Dear Census Taker:
I would have addressed this as “Dear Enumerator,” but was concerned that you had not yet read the instructions that have been given to you and, thus, might be unfamiliar with that term. Those instructions are why I am writing to you today. Following these instructions will generate much joy for the descendants of those you record. Failure to follow these directions will, conversely, cause those descendants to curse your name, research you, discover where you are buried, and spit upon your grave. You do not want this to happen.
It is important to understand that words have meaning and that the columns as they are outlined are to be filled in using certain guidelines. You are filling in the 1860 census. You might have noticed column 14: “Whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict.” While in your day-to-day activities, you perhaps have referred to a neighbor as being “an idiot” due to a quirk in his behavior, please follow the instructions. Record someone as insane if he “once possessed mental faculties which have become impaired,” whereas idiocy should be recorded for “persons who have never possessed vigorous mental faculties, but from their birth had manifested aberration.” Similarly, do not record someone as deaf merely due to hardness of hearing from old age. Deafness should be recorded if the person was “born deaf or who lost the faculty of hearing before acquiring the use of speech.”
(Please be advised, we are going to change this in the 1870 census to refer to “idiotic” as “based on the common consent of the neighborhood.”)
Regarding the valuation of real estate and personal estate (columns 8 and 9). For real estate, use the value as given by the head of the family. For personal estate, consider all property that is not real estate that comprises a person’s personal wealth, including “bonds, mortgages, notes, slaves, live stock, plate, jewels, or furniture.”
If you have taken censuses in the past, please note that these instructions are, in many cases, different than what you have had before. Owing to the changing nature of census questions, they will likely change in the future.
Our gratitude in advance for reading and following the census instructions.
The Census Bureau
P.S.: If you obtain access to a time machine, go to the year 2014 and find something called a “computer.” From this device, go onto “the Internet.” There you will find full instructions given to enumerators from the United States Census Bureau and the Minnesota Population Center, University of Minnesota. This will greatly aid your understanding of terms used in the various censuses.
About Amy Johnson Crow
Amy Johnson Crow is a Community Manager for Ancestry.com. She's a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and No Story Too Small.