Fremont County, Iowa

Making Sense of the Census
by Danette Hein-Snider

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
October 6, 2008

In all my years of genealogical research I have never found a horse thief in my family. However, recently while reading the 1880 federal census for Fremont County I discovered a gentleman whose occupation was listed as horse thief.

Some of the other occupations listed were similar to the present-day trades such as farmer, teacher, doctor, and baker. Others provided a glimpse into the not-too-distant-past like blacksmith and wheelwright; also listed were tinker and prairie breaker.

There was a professional gambler living in Hamburg in 1900 and a man in Sidney made his living playing baseball. Perhaps one of the first dental assistants was a young lady in 1880s Hamburg.

Of course, then, as today, some people had more than one trade. The most common combinations were furniture dealer/undertaker and physician/doctor. One gentleman in Farragut had an interesting occupation of baker/barber and the postmaster at High Creek was also a farmer/blacksmith.

During the 1890s Bartlett had a capitalist, nurseryman, and dealer in general merchandise. In the same era in Tabor I.M. Lyman listed his occupation as a tensorial artist (he provided customers with barbering services) and W. D. Feast ran the city meat market.

One young couple listed their employment as 'honey moon,' while another was postmaster and assistant postmaster.

The census can provide many clues and valuable data for the researcher, however, you may encounter problems in the US Federal Census:

  • There was no Federal census taken before 1790.
  • The earlier the census, the fewer questions were asked-the first one asked 7 questions.
  • Parts of the census were lost or destroyed.
  • Census takers were poorly trained or didn't take their responsibility seriously.
  • Families were sometimes left off the census because they were away visiting relatives.
  • Some families lived in multi-family dwellings and were overlooked.
  • A few census takers didn't follow directions and failed to ask all of the questions.
  • If adults were not home, the census taker might ask young children or neighbors, or just make a guess at the answers.
  • Incorrect answers were given due to poor memory or lack of understanding the question.
  • Poor quality of paper and/or ink, as well as handwriting makes it difficult to read the data.
  • The quality of microfilm can be poor, making the copy too dark, too light, or unreadable.
  • If the person lived in a large city, you have to know which ward in order to find him.

Despite these problems, the Census provides a valuable resource for the genealogist. Who knows, you might even find an unusual, interesting person perched on your family tree.

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Page updated on June 20, 2017 by Karyn Techau