Lost in the census

Bethiah (Phinney) Hall (1795–1884), full-plate ferrotype, ca. 1860.

Recently, as I completed my Census 2020 information online, I wondered how many people like my elderly mother – who has never been online – would bother to complete their questionnaire if they did not have someone to do it for them. Without the personal contact of past censuses, how many people will be missed?

Right after the release of the last two censuses, 1930 and 1940, I asked friends and family recorded in their youth if they would like to see how they appeared. Sometimes what they saw was expected; other times it jogged a long dormant memory: “Oh, I had forgotten that Uncle Henry was living with us at that time.” Nonetheless, we all have our own examples of lost relatives in censuses. Were some of our ancestors truly not recorded? Did they slip through the cracks? Or is it that we just have not looked hard enough?

Lois Rhodes Morse, honeymoon trip, 1931, along shores of Lake Champlain.

Let’s consider the first example of my grandmother, Lois Rhodes, who would have been 21 at the time of the 1930 census. In May 1929, she graduated from Truesdale Hospital School of Nursing in Fall River, Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter she undertook a series of private duty cases rather than work in hospital wards. Where? remains the question. She was not counted with her parents and siblings in Wareham, Massachusetts. Did she follow my grandfather Emory Morse, a childhood sweetheart, to New York City? He once told me he left home “right after the Crash of ’29,” but in the 1930 census, accurate or not, he was counted with his parents and sister in Wareham. Forty years after their divorce, it was a bit awkward for me to ask my grandparents questions about their marriage. From separate interviews, I learned from her the date – “Mother’s Day weekend, 1931” – and from him the location: Rutherford, New Jersey. Obtaining a copy of their marriage license, however, did not tell me where Lois was in April 1930, when the census was taken.

I have reluctantly abandoned this quest, chalking it up to my grandmother’s youthful itineracy,  but that is not the case with the futile search for Lois’s great-great-grandmother, Bethiah (Phinney) Hall. Why haven’t I been able to locate her in the 1870 census?

By the time Bethiah, age 55, born in Maine, wife of Silas Hall, appeared in the New York City 1850 census, she had given birth to 12 children and lived in ten places. Two of her daughters (Mary and Lovicy) and two sons (Lewis Nathaniel and William Albion Hall) had already married. Her three youngest children – Arial, Susan, and George – lived with their parents in addition to newly-married daughter Adeline Downs and her husband Jeremiah. Ten years later, while husband Silas lived bigamously in Wilmington, Massachusetts, with another wife, Bethiah, recorded as “Battie” Hall, moved to Providence with sons Arial and George and granddaughter Adaline Downs, whose mother died after her birth in 1853. To my vexation, I have not located Bethiah again until the 1880 census, when she was recorded as age 89 [sic], birthplace New Jersey [sic], living in her daughter Susan (Hall) Thomas’s household on Block Island.[1]

To my vexation, I have not located Bethiah again until the 1880 census…

Working back from that, the logical place to look for Bethiah in 1870 was with one of her children. All these households were checked to no avail. Son Arial Hall died in 1869; his widow and children lived in Mattapoisett; son Lewis Nathaniel Hall lived on Block Island, daughters Lovicy Paine and Susan Thomas in Fairhaven; daughter Mary Dunning in Harpswell, Maine; son John Phinney Hall in London, England; son George Hall likely in San Francisco. Considering that Bethiah raised her granddaughter Adaline Downs, I thought if I found Adaline in 1870, I would find Bethiah. I did Adaline, age 17, servant, in New Bedford—but not Bethiah, even after looking at every household in New Bedford and Fairhaven.

Surely Bethiah, age 75, I reasoned, would not have lived on her own somewhere apart from her children. Twenty years ago, the 1870 census was not fully indexed nor linked to images. Heritage Quest began to release a series of census CD-ROM indexes for every state, which included (beyond the heads of household) the names of all men over 50 and women over 70. I bought each CD-ROM as it was released, searched all women by age, birthplace, and every variation of Bethiah and Hall. Truly, my persistence crossed the line into obsession. All that time and expense, all for naught. Why can’t I just let this one go? For all the same reasons that so many of us keep searching for those lost souls. Bethiah had three children whom I cannot document in 1870. If I find them, I still might find her. In the meantime, this full-plate ferrotype has pride of place over the piano, a reminder my quest is not finished.


[1] For more details, see Michael F. Dwyer, “The Return of Reverend Silas Hall”, The Maine Genealogist 31 [2009]: 147–65.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

37 thoughts on “Lost in the census

  1. Remote possibility but Bethiah, age 75 might have remarried. No doubt to someone older as a socially acceptable caretaker. If they weren’t married, what would the neighbors say?

      1. Thank you for your interesting research. Your insight is helpful and your writing style is a pleasure to read. Thank you.

  2. i was not recorded in the 1940 census even though I clearly remember the enumerator’s visit. I was 8 and living with my grandparents in Jersey City, NJ. That enumerator made many mistakes. He confused my family with the one downstairs, misspelled names, recorded ages that were wildly inaccurate, added an imaginary person to our household, changed professions, and omitted me entirely. The only way I found this census entry at all was by looking for a neighbor whose name I remembered. (Maybe he’d been plied with beer and stronger as he made his visits that day?)

  3. There are several people of extreme interest that I also cannot find in the 1870 census, who should be in Boston or Cambridge. And I also cannot find one of my grandmothers in the 1940 census.. My father and aunt were enumerated with her parents in Los Angeles, and my grandfather was listed in a Chicago hotel during a business trip…but Mimi has eluded all attempts to track her down!

  4. My grandfather and family is MIA in the 1940 census; however the same grandfather is enumerated twice in 1930! Once at his home and about a week later at a hotel in Bostin.

  5. I have the same trouble in the 1860 NYC census. I can’t find Ann Myer and her sisters with whom my great great grandfather lived as a child. They show up in NYC directories for each year at the same Lexington Avenue address they had in 1850. But the 1860 census has another family by the same last name — MYER — living in the house under a man’s name Henry Myer. Logic would say that they are related, but I have after 20 years of searching, not found any proof. He is only at that address in 1860, then disappears.

    In 1870 and 1880, Ann and her sisters are still residing on Lexington Avenue. I know I am looking at the same address in all of the censuses, because the next door neighbor unbelieveably stayed the same — Lucy Smith, who lived to be 90!

    1. I wrote the blog before the onslaught of COVID19. Can we imagine the chaos In NYC right now and how that is going to affect this census?

  6. My grandparents are listed in the 1940 census with a son who we knew nothing about. After much digging, we’ve determined that he was most likely the son of friends of theirs (his first name and age fit the friends’ son’s name & age) who may have been visiting (with his parents, or for babysitting) when the census-taker stopped by. We still joke about “Donald,” the mysterious family member.

  7. My mother is missing from the 1940 census. Since she is still living at age 98, I was able to guess the reason. She graduated high school in 1939 and immediately moved from the farm to a city. She worked as a housekeeper for a doctor’s family, Monday through Friday. On weekends she stayed with her cousins in the city. It seems when the enumerator came around neither family claimed her.

  8. My family will confound any future researchers. My parents, not yet married, are enumerated in 1940. In 1950 they were living in Ireland. In 1960 they were living in Venezuela. In 1970 they were living in France. They returned to the USA briefly between counts when their children were born, but we will appear as adults seemingly from nowhere in 1980.

    The early census records are fascinating. “Errors in transcription,” name changes for various innocent or nefarious reasons, people counted twice, people not counted at all. I am so grateful to the census enumerators with legible handwriting and good pens!

    1. Perhaps as travel documents continue to be digitized, that will leave an interesting documentation trail.

  9. Two of my uncles were missed in the 1940 census. They were college students living in Ames Iowa, but not recorded there. They were also not recorded with their parents and younger siblings. I suspect that was a fairly common occurrence.

    1. Statistics are very much in the news right now. If we believe that census records were 90 or 95 per cent inclusive of all people, then there are still thousands of people who will go uncounted. We are all bound to encounter examples.

    2. My aunt was also a student at Iowa State in Ames in 1940, I believe she graduated that year. I finally found her on the last page of a Omaha, Nebraska area census, indicating the family group to which she belonged (my grandparents household number).

  10. I was perplexed by the absence from the 1940 U.S. census of my great uncle, who was called by his middle name of Stuart. I was rather sure I knew what city he was in (he was a man of steady habits), and I had seen census records for plenty of other family living there, but not for him. The clue that helped me find him was the street address in his entry in a 1940 city directory. Once I managed to identify the enumeration district that included his address, I found that address in the electronic records, and sure enough he was there, listed as William Stuart. His surname had been omitted from the record!

    1. I am glad you found him through your resourcefulness. Sometimes searching by first name only within a narrow field helps.

  11. My biggest mystery missing from the Census is my 2d-great-grandfather, George H. Emery, of Shelburne, NH. He was born about 1854, supposedly the son of David & Elizabeth (Farrar) Emery of Ripley, Maine. The problem is that he does not appear in David & Elizabeth’s household in 1860 or 1870. He finally appears there in 1880, as their son,age 26, with his wife and infant daughter. I have searched the 1860 and 1870 censuses repeatedly, with the only potential hit a George Emery of Portland, with different parents, whom I cannot connect with David & Elizabeth..

    I have DNA links to at least 40 descendants of David & Elizabeth Emery, so he was either their son or a very close relative; but where he was in 1860 and 1870 still eludes me.

    1. Missing him in two censuses is frustrating. How you searched for him as Henry Emery, or by looking for all Emerys born ca. 1854?

  12. I also have missing and duplicate ancestors in the 1860. 1870 and 1880 censuses. Part of the problem is that enumerators could only do a small number of documentations a day. This is very noticeable in rural areas where they had to ride by horse or horse drawn vehicles from farm to farm. By the time they finished with a town people had moved in or out. I have a tendency to check the dates that the information was taken to have an idea of what might have happened. Even two towns may have quite different enumeration dates.

    1. Yes, that is true keeping in mind the dates, especially when some folks were enumerated twice, with slightly different spelling. One of my relatives told me his grandmother never answered the door when she was home alone. We think that is why she was not counted in the 1930 census.

  13. My father is listed in the 1940 census twice. Once with his parents on the family farm in northwestern Wisconsin; second as a farm hand in southwestern Minnesota. I can only guess that he was working for an old friend of his father’s as my great-grandfather had been living in that area off Minnesota in the 1900 census. Oddly enough, my mother was enumerated in that same Minnesota county in 1940, but he did not meet her until after the war in Minneapolis.

  14. My descendants will have the same problem looking for our son in the 2020 US Census seventy-two years from now. I was proactive and completed the census mid-March not including our son because he was going to be away at college. However, all that changed; he was with us at home on April 1st but not counted in the census.

    1. No one could have anticipated this problem and the extent to which students had to return home. Possibly when this crisis has passed, the U.S. Census Bureau may have to do some back-tracking.

  15. I could not find my 3rd great grandfather in the 1861 Canada census although I knew that he was living and had lived on the same farm from 1837 to 1894. I found his daughter and son-in-law who lived on the farm beside his so I knew that his entry should have survived. Years later by a rather convaluted way from someone unrelated to us I found a letter from him to his son-in-law from England where he was visiting. I then found him in the England 1861 census. That census asked for specific place of birth which I would not have found from the Canada census.

    1. It is wonderful that you found him! Some of my grandmother’s cousins, born in the U.S., showed up in Ireland’s 1901 Census when they were visiting family. That was a surprise to their descendants.

  16. Those who lived above the store were not always counted, if that was not common in the town. My friend’s family lived upstairs and there was no obvious separate door–just the back door to the business, and then another door inside to the stairs up.

    1. Sometimes, census-takers relied on neighbors and associates to give the information. That may explain why comparison of the same person among different censuses can have varying results.

  17. Having come across Bethiah (Phinney) Hall in my own research, your post surprised me!
    Block Island, first name, Bethiah, Hall, Maine, are part of my genealogy. I’ve related to your posts before. I haven’t figured out why, yet.
    My ancestor Oliver Winslow, my fifth great grandfather, married second, Bethiah Prior. His first wife was Agatha Bryant, fifth great grandmother of mine. Mayflower lineage Richard Warren. In past your mention of surname, Oldham, resonated with me, as Jane Oldham married Seth Hall, research proved, Mayflower lineage Henry Samson.
    It’s curious your Bethiah ‘s other wife was also named Bethiah. I’ll be interested to learn of your success.

  18. Another reason a record may be lost is that the page was skipped over when being microfilmed. I discovered one such instance when a family showed up in the soundex film, but that page was missing from the film of the actual schedule.

  19. This article strikes a cord with me. Using the US Census Records was very important to my family research so I was concerned when I never received a 1990 census form to fill out. Since 1959 I had lived in the same town and house in Connecticut so how could I be missed? Contacting the local Census “authorities” did not solve the problem. Result: I am not listed in the 1990 USCensus. The following 2000 census I was living in Florida. Bureaucracy is the reason for not appearing in the census.

    1. I know my family was not counted in 2010, very much to my frustration. I’ve included that fact in my family history files in hopes that, a) it may save a descendant time and energy searching for us, and b) that some descendant actually is interested in all this work and keeps it going all those years in the future when it is released!

      Also, a very knowledgeable head librarian at the State Library of Ohio Genealogy section once told me that the records taken in the 1870 census were often misspelled, using wrong ages and addresses, or omitted. Apparently, so soon after the Civil War, people were displaced or moving, and men to be census-takers were in such short supply that “they hired just about anybody,” without concern for literacy or numeracy skills.

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