By Barry J. Ewell
Know the difference between primary and secondary information. Remember the census taker asked questions to a residence of the household and answers were provided based on the knowledge of the person being asked.
The census includes both primary and secondary information. Primary is the most reliable (i.e.,location and address). Secondary information is less reliable such as the memory of an individual which includes. Secondary information in the census includes information such as names, head of house, ages, marital status, education, military service, birth place, occupation and citizenship.
Does it mean that it is bad information? No. It simply means that it is based on the memory of one person and thus it is easy to see why information can vary from census to census. That is why I strongly encourage genealogists to search out other documents, censuses, sources to build a case for the family you are documenting. I have found most information provided on census records to be very reliable.
The areas where I see the most conflict/variation is in the ages and spelling of names. I have also found variations/inconsistency with information with answers to questions that are considered sensitive and individuals may not be comfortable giving answers. Some of the areas I have found include age, health and history (e.g., deaf, dumb, blind, idiotic, insane, conflict questions), family wealth and status, birthplace, color.
- Look carefully who’s living next door
- Search and extract information on persons with the same surname
- Keep a research log and cite your sources
- Misspelled names are ok