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Census Relationship Cryptography

By Daniel Hubbard | August 29, 2009

Starting in 1880, the US Federal Census enumerator recorded the relationships within each household relative to the head of the family. What a boon! The child that didn’t quite seem to fit into the family in the 1870 census is now clearly labeled “nephew” in 1880. Eureka!

From 1880 onward we can be a bit more sure of the relationships within families that earlier census records only implied. Yet, it can pay to examine the relationships given in the census and not take them at face value.

Recently I looked at a four person household where the people were recorded as Head, Wife, Father, Brother. Looks clear cut- a man, his wife, his father, and his brother. Looking at some other facts shows pretty quickly that this cannot possibly be the case. It turned into a game to find as many indications as possible that the relationships are suspect.

Here is a little genealogical puzzle. See if you can figure out how the enumerator was recording relationships when he visited this household. The answer is after the clues.

  1. Father was 32 when the Head was born but only 10 when Brother was born.
  2. Father’s and Brother’s fathers were born in Delaware and their mothers were born in Pennsylvania but Father and Brother were both born in Illinois.
  3. Head’s father was not born in Illinois.
  4. Wife’s father was born in Illinois.
  5. Father and Brother share a last name but it is not the name of Head.

In this case it turns out that each person was listed along with their relation to the previous person. Wife was Head’s wife but Father was Wife’s father and Brother was Father’s brother.

This census taker did not, thankfully, use this method every time. If he had, a more standard family of father, mother and children might have been recorded as Head, Wife, Son, Brother and Sister since the first of the siblings was indeed Wife’s son but the next would be Son’s brother and the next Brother’s sister.

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