Census records have all sorts of wonderful information but they’re also full of contradictions, mistakes, and misdirection. Everything is, or can be, a clue. Just when you think you have it all, looking with fresh eyes can open up new information.
Take the 1920 census. Not that long ago, right? It wasn’t available to researchers when I first started working and to be honest, I didn’t really look at it carefully because I thought I knew its secrets. But ha! there are surprises worth looking at.
This is the record for the household at 916 Lake Street in Newark, New Jersey. Head of household was 52-year-old William J. Flanders with wife Charlotte, age 40, and son William C., age 18. Also living with him was his mother-in-law, Alice McCormick, a 77-year-old widow. So far, so good.
On the far right side, we can see that William J. arrived in the United States in 1888 and had submitted his first papers for naturalization. His wife Charlotte is listed as an “Alien” with no immigration date. Hmmmm. What’s up with that? The rest of her census record shows that she was born in New York. How could someone born in New York be an alien in her own country?
Actually, she wasn’t; this is a mistake, but one that makes sense when you know that in 1907, eight years after Charlotte and William were married, Congress passed the Expatriation Act, which mandated that “any American woman who marries a foreigner shall take the nationality of her husband.” Charlotte’s husband was a foreigner, therefore Charlotte is an alien. Except not, because the law applied only to those who were married after the law was passed. American women who married foreigners before 1907 remained a citizen after her marriage. So the entry is wrong.
Mother-in-law Alice was also listed as alien, with an arrival date of 1853. That looks wrong because Alice’s husband Peter was naturalized in 1896, automatically making her a citizen. This is called derivative naturalization – her citizenship was derived from that of her husband. We have a clue about something else, though, with the date given for her immigration. Her record in the 1910 census, which includes questions about immigration and citizenship status, leaves those questions blank.
There are more mistakes in the record with Birthplace information:
William J. Flanders, on the top line, was born in England of parents born in England. This matches other known information from parish records, other census years and birth and death records. His son’s record is correct: born in New Jersey to parents born in England and New York.
The other two in the household have errors. Wife Charlotte, on the second line, was born in New York to parents born in Ireland, not Scotland and England. Oops. This is the only census that shows her father to be from Scotland; if it was the only one I looked at, I would be following false trails. Her father did have a connection to Scotland, though, as an indentured apprentice to a stonemason in Glasgow, but that information only appears on his indenture papers, which are privately held by family.
Alice McCormick, on the bottom line, shows as being born in England to English parents – which is both wrong and right. Alice was actually born in Dublin, Ireland, to an English father and Irish mother. But Ireland was part of Great Britain at the time and sometimes this was recorded in the census as England, especially since her father actually was born in England.
Census records are building blocks for genealogy research but they are not perfect. It’s important to use them as part of wider research and not in isolation, picking up clues for names, dates, relationships, and locations. Look at the same person/family in multiple years to see what’s consistent and what isn’t. And look at other people on the page or pages around your target to get a sense of the neighborhood.