Confessions of a Census Enumerator

Have you ever searched for family in any of the Federal Censuses and been tear-your-hair-out-frustrated?  People’s places of birth, ages, relationships, and naturalization dates fluctuate from one census to another.  You can’t find someone you know is in that city, no matter how you try.  The handwriting is atrocious and the spelling is worse!

In 2010 a friend told me that the US Census Bureau was hiring in our town, and I thought that this might be an opportunity to understand a little more about what went into enumerating the census.  Some of the things I learned even as modern-day census enumerator gave me a deeper appreciation of the struggles a census taker in earlier times may have.  Some lessons were eye-opening. Others were simply scary.

  • It’s the law. In the modern census, you are enumerated by mail.  If you do not fill in your form and return it in time, that is when your friendly neighborhood enumerator comes to call.  Most people just forgot and often had the paperwork somewhere nearby.  Quite a number of homes had to be qualified as unlived in.  Many people were extremely argumentative, and did not believe the census to be really legal.  Rarely do people realize that the law directing enumeration of the populous is a provision in the Constitution, Article 1, Section 2.
  • Try, and try again. As an enumerator, we were required to try a home a minimum of three times, even if we had been rebuffed the first time.  If there were no results, we were to ask the neighbors.
  • Listen to the kids. The law today directs that a resident of the home as young as age 14 could answer questions about the household if no other adult was available.  I would try and go back to the home when an adult was home, but I did have to ask a child more than once about the household.
  • Gender rules. It was interesting to see which enumerators in our group had the most success.  We met together for training and to turn in our results weekly.  The tall, strong-looking men were answered the least by residents.  The women came in with the most results.  Why?  Having a stranger at your door today is no more scary than at any other time.  People are wary of opening the door to strange men.  Strange women (especially very short women with bright smiling faces like mine) are not intimidating.  People wanted to talk to us, give us something to drink, and have us sit and rest.
  • Keep it local. The Census Bureau purposefully has enumerators work within their own neighborhoods.  First, we already know our way around.  Second, the idea is that we are comfortable where we lived.  I rarely enumerated more than four miles from my home.  Even so, I ran into many situations where people spoke languages I did not understand, and they could not understand me.  How likely was that to happen to an immigrant ancestor of yours?
  • I wasn’t scary, but… People who were naturalized citizens were the most anxious to talk to me.  They wanted me to know they were legal citizens and proud of it.  Others would not believe that we weren’t secret agents of the INS, FBI, or CIA.
  • There are some dangers. There were a lot more dogs in my neighborhood than I realized.  Big ones.  It was intimidating to enter a yard that was clearly protected by Kujo’s cousin.
  • Don’t assume anything. It was the rule that we had to ask the householder to pronounce their race, not assume it by observation.  My favorite answer to the question from a determined looking man was “human race.”
  • It’s huge. I had not realized how many people lived in my neighborhood, and was awed by the scale of the census project.
  • I saw some things I’d rather soon forget. Yes, people do answer the door in their underwear.  Enough said.

So, before you curse the name of the 1880 enumerator who came to your ancestor’s door, try to imagine it from the other side.  For more information on the history of census enumeration and its impact on genealogical research today, try “Chapter 13: Census Returns” in Val D. Greenwood’s book, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.  Another favorite is Kathleen Hinkley’s well-written Your Guide to the American Census.

Remember the old saying, “With information comes inspiration.”