I’ve been doing a lot of genealogy research lately. As I do, I search many different years, states, and counties of the U.S. Census for ancestors on all sides of my family tree. Every census is different. Every year the questions change and more information is included. It seems different information is asked depending on the course of history and what the government may want to know about the population at any given time.
Each enumerator, or census-taker, is different and may fill in or leave blank different questions. The handwriting gets easier to understand the later the census was taken. It’s amazing what fancy handwriting even men had years ago. Then sometimes things are illegible because they wrote so small or so sloppy. Perhaps they did not realize how family history buffs like me would someday be trying to read their writing even if they were tired from a long day of traveling and writing.
Reading can be like searching for a needle in a haystack or digging for treasure. Often when I find family members, I will scour the pages before and after, sometimes the entire district to see if I can get one more clue to other possible family members living nearby. Since I was doing so much looking at the census, I began wondering who transcribes them. I thought it might be interesting to volunteer to help transcribe one. So I simply googled transcribe US census and found the US GenWeb Census Project, where you can choose any year and county you would like to transcribe.
I decided to start with one I was familiar with and chose 1860 McDowell County, North Carolina. I knew I had relatives there. The first page I transcribed looked like this:
All but two people on this page of forty were born in North Carolina. One was born in Tennessee, another in Virginia. Two people are listed as Black, one mulatto which stood for a mixture of anything, but usually white mixed with Native American or most commonly African-American. For occupations, I found a Clerk of Court, a stone mason, a merchant, a merchant farmer, a saddler, and a student. On the next two pages I transcribed there was a “gentlemen,” a hotel keeper, another Clerk of courts, a teacher, two physicians, and a law student.
Transcribing the census can be easy and it can be hard. Sometimes names come easily. At other times, you can stare and stare and not be able to make out the letters. Still others, you look at it and see two choices-which one is it is the question. I have read the hardest part is not making corrections to your relatives’ names. “We are transcribors,” I am told, “not editors.” I have not gotten that far yet, but we shall see when the time comes.
I like transcribing the census because it gives me a sense of the time my relatives lived, whatever year it might be, and of the community they lived in. I can picture the settings for places I have visited and imagine what it might have been like so long ago. It also gives you an excuse to go through the census page by page, name by name, to see if any other relatives are listed in the area as well. You never know what clues you may find. Who knows? When I finish this one, I may choose another year in another area to transcribe and help others gain access to the census.
If you are interested in transcribing a small portion of the US census, visit USGenWeb Census project to see what’s involved. It doesn’t matter if it takes you a month or ten years to complete and it is very interesting.