Hinckley, Kathleen W. Your Guide to the Federal Census for Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians.

Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 2002. 275p., softcover. Index, illus, maps. $21.99. ISBN 1-55870-588-0.

Kathy Hinckley has built an enviable reputation not only for professionalism in the field of genealogy and for her writing and lecturing skills, but for her expertise in original sources, especially of the 20th century. The U.S. census was the first place most of us were directed to when we began researching our families, and most folks probably believe they have nothing more to learn about the subject. Not so!

In fact, it would repay any experienced genealogist, as well as the near novice, to spend some time with this first-rate guide, refreshing one’s knowledge and adding to it. The book is organized in straightforward fashion: Three sections provide an introduction to and general history of the federal census (what it is and why it exists), how and where to find census records and indexes to them, and how to actually make use of what you see. The first two sections will be most useful to beginners; I’ve assigned them as basic reading, in fact, in continuing education classes I’ve taught. (It may also be useful to experienced researchers to be reminded of the existence of all the other census schedules in addition to population.) The third section, though, “Using the Census,” is where we get into the thick of it. When you begin cranking that microfilm, do you have an actual, thought-out research strategy in mind? If you’re accessing online images of census pages at Ancestry, is it even in the back of your mind that you should plan, at some point, to read through the whole county anyway — or at least the rest of the township? (Yes, you definitely should.) If your research involves black or American Indian families, or Catholic nuns, or prisoners, or active members of the military, then there’s a good deal of specialized knowledge you need to acquire. Working out the route the census enumerator followed, up and down town streets or country roads, may tell you a lot about who someone’s actual neighbors were. Making note of the immigration information in 20th century schedules can give you a good start on locating the correct passenger list — or lists, when a family arrived in this country piecemeal. Then there are the many varieties of anomaly to be found in the population schedules. Happily, some enumerators added uncalled-for comments about occupations or relationships or city of birth — not common, but not that rare, either. (I’ve found several cases in different states where the enumerator specified the county of birth, distinguishing between his own county and the neighboring ones.) Hinckley notes that some enumerators seemed quite unable to understand or spell the names they were given and mis-recorded a majority of them. Others made a habit of piling all the omissions they discovered later in a catch-up section on the last page of the schedule, quite out of order. In more than one Southern county in 1850, slaves were included in the Free Schedule. And, of course, all of us have gaps in our research where a family appears to have been “skipped,” even though you’re sure they lived there before and after the census — or else a family was listed twice in the same county, and not always with identical information. The last chapters survey the many other types of non-federal censuses available, either conducted by a colonial or territorial authority, or by a state, or by the military. Hinckley scatters fascinating case studies through the book to illuminate the points she’s making, and there are many illustrative images. Finally, for each decennial census, she includes a map of existing states and territories and a list of the questions asked and the “official” abbreviations to be used (but often ignored). A good selected bibliography is also provided for additional reading.

Did you know that many enumerators in 1930 had difficulty getting families to admit they owned a radio? Apparently, there was a rumor abroad that the government intended to levy a federal tax on radio sets. . . .

Published in: on 2 June 2011 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

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