Casefile Clues

10 November 2011

The Third Grader's 1850 Census



From the Ancestry Daily News 
  Michael John Neill – 8/2/2000

Can't believe it has been eleven years since I wrote this...still pretty applicable.


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It started out in desperation. It was years ago, when I was behind on a deadline; my daughter wanted to "work" with me in my office. Unfortunately, this was not an afternoon when I had time to "play." I quickly printed out a blank family group chart, dug out a copy of an 1850 census entry for one of my families, and handed her the pages. The lessons she learned that afternoon are relevant to all of us.

Filling Out Charts and Estimating Dates

After explaining the family group chart, I told my daughter she could use the census to fill out some of the spaces on the chart. The census would not provide all the information, but would give a fair amount.
I told her each group listed in the census was a father, a mother, and their children. While people living in a household are not necessarily related in this fashion, I didn't want to confuse the budding genealogist (and I had to get back to my writing). The other reason for the exercise had nothing to do with explaining family connections: determining the years of birth would have required subtraction involving "borrowing," and this concept had been a little difficult for her in school.

I did not lecture her about frequently incorrect census ages, but I did tell her I always put an "about" in front of the year of birth when it has been obtained by subtraction. The calculation of the years of birth for the parents and the five children (sans calculator) would hopefully occupy several minutes.

Or so I thought.

Using the Original and Interpreting Old Handwriting

I unintentionally gave her another lesson: use the original. If I had really planned out the exercise, I would have given her a typed up transcription. As it was, she needed a little help reading and interpreting the census taker's handwriting. I told her that occasionally we have to guess at what letters are and go with our "hunches" about the names the census taker meant.

She had difficulty reading some of the ages, so we worked together to "guess" at what they were as best we could. We discussed how children are usually listed in the order of their ages and that this may be a clue, but that sometimes we still end up guessing. I told her this was one more reason for putting "about" in front of the year of birth when we use an age in the census to calculate it.

The places of birth, while abbreviated, were legible. So I figured that once I told her how to spell Kentucky and Indiana she would be occupied for a while. But then she asked, "What state was the eleventh state?"
"The eleventh state?" The only birthplaces in the family were Kentucky and Indiana, neither of which qualified as the eleventh state. I took a look at the census and understood. She was looking at a ditto mark (") in the birthplace column.

I explained that ditto marks were used when the census taker was too lazy to write down something more than once. I also indicated that ditto marks are not appropriate when doing grade school homework and that her teacher would not take kindly to being told that it worked for the guy with bad handwriting in the 1850 census.

Using Reference Materials

By now the chart pretty much contained all the information listed in the census. My daughter's next question was where the marriage information was located on the 1850 census. The chart had the blanks for this information, she asked me, so why didn't the census (at least there was logic behind her question)? I explained that the census did not ask all the information we would like and that we had to work with the information it did provide.

I mentioned that it was important to know where the information came from, and we looked at the top of the census page in order to do this. This also made it clearer where the family was living at the time of the census. I asked if she knew where Rush County, Indiana was. I knew she did not. So I instructed her to pull one of my reference books from the shelf so we could locate Rush County on a map.

True to genealogical form, she looked in the back for an index. Then we discussed scanning an entire book to determine how it is organized in order to make better use of it (an excellent genealogical skill, by the way). It was apparent that this book required us to locate the state in the table of contents and then locate the county in the section for the specific state. [I did not make the poor child read the preface (another excellent idea, especially when using secondary or compiled sources).]

Lastly, we found the other locations mentioned on the map in order to determine the relative proximity of the locations. We might also have discussed the rivers the family may have crossed during a move or the trails they likely took to get from one place to another (there were no interstates as we know them in the 1850s).

Genealogy Exercises for Children

The article I was working on was eventually finished, but not before I begged for an extra day and was up until 1:30 in the morning getting it finished. However, I re-learned some lessons while working on the census and also spent some time sharing and learning with my child. Not a bad way to spend a day.

But using a census record is not the only way a child can get involved in genealogical exercises. Here are some other suggested activities:
1) Search for various family members on Internet sites. This needs to be done with adult supervision and is best done with online databases, such as the Illinois State Marriage Index, the Indiana State Marriage Index, or the Social Security Death Index. Wildly searching the Web for your names via a search engine may NOT result in age-appropriate material. Typing skills and the importance of accuracy can be discussed. The fact that many people may have the same name can also be mentioned.

2) Set up a separate database for the child to use. Some children may actually want to enter some of the information in a computer database. Let them start with themselves, and let the process be fun. You can still discuss documentation, but not as formally as you would for yourself. Let them know that they need to list some source for everything they enter and that not every book can be trusted in the same way, just like adults cannot all be trusted in the same way. They may even figure out some aspects of the software that even you don't understand (you knew there was an ulterior motive!).

3) Draw pictures of ancestors. Prop up an old photograph where it can be seen, and get out the paper and the crayons. This is a good way to involve a younger child who might not be able to perform the tasks of an older child. I have quite a few of these pictures floating around.

In all you do, encourage your children; don't bore them with stories. Family history can be a family project, but not all family members will be equally interested—that's human nature. However, you can make your stories interesting if you keep them short and age- appropriate. My own relative's involvement in a Virginia election "scandal" in the 1740s made for an excellent SHORT discussion about how there was a time when only men (and not all men) could vote, and about how those who could vote had to say publicly who they were voting for—there was no private booth. History is extremely interesting, especially when it is made relevant.

Involve the younger members of your family in your research—don't just tell them what you find out. After all, how long can you listen as someone tells research stories? Children are even less inclined to sit still and listen; active involvement is better. Besides, through involvement, you may cultivate a life-long interest in that child. But most important, if you spend some time involving your child in your research, you are strengthening a bond with a living family member.