Imagine yourself as an immigrant to America in the early 20th century. You are happy with your decision to leave your homeland for a new life in America. Perhaps after a few years you saved enough money to send for your wife and children to join you. You have found a job, and you have found a house to live in. Perhaps you don’t yet understand the English language perfectly yet, but you are slowly learning. You may not get much practice with English though, because your neighbors and co-workers speak your native language. One day someone knocks on your door – they are from the government, and they ask all sorts of official questions. “Who lives here?” “What are the names of your family members?” The questions were dutifully answered.
Fast forward eighty or one hundred years. Descendents of those immigrants pour over online or microfilmed images in search of answers about their ancestors. Families are found! But…is the information correct? Most of the time, it is correct. But not always, at least not in my family. Ignoring the numerous name spelling errors, the most unusual census mistakes in my family involve relatives that were counted twice!
All My Children
The first example of this was in the 1910 census for the family of Joseph and Antonina Pater (which is listed as “Potter”, or how Pater sounds in Polish). In 1910, most of the family was living just outside of Philadelphia in the Bucks County borough of Attleboro (today known as Langhorne). Because Antonina’s mother had recently arrived and she was the oldest family member, she is listed as the head of the household (F. Annie Pluta indexed as F. Amie Theta…seriously, it’s a wonder I find anyone in the census!). The 70-year-old F. Annie is followed by Joseph and Antonina and their six children (although there is some confusion as some are listed as grandchildren of the head of the household and others as children). The only problem? The two eldest daughters, Frances and Eva (listed as Francesca and Edna), were already married with children and living elsewhere.
Frances’ husband Paul and their son Edmund may be enumerated as a separate family underneath the Pater clan (listed under equally mangled and hard-to-read names). Eva, her husband Edward Süsser, and their children Edward and Anna are all enumerated on the census in Dover, Morris County, New Jersey (as the “Züsser” family). In this case, only Eva is counted twice since I did not find another listing for Frances. I believe that the married children who were not actually living with their parents were listed simply due to a language mis-understanding when the census taker asked for the names of their children. By 1920, the Pater parents only list those children still living with them (Walter and Victoria).
By Any Other Name
A more curious case of double-counting happened in the 1930 census. My Piontkowski ancestors, John and Rose, had been living in the United States for 25 years, so I would have assumed they had a better understanding of both the English language and what the census-taker wanted after having participated in two other federal censuses. The couple leaves out their daughter, who by this time had married and left the family, but counts their teenaged son, James, as well as their married son Joseph, his wife Catherine, and their daughter, Josephine. The entire family lives on N. Front Street in Philadelphia.
I knew that Joseph Piontkowski later used the surname Perk, but I never thought to look for Joseph Perk on the census. Why should I? I had already found him living with his parents. Only he really wasn’t living with his parents in 1930! I recently got in touch with my cousin, Joseph’s daughter, who had been researching her family. When she wrote that she found the Perk family listed in the 1930 census, I did a double-take. Sure enough, they are living on Hancock Street in Philadelphia about a mile away from his parents. Listed are Joseph Perk, wife Katherine, daughter Josephine, and daughter Jean – who, based on the age of 0/12, had just been born! Anyone without knowledge of the name change would certainly think that these were two different families, but they are the same.
I wonder how inflated the census numbers are/were due to difficulties with immigrants understanding the questions? Oh well, Eva Süsser, Joseph, Katherine, and Josephine Perk may all have been counted twice in one census or another – but at least that makes up for my grandmother Margaret Bergmeister not having been counted at all in both the 1920 and 1930 census!