I have run into a number of errors in the census where my ancestors and relatives are involved. Most notably my 2nd great-grandmother was recorded twice as Augustus A.-male (once in 1860 and again in 1870; it could actually be read as Augusty in 1860, but is definitely Augustus in 1870) when it should have read Augusta A.-female. In 1870, her brother James was recorded as Jane-female. In 1920, my great-uncle James Francis was listed as Frances-daughter.

What could account for these errors? I have two theories: 1) the census taker would only record names and not the gender of household members and would go back later and add the gender 2) the census taker would initially not record the data on the official census form, but rather would take some other paper and then transcribe the information.

The reason I ask is that it seems that Augusta's father, James B. Horn, was also the victim of incorrect enumeration. According to a journal written in the 1930s by a descendant of Michael Horne of Edgefield County, SC and Russell County, AL, Michael had a son named James Horn. The person who kept the journal was not descended from James, but rather from his sister Martha, so there would be no reason to create false data. However, the 1850 census for Russell County, AL shows Michael Horn with a daughter named Jane who is the right age to be James. The census taker may also have incorrectly listed another son Elijah, as Eliza-female.

If there is an official reason for these errors or other theories for their cause, please let me know.

1 Answer 1


The Ancestry Wiki offers an Overview of the US Census. They cite William Thorndale and William Dollarhide, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790–1920 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987) for this section:

According to the 1850 census instructions, the enumerator, on completing the entry for each family, farm, or shop, was to read the information back to the person interrogated so that errors could be corrected immediately. But if an informant was unclear or incorrect in giving information in the first place, this procedure did little to correct errors. A significant portion of the American population could not read or write in the nineteenth century, so if an enumerator misspelled the family surname it could easily have stayed that way, whether or not the enumerator repeated it.

As the enumeration of each sub district was completed, the enumerator was to make two copies, which were to be carefully compared to the original for accuracy. Hand copying, of course, frequently produces mistakes. Experience with the various copies of the census shows that most copies were not error free. It was cumbersome and tedious to copy names and endless columns of personal information. Most enumerators probably never thought their copies would be read again once the statistical tabulations were completed, so it is easy to believe that many became careless as the job wore on.

As the process was completed, the enumerator was to sign each page of the census, and at the end of each set of copies, to certify that the census had been taken and copied according to instructions. One set was to be filed with the clerk of the county court, and the other two were to be forwarded to the supervisor. As the supervisor received the completed schedules, it was his or her duty to see that every part of the district had been visited and that the copies were in good order. One set was then sent to the state or territory, and the other was forwarded to the U.S. Census Office for statistical analysis. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to distinguish the original census taken by the enumerator—the one likely to be most accurate—from the copies. While it is usually not possible to know if the original census or a copy was sent, it is relatively easy to recognize the census that was sent to the Census Office. “Researchers can distinguish the latter set from the other two because the Census Office made tabulations directly on the schedules; consequently, the central office copy bears pencil, crayon, and red ink markings on virtually every page.”

In the next paragraph, they say that the process of making three copies was abandoned in 1880.

IPUMS USA (Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) at the University of Minnesota has the Enumerator Instructions:

Obviously in any situation where a person records information that is reported to them by someone else, especially when hand copying also takes place, mistakes can creep in. The only census I know of where we know we are looking at self-reported information, and at the original enumeration, is the 1911 Census of England and Wales, where researchers can see images of the forms filled out by the heads of households themselves. For all others, I think it's safe to assume that you are looking at a copy, unless you have a compelling reason to think otherwise. In this particular case, where we have census years in which three copies were made, one can check with local and state archives to see if other copies have survived besides the one sent to the Census Office.

Another thing we don't know is how soon the copies were made after the original schedules were filled out. Note that the instructions say that the enumerator was supposed to fill in the date each page was started -- some enumerators made marginal notes for each day if the page spanned more than one day, but that was not part of their original instructions, so you can't count on that. But we have no evidence for how much time passed before the pages were copied, nor do we know how the pages were copied. The preferred method of copying, especially in the era where ink pens had to be blotted, would be to copy each row, in the same manner that the original pages were filled out. But just as some indexers do today, some people might have chosen to copy a column at a time, which can introduce errors.

I wonder too if, contrary to the instructions, some enumerators might have asked someone else to copy the schedules for them (checking the signature of the enumerator against all the pages bearing his name might be one way to look for that), or if some pages might have been re-copied at the central office if the enumerator's page was damaged or hard to read. In that case, a copyist might see a name like "Willie" which is customarily given to a man, and write "male", second-guessing the original sheets.

In all these cases, rather than automatically assuming that the enumerator made a mistake during the initial enumeration, I prefer to treat these unexpected pieces of information as clues about how the record was made.

While I have seen unexpected information on the census schedules themselves, the majority of cases of unexpected gender I've seen have been in the indexing for the record, and not the record itself. I have seen many cases on Ancestry.com where the index says one thing and the record says something else entirely -- yes, even 'daughter' when the record says 'son' and vice-versa. In those cases it seems clear that the indexer must have second-guessed what was on the original record. Always look at the record image when you are given the opportunity to do so.

  • The errors I found were on the documents themselves and were not transcription errors. (I wish they were.) I found these errors on the digital images of the 1860 and 1870 US Census for Wilkinson County, Georgia. Feb 24, 2014 at 19:28
  • The errors I found were on the documents and were not created by errors in transcription for a database. I found these errors on the digital images of the 1860 and 1870 US Census for Wilkinson County, Georgia and the 1920 US Census for Wilcox County, Georgia. I know those are inaccurate based on the research I have done and from what has been passed down in my family. The only one that I cannot pin down as a correct or incorrect enumeration is that of "Jane Horne" in Russell County, Alabama in the US census of 1850. Thank you for the information it was very helpful. Feb 24, 2014 at 19:37
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    Have you checked the Georgia State Archives to see if state copies are available? As for 1920, remember that 1 January was the official census day; that may explain why the handwriting on the 1920 Census is some of the worst I've ever seen.
    – Jan Murphy
    Feb 24, 2014 at 20:58
  • That is a possibility. I am not really worried about the inaccurate 1920 census, as I am about one 1850 in Russell County as that has been the major roadblock in my research. However, checking on the 1860 and 1870 censuses would be interesting as well. Thanks. Mar 3, 2014 at 13:58
  • The other thing you might do is to look for data about that census county to see what known issues might exist, what the coverage might be like, and so on. It's not safe to assume that any census has complete coverage. Have you traced families with similar names as well as your target family?
    – Jan Murphy
    Mar 4, 2014 at 3:01

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