Given Name(s) Last Name

from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 6/26/2002

Census Wanted, Dead or Alive

Last week's article on Illinois death records contained an error which several readers gently pointed out to me. The error had nothing to do with death records though.

One of the death records discussed was for a Louise Meyers who died in mid-January of 1920. I made the comment that based upon her death date, Louise would not be listed in the 1920 census. This was incorrect. The 1920 census was taken starting on 1 January. The 1920 U.S. census was the first one taken at the beginning of the year. The dates of census enumeration were as follows:

1790 census taken starting on 2 August 1790
1800 census taken starting on 4 August 1800
1810 census taken starting on 6 August 1810
1820 census taken starting on 7 August 1820
1830-1900 census taken starting on 1 June of the census year.
1910 census was taken starting on 15 April 1910
1920 census was taken starting on 1 January 1920
1930 census was taken starting on 1 April 1930

Obviously every census enumeration was not done on the exact same day for every household. Enumeration was an ongoing process which was supposed to be done as expeditiously as possible. Information was also supposed to be provided as of the census date. This usually was the case, but there are always exceptions and genealogy somehow seems to center on exceptions. An enumerator could easily have made a mistake and there is always the chance that an ancestor misunderstood the question.

Is Louise There?
Based upon her date of death after the actual date of the 1920 census, Louise should be listed. The only real problem was the potential variants of her surname of Meyers. Any Soundex-based search (performed by either using the indexes or the actual 1920 Illinois Soundex microfilm) should find the reference if Louise was enumerated with a reasonably correct surname. While a Soundex search will not cure every census problem, it would have caught the main variants of Myers, Mayer, Meyer, Meyers, Mayers, etc. in one swoop. Right? Well not exactly.

Don't Get in a Soundex Hurry
The letters "r" and "s" have separate Soundex codes. Meyer, Myer, Mayer, etc. would be coded as M600. The other main surname variants ending with an "s" (Meyers, Myers, Mayers, Maiers, etc.) would have Soundex code M620. This difference needs to be kept in mind when performing any Soundex-based searches. And Soundex does not solve every census problem.

Was Louise Really Found?
Fortunately, locating Louise in the census was not difficult. She was easily located in the 1920 census index for Illinois at My original search focused on Hancock County, Illinois. This search was not as specific as her town of residence because I was not certain where she lived at the time of the census and was concerned that she might have actually been living in an outlying township near, but not within, the city of Warsaw. An unusual spelling variant, census taker error, or difficult-to-read handwriting might also have stymied my search. Had this happened, a manual search of the actual census records for Louise should have started in Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois, which is where Louise died. This search should have expanded in continually growing circles until she was located (or I got completely frustrated). Fortunately, Louise was located in Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois, where she was enumerated on 5-6 January 1920.

What Did It Say?
The census entry was not too surprising. I was hoping to find some of Louise's children living in a house nearby, but none of them appeared near her census entry. Louise's census entry indicated her father was born in New York State. Her death certificate indicated her father was born in Illinois.

Illinois Is Quite A Ways From New York
There's an obvious discrepancy in the places of birth listed for Louise's father. Both the 1920 census entry and Louise's death certificate are secondary sources for this information on her father. Louise was the likely informant on her 1920 census entry, although it is possible that a neighbor provided the information for her. Louise was not the informant on her death certificate. Her father, Peter Bieger, was actually born in Germany, although the exact location is not known. Peter died when Louise was approximately three years old which could easily explain the variant places listed for his place of birth. Louise probably had little memory of her father.
Final Result
I made an assumption I should not have made regarding Louise's entry in the 1920 census. Of course it is the first census taken at the beginning of the year and the slip is an easy one to make. The mistake was not intentional . . . although a few readers thought I had inserted the comment to see how many eagle eye researchers would catch it.

In the case of Louise, correcting the assumption lead to a source I had neglected to use. In this case, the additional record (the 1920 census) did not provide any "hot leads." However, in some cases correcting assumptions may lead to untold discoveries. I should not assume either that the dead were never counted.

Did They Ever Count the Dead?
In this case, Louise was alive as of the date of the census. If your ancestor died close to the date of the census he may have accidentally been left out when he should have been counted or enumerated when he should not have been listed. There are also some census years when there are censuses of the dead. These mortality censuses list individuals who died during the census year. Federal mortality censuses were taken in every census year between 1850 and 1880. Not all of these records have survived to the present date. A mortality census was to enumerate those who had died in the twelve months before the actual date of the census (the 1860 federal mortality census was to enumerate those who died between 1 June 1859 through 31 May 1860). Extant mortality census records are readily available on microfilm and many have been transcribed and published.

End Result?
Check your assumptions and remember . . . dead or alive, they still may be counted.


Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2002,

Used by the author on his website with permission.

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