her mother’s place of birth is accurate in both. She knew her father and Virginia is what he stated in his own 1870 census.
Then we come to the children. Lee is correct, but Lee Page is more specific, and as it happens, the father had a brother named Page, so this rings true. Whether Lee Page was three or two is hard to say, but later records favor three.
The younger child is recorded as W. John and simply Babe in the other. As an adult, he would be known as John W., and you’d be right if you assumed that John was a son, not a daughter as the June 30th census taker claimed. The ages also differ slightly, and while the second seems on the surface to be more accurate since it includes the month of birth, I’d still favor the first since the other enumerator couldn’t even be bothered to learn the child’s name.
In this instance, it’s quite clear that we’re dealing with a census representative — #2 — who was somewhat lackadaisical about his responsibilities. But even so, the existence of two entries for the same family sheds some light. In the one logged on the 15th, their neighbors are mostly relatives, but that’s no longer true on the 30th, so it seems this pair of records captures the moment when this young couple first ventured out on their own away from the support system of friends and family. So even the slapdash nature of the latter census is useful to a genealogist.
But the true value of the double paper trail for the Wicks family is far greater than that. If this were your family, imagine how misled you’d be if the second census taker had been the only one.