The census taker missed

How many times have we pored over a census sheet desperately seeking our ancestors only to reluctantly conclude that the census enumerator must have missed a house? Or how often have we tried variant spellings, first name searches, and wild cards with a search engine attempting to wring a census record out of cyberspace? Well, sometimes the census enumerator really did miss dwellings and occasionally a whole block of dwellings.

The procedures for conducting each decennial census were carefully laid out in advance and may be found online. These instructions include the admonition to obtain information about missing family members from family members who were at home and information about missing families from neighbors. Enumerators were encouraged to prompt for railway workers, soldiers, sailors, and persons out of the country. In 1930 the Census Bureau initiated a procedure for the supervisor to follow-up when an entire family was missing from their usual place of residence on the day of the census. The 1940 census saw the institution of sheets 61A and 61B for collecting data on families not at home at the time of the initial visit.

A query came in to the NEHGS library not too long ago asking about an apparent hole in the Brookline, Massachusetts 1940 census. An entire block on Willard Road appeared to be missing. Fortunately, the Brookline City Directory had a street listing with the names of the occupants of each house on Willard Road. This allowed a comparison of the census results for the street to the city directory listing.

After comparing the census to the directory, one fact was abundantly clear: the census enumerator had a tough time with Willard Road.

After comparing the census to the directory, one fact was abundantly clear: the census enumerator had a tough time with Willard Road. First, the houses on Willard Road were not enumerated consecutively, which suggests that many were not at home when the census taker first knocked on the door. Second, several households appeared on sheets 61A and 61B, which were to be used only when the enumerator finally got the information after multiple attempts.

All in all, the census taker had missed ten out of 29 households (35%) on a particular stretch of Willard Road. So the next time you think your ancestor’s house is missing from the census, take a look first at all the handwritten census pages for your ancestor’s street. Then seek a city directory. With any luck the city directory will have a listing of residences on a street in addition to the usual alphabetical surname listing. You may then compare the census to the directory and ascertain what is missing.

About Ann Lawthers

Ann G. Lawthers assists our library patrons in enhancing their research skills and in bringing alive their family histories. She is a graduate of Wellesley College, the Harvard School of Public Health and has completed the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research program. She has conducted genealogical projects as an independent researcher. Ann is familiar with resources for Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey; and has research experience with Quebec and the Canadian Atlantic Provinces, Ireland and Germany.

18 thoughts on “The census taker missed

  1. I had a different problem with the 1940 census in North Side Pittsburgh. Much of the street my great grandfather lived on was lost to a multiple exposure in the microfilm.

  2. A family can also be enumerated twice in the same census. My grandmother’s family moved from Omaha, Nebraska, to Longmont, Colorado, in early June of 1900. The family appears in both the Omaha census, dated June 1, and in the Longmont census, dated June 9.

  3. I have had one case (so far) where a man was listed in two households in an older census. An adult son was listed with his parents and siblings and also listed in his future brother-in-laws household in another city. In both cases, the enumeration was done considerably after the nominal census date. I suspect the man relocated between the two dates.

  4. When I’ve had trouble with this, I’ve occasionally found the missing relatives tacked on at the end of the enumeration district, out of address order. I’ve even found individual family members tacked on at the end, separated from the rest of their families, as if someone went back and checked for those extra kids.

    And in a big city with longer streets, I find the same street existing in more than one enumeration district. It can get complicated to follow these addresses.

  5. After my stint as a census enumerator in 2010, I realize how inept the government is at accomplishing this relatively simple task of counting people! If nothing has changed in the last few hundred years, I can see how many folks were missed.

    1. I was a census enumerator in Canada, in 2016. I was in a neighbourhood that is known for being especially tough. I had people who told me, time and time again, to get lost. However, they apparently do have a tough-nosed follow-up person who comes in after the regular census, and virtually threatens them (!). If that STILL doesn’t work, they have a sheriff show up with a census-taker – the person is told “either do your form NOW or you’re coming to jail with me”. (I met someone that had happened to – he had refused them repeatedly, until they were going to arrest him. He finally caved.) I wonder how they dealt with those situations 100 or even 200 years ago.

  6. We had ancestors listed twice in the 1920 census. Once in Vermont where they were visiting relatives and again at their long time home in New York where the census taker must have got the info from the neighbors (or knew them personally)

  7. Ann, are there any supplemental sheets such as you’ve described above (as 61A and 61B for 1940) for the older census records, for say, 1850? Is there an easy reference spot to find a listing of which supplental sheets are available for each census year? Many thanks for this post!

  8. I learned to look EVERY PAGE of a census when I was pretty sure that an ancestor should have been where I was looking.
    I finally found my gg grandfather and family after looking at every page of the 1855 Buffalo NY Census…which was a state census.
    I knew that they had bought land in Eaton Rapids, Michigan…but they didn’t show up there in the 1860 US Census.
    Anyway, I finally found Amos and Helen Marshall…under Emos & Helen Merchell…which was too different for a search to find them.
    I also look for other people who are either related or neighbors that I’ve seen in close proximity before.

  9. I had two uncles missed in the 1940’s. They were students at Iowa State College in Ames, and I suspect the census taker there expected students to be counted at home. They were not.

  10. I could not find my father’s family (he was 21 and living with his parents) in the 1940 census. But my mother made up for it by being counted not once, not twice, but three times, twice by two different census takers at her family home and once at her aunt and uncle’s house where she was actually living.

  11. The attention to detail required of the census by our Constitution was bound to result in all sorts of flubs and goofs! There’s the historical period; the “roughness” of a neighborhood, real or perceived; the tabulator’s exhaustion; the collators’ exhaustion; etc. But overall, our censuses are rich, highly dependable documents. Nevertheless, we always have to question our results, so thank you for this.

  12. My grandmother was 6 on the 1881 census in Nairn, Scotland. The enumerator reported the head (her great-aunt), her mother, and 2 lodgers as well as Lizzie. However, Lizzie’s brother James — born June 1880, so should have been there — was not listed. I assume it’s because the enumerator had come to the bottom line of the page, and didn’t bother to start the next page with an infant! because James certainly appeared on the next census, age 11. Lazy enumerator?

  13. When the 1940 Census came out, like many other seniors my husband and I wanted to see ourselves listed. I found myself easily, but a search on came up empty on my husband’s name, everyone else in his family and even his neighbors! Finally, a search on of the same census showed the family right where they should have been. Goes to show, makes mistakes too.

    1. It always pays to check the page numbers and end pages for an enumeration district, as well as different scans. A lot is missing in some versions. One especially aggravating problem for me is Ancestry’s city directory scans. The directories in my large metro area are broken up into 2 volumes. The second volume is invariably missing or indexed in a way that I can’t find it—or any names starting with M to Z—in a search.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.