Thursday, March 31, 2016

Understanding U.S. Census Records: Beyond Names, Ages, and Birthplaces

For U.S. genealogy research, census records are a key record. If you aren't from a location with centuries of vital records, census records might be the first record you used. Online research is making different records easily available to beginners. However, if you consider yourself a genealogist, even a beginner, and you're researching people living in the U.S., you should be using census records once you get back to 1940.
So, there's a good chance if you're reading this, you consider yourself pretty familiar with U.S. Federal Census records. So let's test your knowledge. Answer the following questions based only on census records.

  • Did your family own a radio?
  • Did they rent or own their home?
  • Did they live on a farm?
  • Did they have a mortgage?
  • Could they read or write?
  • Did they own land?
  • What race does "Ot" stand for?
  • Do you know what "Pa" means in the naturalization column?
  • What occupation is "Secy.?"

Did you know you could find this information in census records or do you know how to find out what the abbreviations mean? You can and much more. Each census year there are different questions asked and different abbreviations. The instructions that were given to census enumerators are available online and for free. This is far more detailed than the tiny headers found at the top of each column of the actual census form. In fact, you may find the instructions indicate a column has a slightly different purpose than you thought.
Enumerator Instructions 1850 to 1950 from IPUMS USA


So why would you want to use the enumerator instructions? First, you could learn more about your ancestors. There's a lot more to learn than just the information in the quiz above. Second, you can start to define your ancestor. What I mean by that is you will be able to tell your ancestor from someone of the same name and age. You may also be able to identify your ancestor when they are listed with the wrong name and age.

Data Matching

If you haven't realized it, much of genealogy is matching up data points about a person to identify them. You almost always use the data points of a first and last name. You can also use an estimated birth year (i.e. age in a certain year), state of birth, family members' names, and occupation. All of these appear in census records (but not in every census record). Some census records also contain information about immigration and naturalization, native language, race, living situation (house, farm, mortgaged or free, and more), marital status, number of children born to a woman, and if they owned a radio. For urban residents, you can match up information with city directories and trace them year to year.

More Records

That brings me to another reason to understand the instructions. Many city dwellers often don't own their land/home but what about rural residents, particularly farmers? Some census records explicitly ask if the residence is owned or rented but others have a column for the value of real estate owned. If they owned their home or any real estate, you should be looking for deed records. Similarly, if you have an immigrant that is naturalized or in the process of being naturalized, you should be looking for those records. However, you do need to be careful as a spouse may have gained citizenship through marriage. This may or may not be reflected in the enumerator instructions. There may be other leads indicated from a census record, read the instructions so you know what you are looking at.

Errors, Errors, Everywhere

Hopefully you are aware that census records are full of errors. This is another reason to use the instructions. You remove one variable by knowing what the enumerator was supposed to record. That does not mean the enumerator followed the instructions but if they did, you won't be guessing what each piece of information means. You'll also have a baseline to tell how likely it is that particular enumerator followed the instructions or how careful he or she was. You may also find what you thought was "wrong" is actually correct based on the instructions. Keep in mind, the purpose of the census is to record statistics for decision making, not to provide "facts" to genealogists. Occasionally it even turns out what appears to be conflicting information from two different census years actually agrees, based on the instructions.

I hope you're excited to add the census enumerator instructions to your genealogical toolbox. If you have only been gathering names, ages, and birthplaces from the census, you may find you learn much more about your ancestors when you milk the census for every piece of information it provides.

Enumerator Instructions 1850 to 1950 from IPUMS USA
Update: You can find an Evernote template and instructions on my other blog, for performing basic census correlation

Monday, March 28, 2016

More Information on C and XC Pensions

When I lived outside of Washington, D.C., a large part of my genealogical business was digitally copying Civil War pension files at the National Archives. This was usually very straightforward work, but occasionally it would be a bit more complicated. Pension files that remained active into the 20th century (and that includes files from other wars, I just wasn't asked to copy those very often) were given an additional number. This number appears on the index card as a "C" or "XC."

General Pension Info

To simplify the process for clients wanting a pension file, I created a web page with additional information and links. Although I no longer offer this service, I left the page up for those who used it as a reference. You can find it, here. This page includes links to the different online indexes and a little information about the differences.

C and XC Information

Additionally, there is a link to a 2010 NARA blog (NARAtions) post about C and XC pensions. This is a really useful article to help you understand C and XC pensions. However, it is from 2010, and there is at least one update to it.

A New Home for XC Pensions

The Fall 2015 NARA Researcher News has an article about veteran claim files (including "pensions") transferred from the V.A. to the National Archives St. Louis. Since the newsletter is a pdf, the link will just open the full newsletter. You can click on the title of the article in the table of contents, and you'll be taken straight there, though (it starts on page 7 so click the title next to "7").

C Pensions in Limbo

The article is pretty straight forward, but I do want to add a little personal experience. I have a "C" Civil War file that is not at NARA that I have been trying to get for years. I contacted the National Archives St. Louis after the article came out and they were able to confirm that it is still being held by the V.A. The article states files went from a "C" file to "XC" on the claimant's death. This Civil War veteran is clearly dead, but he still has a "C" file. The article also says "XC" files were transferred. You would think (logically) that all Civil War files would have been transferred by now, but it does appear it is literally "XC" files that were transferred. I wasn't sure if the article said "XC" instead of writing out "C and XC." This makes sense if you think from a filing point of view. The pensions are purely numerical. No effort has been made to separate "C" files from earlier wars so that will have to happen before they will be transferred.
If you need a "C" Civil War pension not held at NARA I, you still have to request it from the V.A. for now.

Links from this Post

Pension page from J.P. Dondero Genealogy
2010 X & XC Pension post from NARAtions
2015 Fall Researcher News with Article on Transferred XC Pensions