Posted by Amy Johnson Crow on July 21, 2014 in Research

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.

Amy Johnson Crow

Amy Johnson Crow is 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 Amy Johnson Crow.


  1. Virginia Meadows

    My father was a census enumerator in rural Kentucky for the 1930 Census. He rode horseback and stayed with families along the route as there were no hotels or motels in that part of the country at that time. He had an 8th grade education. All the records that I have viewed that he did were legibile and easy to read. When I first started doing research on Ancestry the first Census record I saw was one my father did and I recognized his handwriting before I even looked at the top and saw his name. It was the thing that got me “hooked” on Ancestry. I have provided several corrections to census records when I know the information has been mistranscribed or initially recorded incorrectly. I was a career Fedeal employee responsible for sending instructions to field offices. Without a doubt you can send the same instructions to ten offices and there is always someone who doesn’t follow directions. So I am sure that happens with census enumerators too.

  2. JLangdon

    I lucked out because a census taker misinterpreted instructions and added more info than he needed to on the 1861 Canadian census. The question was “Married in the year” which most census takers took to mean married within the last year. The census taker in question instead asked everyone on his route for the year they were married and recorded them! Researchers looking at that district now having approximate years of marriage for all the couples who lived there. Given that it was one of the earliest Canadian censuses, it narrows down where to look in religious records predating Confederation!

  3. Cira Torruella Acevedo

    I’m glad that as researchers we can keep a sense of humor, going thru the records of the period one does need to, or go batty! I find myself going page by page by page by page into the thousands, decoding the fanciful script of the eighteenth and early nineteenth C. The census is bad enough but you have not lived till you have read through a marriage or death certificate that fills a whole ledger sized page hunting for the correct name of the bride and groom or the dead person within the fanciful script and syntax. I have been working through the recently available Civil Records of Puerto Rico and the transcriptions in the index are so full of errors that the search engine is worthless. For example, my surname is very common in the city of Ponce and one can find hundreds, but the searches find few if any! I have been editing the index as I go along, but I would have to spend all my time on that. I also wish I could go back in time and ask the Census takers and other record keepers to use good ink and write slowly and more simply.

  4. Larry

    You should try reading Danish censuses from the 1800’s. They have an “old European style” of writing that requires a decoder. And if grandparents are living with the family, the “husvater” and “husmutter” could be anyone!

  5. Amy Johnson Crow

    Dale – It’s too bad that so many enumerators ignored the instructions to write clearly and legibly!

    Virginia – That is so cool! How neat that you have the stories of what he experienced as an enumerator! And I agree with you — give any 10 people the same set of instructions and you’re likely to get at least 8 different interpretations of them.

    JLangdon — Sometimes not following the instructions is a good thing 🙂

    Cira and Larry — I’ve always said that old handwriting might be beautiful with all of the curliques, but it can be a bear to read!

    S Rankin — It was prompted by some discussions I’ve seen where people were guessing/wondering what the terms on the census meant. Fortunately, we can know what the terms were intended to be used and how the values of property were to be calculated. (Unfortunately, we can only hope that they followed the instructions.)

  6. When I can’t find someone on a census, and know they should be there, I have found people by putting the given name where surname belongs, and vice-versa.
    The first time I did that was by mistake, and found the family I was looking for.
    Also, if looking for Native Americans and can’t find them, try using “Indian” as the surname. I have found that in early Michigan census records, so it may have happened other states as well.
    Hope this helps someone.

Comments are closed.