The Census Can Contain Incorrect Information

Census records can be very useful for genealogists. It should not be the only source of information that genealogists rely on, because census records can contain incorrect information. There are many reasons why that happens.

Spelling Mistakes
Genealogists might assume that their ancestors spelled the family surname exactly as it is spelled today. That’s not always true, though. Enumerators who recorded the census may have unintentionally misspelled people’s surnames. When faced with an unfamiliar surname, they took their best guess as to how it was spelled.

An ancestor who was illiterate may have been unable to spell his surname for the enumerator. Those who were literate may have felt that it was improper to attempt to correct the enumerator’s mistake. In other words, genealogists should try a variety of spellings of the family surname when searching census data.

Copying Errors
A census for a given year may have had multiple copies of it while it was being compiled. The handwritten notes of enumerators may have been copied over into an alphabetical list of surnames. Counties might have their own copies of the census information, which would be copied by hand and sent to the state and federal government. There is plenty of opportunity for mistakes to be made.

The original copies of the census, and the enumerators notes, may have been lost or destroyed. Some counties and states may have microfilm of the original information – while others do not.

Missing Information
Birthdates weren’t widely celebrated in the United States until the 1880s. All of the states had birth records by 1919, but the use of the standardized version was not uniformly adopted until the 1930s. This means that some people may not have known what their exact birth date was.

Language barriers can also be the source of incorrect information on a census. Enumerators spoke English – but not everyone they questioned did. It is easy to see how a misunderstanding can lead to mistakes on a census.

Related Articles on

* The Controversial Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census

* What Can Census Records Say About Your Family?

* Read Between the Census Lines

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