Assumptions On Census Records

In August of 2001 I completed a millennium project of mine when I transcribed the microfilm of the 1891 census for Queens County, New Brunswick, published it and posted it on the Queens County web site. The project was both a challenge and a rewarding experience, involving many hours bent over microfilm reading machines at the Canadian National Archives, and the additional work of putting the data on computer.

Now that the battle of getting the 1911 Canadian census released to the public has finally been won, many of our fellow researchers will be finding themselves involved in the process of doing what I did, or in the equally demanding job of attempting to read census images online. To those of you who are, or will be, involved in that exercise, I offer the following hints. More to the point, when you are using census transcriptions I suggest that you keep in the back of your mind, and guard against, the seven assumptions outlined below and interpret the data accordingly.

  • Assumption One. That all persons being enumerated told the truth to the enumerator. Many people, especially in the early era of census-taking, were suspicious of the basic government motives behind the census, and weren’t especially motivated to answer fully and correctly. Also, many felt that there was nothing wrong with making a guess at the answers if they didn’t know for sure.
  • Assumption Two. That the enumerators did not make mistakes and were able to interpret and spell correctly all the information that was given them. Keep in mind that a common practice among enumerators was to use a notebook to collect data in the field and then transfer the notes to census forms when they arrived home. Also take into consideration the fact that education systems, especially in rural areas, often did not reach the standards that we enjoy today. Occasionally the persons supplying the information were illiterate, and at times the enumerators had only marginally better qualifications, and often less, than the people supplying the data. Census takers had to listen to the oral presentation of the data, accents and all, and then try to put the words on paper as they heard them. You will therefore find many exciting examples of innovative and creative spelling. I make a practice of recording them as I find them.
  • Assumption Three. That all enumerators had perfectly clear handwriting, with each individual letter distinguishable and clearly presented. In most cases I have found the records of most counties are relatively easy to read, with a few exceptions. I provide question marks where I am unsure or confused. The film in some cases however, is a real ordeal to decipher. The material is is either very faded or the handwriting is difficult to interpret. I do the best I can in these cases, but have to make many guesses.
  • Assumption Four. That the paper that the information was written on was never subsequently torn or damaged, or had anything spilled on it, nor were any pages lost. Also, that the ink never faded, blotted or blotched.
  • Assumption Five. That the persons preparing and photographing the documents for microfilm always had the pages in perfect focus and with the proper light intensity. Remember that these are usually not the original documents we are working with, only photocopies of them.
  • Assumption Six. That the microfilm has not been damaged, scratched or otherwise mutilated over the years.
  • Assumption Seven. That you or I have made no mistakes in transcribing the data from the film.

So when you use the data, always keep the above assumptions in mind. The information contained in census records can provide a wonderful guide for your genealogical research. Don’t, however, treat the material as gospel. Check it with the data on previous and subsequent census records. Perhaps you will find that “Ausker” really was Oscar, and you will even be able to figure out what the trade of “McAnik” was. Also, once you find something that appears ambiguous or unclear, go back and have a good look at the microfilm yourself. Good luck, and happy genealogical hunting!

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