Are You Reading the Originals?

The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 37: The Post Office shown on the census page where your ancestors are listed is for a town which appears on no known map ever published.

Reading Federal Census Records
It stands to reason that the spelling of names on a federal census record needs to be taken with caution. But the hand-written census records make the job even more difficult, not only because the old census takers may have been barely literate themselves, but worse yet, the census schedules were often badly copied and prone to spelling errors, omissions, or incorrect information.

Here’s a look at census copies, the main culprit in the missing or misspelled names of our ancestors found in census schedules.

1790-1820 Copies. The 1790 through 1820 federal censuses were taken with one original set of schedules prepared. Although there were numerous occasions in which the early name lists were prepared in alphabetical order, whatever working copy a census taker may have used to recompile his name list was not saved.

1830-1840 Copies. For the 1830 and 1840 censuses, the U.S. Marshals were asked to make a complete handwritten copy of their work, sending one set to Washington, the other to be retained at the office of the Clerk of the District Court of the various states. The governor of each territory was the keeper of the original censuses for a territory, and a copy was to be made by them to be sent to Washington.

1850-1870 Copies. The 1850, 1860, and 1870 census schedules had three (3) sets. The first set for all of the names from a county was taken to the local county courthouse for public display soon after the census was taken. The second copy was sent to the Secretary of State for the state or territory. A third copy was sent to Washington.

1880 Copies. The 1880 census had two sets of schedules, the “Short Form,” an abbreviated set retained at the county courthouse for public display, and the full original schedules sent to Washington. For more information about the location of 1880 originals, see my previous blog article, Repositories Holding 1880 Census Originals.

1890 Census. A fire in January 1921 at the Commerce Building in Washington, DC was responsible for the destruction of over 99% of the 1890 federal census, the only copy. (A portion of the special schedules taken in 1890 for Union veterans and widows survives). From the fragments of the burned census, only 6,160 names from the U.S. population of 62 million could be extracted and microfilmed. The 1890 census name list for Washington County, Georgia was copied into their county records. The only other known surviving name list was for Ascension Parish, Louisiana, where the working copy of the 1890 census for some 20,000 inhabitants survives.

1900 and Later. The 1900 and later censuses each had a single set of schedules prepared. During World War II the Census Bureau microfilmed the 1900 through 1940 censuses, after which the original schedules were destroyed. Only the population schedules were microfilmed, and any special schedules were completely lost.

Which set went to Washington?
From 1830 to 1880, the set of schedules that went to Washington may not have been the original set, but a copy of the original. Years later, the census schedules that were microfilmed were the ones held by the National Archives. There were few attempts by the National Archives to retrieve any copies of the census schedules that may have been kept at a state or county office. The only known case where the National Archives used non-federal copies was for a portion of the 1870 Minnesota state copy of the federal census, which was microfilmed by the National Archives to fill out missing counties in the federal set). Therefore, for the most part, the microfilmed census schedules genealogists use to find their ancestors are copies of the originals rather than the originals themselves.

What happened to the originals?
Since the original census schedules were usually retained in a county, the fact that so few of them still survive is not surprising. After the federal government received their set of the census schedules, and for a brief specified time, a county’s original census schedules were on public display. But after that, the counties were free to do with them as they wanted, including burning them. County document inventories published over the years, including those conducted in the late 1930s by the WPA for hundreds of counties, show that there are only a handful of original census schedules located today in county courthouses.

Some years ago I was doing some research in the probate office of the Washington County Courthouse in Blair, Nebraska. I was going through the old probate case files from the 1860s, which were all located in metal containers. Inside each container were packets of folded papers which had been wrapped and sealed with strips of parchment. (Were there no rubber bands in the 1860s?). Unwrapping the packets revealed that the strips of paper were from that county’s original 1860 census schedules. The large census sheets had been torn into pieces and were recycled as banding strips! It is clear what Washington County, Nebraska thought of their 1860 census schedules — they saw them as scrap paper.

There are also reports that local politicians had a fondness for borrowing census schedules from a county courthouse. As a list of voters in their district, the census schedules provided an ideal mailing list to use in their election campaigns. Probably due to an elected official never returning the borrowed census schedules, portions of old census schedules have been found in local law offices today – most politicians were (and still are) lawyers. But in general, the survival of the old census schedules has been very poor. After all, when the original 1860 census schedules appeared at the courthouse, why would anyone want to see the 1850 anymore?

Surviving County and State Copies of Censuses
There are only a few county copies of 1850-1870 federal censuses that have survived. The best place to find one is by doing a search in the Family History Library’s online catalog at It is interesting that when a Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) microfilming team visited a certain county courthouse, they may have found evidence of a county-wide census schedule. Often, the GSU microfilm team did not realize that they had the original county set, not the one microfilmed by the National Archives. But, a researcher can tell the difference between a county set and a federal set in the FHL catalog description – a county set was in original paper form and microfilmed by the GSU on site).

I have found evidence of about 35 different counties holding original 1880 “Short Forms,” mostly New York counties, and in every case, the FHL film title does not identify them as part of the 1880 federal census. It is clear that the GSU microfilming teams did not realize for sure what they were microfilming. However, they did usually assign a useful title, such as, “List of inhabitants, 1880.”

It is recommended that a researcher make a list of counties of interest, then systematically search the FHL catalog (in a place search) for each county’s census records. If there is a county original (schedules and/or index) available, there will be a catalog entry for each publication (microfilm, book, CD, etc.). An exception for county copies of federal censuses is for the state of Washington, where the new Digital Archives is currently digitizing original county records on site at all of Washington’s 39 counties. Many of the county records were never microfilmed or reproduced before, and in a few cases, county copies of federal census records were suddenly being discovered and made public online.

Only two states have complete sets of any state copies of the federal censuses taken in those states:
1) The State Historical Society of Wisconsin has the original state copies of their federal census schedules for 1850 and 1860. Both years have been microfilmed and indexed. For Wisconsin, it is possible to compare the state copy with the federal copy and see if they are the same. Users of the state copies will note that the page numbering does not always match up with pages found in the federal set. Thus, the index to the Historical Society’s copy at Madison relates to the state copy only.

2) The Minnesota Historical Society has their original state copies of the federal census schedules for 1850 Minnesota Territory and for 1860 and 1870 Minnesota. All have been microfilmed and there is a card index to the names from each census at the society’s library in St. Paul. A portion of the federal copy of the Minnesota 1870 census was destroyed, and the National Archives used several counties from the Minnesota state copy as a replacement when the 1870 census was microfilmed. This is the only time that the National Archives was known to use state copies to replace lost federal copies.

Copying Errors
There are many examples of copying errors between the county, state, and federal copies. The original census schedules were bound into large books and the task of copying the handwritten information from one book to another book was obvious tedious and prone to errors.

Harry Hollingsworth reported some differences between the state and federal census copies in his article, “Little Known Facts About the U.S. Census,” in the American Genealogist, Vol. 53 (1977), page 11:
“I have personally found many discrepancies between the Federal and State copies . . . Whole names have either been changed or omitted. Ages have been copied wrong. Whereas, in the originals, the surnames of each family are generally written over and over again, in the copies the word “ditto” or its abbreviation “do” appears instead. When written over and over, a surname has much less chance of being written incorrectly! In one Federal entry, I find Rebecca Gey but “Grey” in the original. In anther Federal entry, Amanda Vandyke appears, but she is Amanda A. Vanslyke in the original. Esther Hollinsworth of the original — the correct name — appears as Esther Hollenback in the Federal copy!”

Not too long ago, Patty Meitzler and I undertook a study of the 1860 federal census for Jefferson County, Washington, which had just been digitized online at the new Washington Digital Archives. Turns out, the digital copy was for a county original, not a federal original, and by going to, we could print copies for both versions of the schedules. In comparing the county copy with the federal copy, we found 23 mistakes on one page! There were 50 lines per page, and nearly half of them had a difference, such as different spellings, different ages, different places of birth, omitted first names, omitted middle initials, or omitted names all together. We decided that these differences had to be caused by copying errors. Now, looking at just the federal copy for any census makes us wonder how many mistakes we are reading. Unfortunately, there are few copies available to make these comparisons and get confirmation of the mistakes. So, what is important is to become aware of the potential for mistakes in the federal census records and to tread lightly on using those records as God’s truth for your genealogical evidence.

Finally, if you know that your ancestor was listed in a microfilmed/digitized census record and now you know that that record may not have been the original — does that explain why the name of your ancestor is missing, misspelled, or was given a first letter initial rather than the full name?

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 9: An 1850 census record showing all twelve children in a family proves only that your ancestors did not have access to birth control.

For Further Reading:

A Century of Population Growth: From the First Census of the U.S. to the Twelfth 1790-1900

Finding Answers in the U.S. Census

Census Substitutes & State Census Records – Vol. 1&2 – Eastern & Western States – An Annotated Bibliography Of Published Names Lists For All 50 U.S. States And States Censuses For 37 States

Genealogy At A Glance: U.S. Federal Census Records

New York State Censuses & Substitutes

2 thoughts on “Are You Reading the Originals?

  1. Bill,

    Thank you for the excellent article.

    I’ve always recognized that some errors appeared in census because of differences in transcriptions of “field copies” to more permanent copies, but never gave much thought to the frequency of the errors. I’ve also been more prone to attributing errors I have discovered in census to a tendency to spell words phonetically.

    You do not mention two “tricks” I have used to “resolve” census errors, one being to compare the 1850 and 1860 census of a specific family (who happened to live in the same location at the time of both census). The proper surname of the family I was seeking was Donaldson which is how I found them in the 1860 census, but I found them in the 1850 census as Dollison–the given names, ages and birthplace of each member of the Dollison household were identical in the 1850 census to a Donaldson family found in the 1860 census, except for the ages being 10 years younger and a daughter who married in 1854 being absent in 1860. Of course, this required I look at EVERY household in the 1850 census, regardless of surname, for the specific combination of names, ages and birthplaces that would match the family in 1860. It was also done without the advantage of an index, as none had been published at the time–1974!

    I am also a big advocate of tracing extended family–siblings of a grandparent or even great-grandparent, including the females. I was unable to find, using the soundex, my maternal grandfather in the 1920 census of Windber, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, even though his 1916 naturalization papers and my mother’s 1927 birth certificate both give the same address for the family residence. I decided to read the actual census, looking for the surname/any reasonable variation (though the actual surname is Gavalchik, I recall the inscription of the tombstone of my grandfather’s first wife to read Havalchik) and the address.

    I never found the surname, but I did find the address with an Andy Zofchak, his wife Mary, their children, Andy’s brother John and John’s children.

    I actually knew Mary Zofchak. She was my grandfather’s sister. I do not recall any conversations regarding my great uncle Andy having a brother named John, but my aunt Mary certainly did–MY GRANDFATHER! Furthermore, the names and ages of the children of John Zofchak were identical to the children of my grandfather by his first wife who died in the 1919 Influenza pandemic.

    Had I not known who Mary Zofchak is, I would still be looking for my grandfather in the 1920 census!

  2. I have in my library a few pages of the local (original) copy of various census’ and there are differences. In the Federal copy middle names and initials are often eliminated, the use of hash or ditto marks is rampant where the original copy they are mostly spelled out. Sometimes the first name will be changed to an initial. It comes down to the origianl copy will be more accurate and contain more information.

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