Double Counted in the Census

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!

3 thoughts on “Double Counted in the Census

  1. It does not take one to be from another country speaking with an accent for this to happen. My paternal grandfather ancestors have been in the colonies, etc., for many years. I recently found him on two 1900 censuses. The census with his parents shows his ocfcupation as “school.” Then there is one for the boarding scool in Connecticut where he, along with two or three hundred others, are shown as boarders in the relationship column and student in the occuparation column.
    Were all boading schools counted a second time if the parents were not correctly informed? Am I, along with my two brothers, counted twice in the 1960 census, once in New York NY and once in Massachusesetts? It would be a fascinating study to see what the instructions were to the parents; were they told to only to enumerate only those living in the house on that day or not?

  2. Great point, Howland! I guess I only assumed it was a language issue because my ancestors were immigrants, but your case begs the question of what they were asked, or how they were asked.

    I’m sure if someone asked my elderly parents about their household today, and they didn’t ask the question clearly, they might give my name even though I no longer live with them.

  3. I have been amazed at how many times my ancestors were double-counted, both when they were in the same place and in cases where they were somewhere else a few weeks later (visited, moved, and other – surprising – reasons). Sometimes these different locations have given clues to an event in the family (son goes out and gets job, children living with grandparents after recent death of mother, man listed as living on the land which technically still belongs to him but is now being farmed by a sister-in-law, etc.). Your post reminds me that I should keep an eye out for double-counting of his immigrant ancestors.

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