To Tell the Genealogical Truth

Some Lessons about Census Records

Contestant #1: My name is Julia McDavid. I was born in the nineteenth century and had a daughter named Helen. Can you find me in the 1880 or 1900 census?

Contestant #2: My name is Julia McDavid. I was born in the nineteenth century and had a daughter named Helen. Can you find me in the 1880 or 1900 census?

Contestant #3: My name is Julia McDavid. I was born in the nineteenth century and had a daughter named Helen. Can you find me in the 1880 or 1900 census?

Announcer: It’s time for “To Tell The Genealogical Truth!” Only one of these ladies is telling the genealogical truth and is the “real” Julia McDavid, born in the nineteenth century and who later had a daughter named Helen! Join us today as she and her partners try to stump our expert panel!

This is a lesson about census records. As you’ve guessed by now, our subject is one Julia McDavid. But the Julia McDavid we’re looking for was born in the nineteenth century and had a daughter named Helen. Can we find her on the 1880 or 1900 censuses? Well, let’s give it a try!

Let’s look first at all the available censuses to see if we can find a person who matches our parameters.

Lesson #1: Even if you think you know where to look, don’t ignore the other census records. There may be valuable information there.

Our global perusal tells us that on each available census, there are several Julia McDavids (not too many to look at each individually) and that they are described in a variety of racial terms, a variety of ages, and a variety of places of birth. More on all that later. But only one seems to be linked to a little girl named Helen.

In the 1910 census for Garland County, Arkansas, Hot Springs Ward 2, at page 285, at 330-332 Laurel Street, we find a Julia McDavid living in the Lee household. Her entry looks like this:

McDavid, Julia Roomer F Mu 37 M 16 [?] 3 AR AR AR English Laundress

Census Place: Hot Springs Ward 2, Garland County, Arkansas; Roll: T624_50; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 62; Image: 1090.

Decoding this, we can tell that Julia McDavid rents a room from the head of the household; is female; her race is described as “mulatto”; she’s 37 years old; she’s married and has been for 16 years; we can’t read the entry for “number of children born; she has three children presently living; she, her father, and her mother were born in Arkansas; she speaks English; and she’s a laundress.

As we work down several lines, we notice that there are a number of other adult roomers here; all but one female.

Lesson #2: Notice the demographics of the household. This may give good information about the nature of the household.

And at the end of the Lee household enumeration, there are three children all surnamed McDavid: Sterling, 14; Clayton, 11; and Helen, 8. So this appears to be the Julia McDavid we’re looking for.

So now let’s see if we can find this Julia McDavid on the 1900 census.

Again, there are several Julia McDavids on the 1900 census. But there’s only one in Arkansas. She’s in Little Rock, which is not far from Hot Springs. Is this the same Julia McDavid?

Lesson #3: Geographical proximity sometimes helps track a person through several censuses.

The Julia McDavid in Little Rock in 1900 is enumerated like this:

McDavid, Julia Boarder W F Jun 72 27 S AR SC MO Pros

Census Place: Little Rock Ward 7, Pulaski County, Arkansas; Roll: T623_74; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 89

Hmmm!? This Julia McDavid is white and single, and the part of the form for recording the number of children is blank. Our Hot Springs Julia was “mulatto,” married for 16 years, with three children. And this Little Rock woman is a prostitute!

Lesson #4: Dealing with racial discrepancies on the census: Racial categories on the census were not measured scientifically (because race is not a scientific concept!). Most often, the census taker made an eyeball assessment of race. A person may be described several different ways over the course of several censuses. You may have to use other clues to identity when the racial descriptions vary.

Lesson #5; Dealing with marital status discrepancies on the census: This is not a frequently encountered problem. It’s curious in this case, though. In 1910, Julia tells the census taker that she’s been married for 16 years. In 1900, when she’s working as a prostitute, she says she’s single. Obviously, she had an incentive to misrepresent her marital status under the circumstances.

Lesson #6: The nature of the living quarters: Note that our 1910 Hot Springs Julia lived in a boarding house of some sort. The fact that both she and our 1900 Julia lived in similar circumstances may suggest that they are the same person.

Then there is the curious description of birthplaces.

Lesson #7: Identity of birth places is some times some evidence of a person’s identity over several censuses.

In this case, our 1910 and our 1900 Julia’s birth are said to have been born in Arkansas. But there are differences in the parents’ birth places. This is not unusual, especially in the early twentieth century and in the nineteenth century. Many people did not know where their parents were born. Some times a relative gave this information and may have assumed that because a person previously lived a certain place (“came from”), that the person was born there.

Consider this: everything you know about when and where you were born is hearsay. So much so about when and where your parents were born.

So is the white, 27 year old single prostitute living in Little Rock the same person as the 37 year old “mulatto” married mother living in Hot Springs ten years later? We can’t say for sure.

Let’s go to the 1880 census. There we find no Julia McDavid in Arkansas. But we do find a Julia McDavid in South Carolina and a Julia McDavid in Missouri. Look at these entries:

Carroll County, Missouri

McDavid, Julia Ann W F 10 . . . MO MD KY

Census Place: Rea, Carroll County, Missouri, Roll: T9_679; Page: 533, Enumeration Dist.: 156

Anderson County, South Carolina

McDavid, Julia A. B F 11 . . . SC SC SC

Census Place: Honea Path, Anderson County, South Carolina; Roll: T9_1219; Page: 291.2000; Enumeration District: 31.

The main difference here is that these two Julias are somewhat older than our Arkansas Julias. So is the white, 27 year old Arkansas prostitute whose parents were from South Carolina and Missouri the same person as the 10 year old Missouri girl whose parents were from Maryland and Kentucky? O r is the 37 year old Arkansas mulatto wife and mother whose parents wre from Arkansas the same person as the11 year old black South Carolina girl who parents were from South Carolina? Or Is the 27 year old white Arkansas prostitute the same person as the 11 year old black girl from South Carolina? Is the 37 year old mulatto wife and mother the same person as the 10 year old white Missouri girl?

Now let’s add another piece to the puzzle. The 1920 census for Caddo Parish, Louisiana, shows this:

McDavid, Julia F B 42 widowed MO MO MO

Census Place: Shreveport Precinct 7, Caddo, Louisiana; Roll: T625_608; Page: 17B; Enumeration District: 54.

Remember “1910 Julia’s” children in Hot Springs? The 1920 census for Caddo Parish, Louisiana has just above Julia McDavid, this entry:

McDavid, Clayton M B 22 M[arried] AR AR AR

“1910 Clayton” was listed as 11 years old. Also on the 1920 Caddo parish census just above Clayton is this:

Cornelius, Helen F B 18 M AR AR AR

“1910 Helen” was 8 years old.

Coming Next: Will the Real Julia McDavid Please Stand Up?

Craig

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