52 Ancestors #5 – Census Clues

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.

Flanders,-Wm-John-&-CharlotOn 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.

1 Alice McCormickAlice 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.


5 thoughts on “52 Ancestors #5 – Census Clues

  1. Vickie

    It took me a while to figure out why sometimes Poland was listed as birthplace for one great grandpa, and sometimes Germany. Border was moving. And he listed what country housed his hometown at that moment.

    Can you please explain where to look to see if ancestors became citizens? I have several where I know they became naturalized. But I do not think they ever became citizens.

    And in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, did it really matter? Were people ever asked for paperwork for jobs or school?

    In my area birth records were not required until very late 1800’s. And I do not think social security started until 1935. And income tax started in 1913 I think. So were people really documented ?

    One of my great grandmothers came in 1911, but did not process her naturalization until the 1950’s. We were wondering about that.

  2. Vickie – Naturalization is the process for citizenship. If you are naturalized, you become a citizen. It mattered to many immigrants because it meant that they could vote and it marked when they “became Americans” rather than just live in America. I don’t know if there were employment or education issues regarding citizenship; that might depend on geography rather than law. Vital records started at different times in different locations, some not until the early 1900’s. You didn’t have to be a citizen to have your birth, marriage, and death recorded officially, though I suppose it was quite possible that some immigrants didn’t.

    Naturalization records are available in many genealogy databases, including FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, and MyHeritage.com. They’re usually initially grouped with immigration records and then broken out as separate collections.

  3. Vickie

    Thank you.

    Okay, I went back thru my papers with that in mind.

    And for some I can see a naturalization application and a card.

    Is the card proof that they completed the process? Are citizens?

    And if there is no card, then possibly they didn’t complete the process? Or were denied?

    Do you have any idea what happened if they did not complete the process? Or were denied?

  4. Vickie

    And I am curious how you are now thinking about all your data.

    I think I remember that you have entered all your data in a database. I think I got the one you said you use.

    How have you tied copies of your sources into that database? Things like marriage license applications, ship passenger lists, etc. Have you scanned all that into your database? Hard copy? What are you doing about pictures? And then what are you doing with your current project with the pictures and stories?

    I was thinking about this tonight. I called my son, pondering this issue. He said – I hope you are not handing me boxes of 3ring binders. People today expect things to all be in a searchable (computer) format.

    And I said that I have very mixed feelings about that. I know a sources say they are trying to be paperless. But I wonder if that is going to bite them in the butt.

    I said to him, yes when I found my great grandma on a passenger list (Liverpool to Boston 1911) today, I printed those two pages. And when I scan them into my home computer, I am keeping the hard copies.

    My handwriting is terrible. So I definitely need a typed document system.

    And he is right, searchable is good. Being able to click on charted Family groupings is also good.

    I am feeling lost in my method.

  5. I like to call them “tricksy censuses,” and I swear they’re even tricksier when you’re dealing with immigrants–even British Isles immigrants, where there’s no language barrier!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s