23 October 2008

The Problem With The Census

The picture above perfectly depicts my mood right now! I have a problem and am at a loss of where to go to try and reconcile this mess.

Let me introduce you to The John Wesley Ragan family:

John Wesley Ragan - b. 14 August 1839 and d. 10 April 1915 in Alabama
Mary Jane Sistler Ragan (wife) - b. 17 May 1841 and d. 23 October 1884 in Alabama
The death dates for John and Mary are 99% certain. The dates come from their headstone which is located in Centre, Cherokee County, Alabama at the Providence Baptist Church Cemetery. Their shared headstone is the tallest one in the cemetery, you can’t miss it. I have seen the photo with my very own eyes and these are absolutely the dates inscribed on the headstone.

Their children are:
Martha b. 1862 m. John Graham
Sarah b. 1866 m. Wiley Jackson
Leander b. 1873 m. Mary Frances Wood
Marcus Lafayette b. 1878 m. Frances Formby
Nettie b. 1879 m. John Parker
John Daniel b. 1883 m. Carrie Ann Woodall

Let’s start with the family in the 1880 census -

1880 US CENSUS, ALABAMA, CHEROKEE COUNTY, TOWNSHIP 11 RANGE 9, DISTRICT 27, page 394C (stamped), household #126
RAGAN, Wesley age 40
RAGAN, Mary J. , age 40
RAGAN, Martha, age 17
RAGAN, Sarah E., age 13
RAGAN, Leander, age 8
RAGAN, Marcus, age 6
RAGAN, Nettie, age 1
Everyone born in Alabama
The enumerator was P. J. Chisolm. On page 397A, household #183 Patrick J. Chisolm is found.

Are you with me so far? THEN…..

1900 US CENSUS, ALABAMA, CHEROKEE COUNTY, PRECINCT NO. 8, BALL PLAY, page 100 (stamped), sheet 5A (penned), household #73
RAGAN, Jno W., age 60, married 39 years
RAGAN, Mary J., age 59, married 39 years
RAGAN, Lafayette, age 26
RAGAN, Nettie, age 21
AKINS, Ruthie, age 19
RAGAN, Jas. D., age 19

Daughter Martha (from 1880 census) is on page 99, sheet 4B (penned), household #72, married to John Graham
Son Leander (from 1880 census) is on page 99 (stamped), sheet 4A (penned), household #61
Daughter Sarah E. is off in Texas married to Wiley Jackson
Again, everyone born in Alabama.

The family from 1880 and the family from 1900 are the same family wouldn’t you agree?
Do you see the problem I am having with this yet?

How can Mary Jane be enumerated in the 1900 census when she died in 1884?????

I have gone over and over this. I have blown up the page from the 1900 census and have it taped on the wall right next to my monitor so I see it all the time.

Some possible explanations and the reasons they don't work:

What if John had remarried - First, family says that he never remarried. I have checked what I believe to be all extant marriage records for Cherokee County, Alabama for the years 1884 to 1909 and have negative results. The 1910 census shows him as a 70 year old widower, living with his son Lafayette.

1910 US CENSUS, ALABAMA, CHEROKEE COUNTY, COLMA, PRECINCT 1, page 98, sheet 10B (penned), household #175
RAGAN, Fayet, age 35
RAGAN, Imo F., age 21
RAGAN, Edron M., age 3
RAGAN, Willis H., age 10/12
RAGAN, John W., age 70, widowed

The 1900 census clearly states that the marriage is the first for both John and Mary and that they have been married for 39 years. The family produced a marriage record for me verifying that they were married in January 1862. The census also says that Mary had 7 children, 6 of whom are still living. This also is correct. There was a child born between Sarah in 1866 and Leander in 1873 who died as an infant.

The family has no explanation for this other than "that census taker just made up the information"

HELLO??? There is no way that the enumerator "made up" that information. Every last bit of it is correct. Someone in that household gave him that information.

If we were only talking about a years difference from when she died to when the census was taken, I could probably let this whole thing go and move on with my life. HOWEVER....we are talking about 16 YEARS difference.

OK what if the date on the headstone was wrong? Maybe, but 16 years in error? Mary died before John so I am going on the assumption that the stone was put up when she died and John's name added to it later when he died in 1915. Maybe they meant to carve 1894 instead of 1884. But this still does not help my case. She is clearly living in 1900...or is she?

OK one last theory and this is really a stretch - maybe she really did die in 1884. Maybe when the census taker came around in 1900 the family gave the exact correct information to the enumerator, pretending she was alive. But why would they want to do this? If she really died in 1884 why would they lie and say she was living in 1900? What would they have to gain from this?

I have to shoot this theory out of the game also. The Ragan family lived in the same area for well over 50 years. Census enumerators were usually a local person. A local person would have known about the Ragan family who lived in the area for over 50 years. A local person would have known that Mary died in 1884. Maybe. The name of the enumerator who went to the Ragan house in 1900 was John F. Brown. He was a 19 years old student who attended school for 6 months. He was living with his uncle James Webb and his family in the town of Center in Cherokee County. Center is the county seat. The census was enumerated in June 1900 so it is very plausible that John F. Brown took the job as summer employment. Living in the county seat probably made it easier for him to get the job.

I must be missing something, but I'll be damned if I know what it is.


  1. Possible scenario--
    Census kid says, "When were you married, John?
    John, a 60 yr old man of few words, thinks, none o' yer beeswax, kid, but replies, "39 years ago."
    Census whippersnapper says, "And your wife's name?"
    Cantankerous John says, "Mary Jane," and thinks it's none of your beeswax that she's six feet under!

    Do you suppose our ancestors thought the census questions were none of the government's business? I know there's been some of that sentiment in my lifetime, especially when the "long form" came along.

    Alternatively, exactly how clear was the 1884 on the stone? Is it possible it was actually 1904? My question comes from having just read this article about reading weathered gravestones.

  2. Sheri,
    I've certainly seen plenty of errors on stones. Have you checked for an obituary in the local paper? Since you have a specific date that might be a way to verify her date of death. I'm assuming it was too early for a death record?

  3. Sheri, have you looked elsewhere (besides the gravestone) for evidence of Mary Jane's death? An obituary, perhaps or church records? It really isn't all that unusual for gravestones to be wrong. In my post Gravestones don't lie? When did Bela die? I discuss the marker for my ancestor which gives his year of death as 1845. However he was listed in the census for both 1850 and 1860! Other records also provided evidence that he did NOT die in 1845.

    Perhaps there are records from the funeral home or wherever the stone was purchased. Have you gotten John's obituary? Those sometimes have information on when the spouse died. I'd be inclined to think that maybe the marker wasn't put up until John's death... just a thought. Good luck.

  4. Sheri,

    Very interesting. I'd say either John accurately gave the information for his wife without that minor detail that she was long dead, OR she wasn't dead. I recommend finding another source of her death information other than the tombstone. Death certificate or obit? I'm intrigued...


  5. What was the cause of the husbands death? I tend to agree with t.k. I suppose the young census taker may not have been around the family enough?

    Many spouses just list the husbands name or in this case the wife just to show they were married and more or less use his name. You see this in phone books sometimes, And some widows or widowers feel they are married to eternity. They feel in their own way they are still married. And if the census taker neglects to ask if she died, well then it happens that way.

    In ideal situations a local manager over everything about census takers, who is familiar with the people takes the second look before it is all submitted. Perhaps the family kept a bit to themselves. Especially if there was some handicapp of some sort.

    Take no offense, please by what I say. Suppose the older guy is getting a little alzheimers and the family just go along with him.
    Where does their church keep records. Would funeral home or cemetery record keeper have anything that might help you.

    It does get frustrating. For me it's how they manage to avoid census. At least the Iowan state census is better now to view than it once was.
    good luck

  6. Sheri,

    I had the same thought as TK, except it was one of the at-home kids that answered the census questions:

    "What's your father's name? When was he born? Where? His parents? What is his occupation?"
    "What's your mother's name? When was she born? Where? Her parents?"

    Etc. We don't know who gave the information - that's why it is an original document with secondary information but direct evidence. The census taker was imperfect in recording information too.

    I like Kathryn's suggestion - find something that supports the 1884 death date. Have you done the "reasonably exhaustive search" that the GPS requires/demands?

    Cheers - the cruiser

  7. Couple other options:
    1. I've seen tax lists where they fill out the tax list with names from the previous tax list and THEN turn it in with adjusted information for the year they are working on. If somebody occupies the residence of the person who used to, they just assume it was the same person. Perhaps, the census taker did the same thing.
    2. Church records for a burial ~ have you checked these?

    Isn't it wonderful to be able to expose your dilemna to so many people to see so many different options?

    This is a great group!

  8. Great ideas everyone! These are sure comments to keep.
    What about if the stone was purchased when John died? The stone carver asks when Mary died and the family representative says "Ought-four" (meaning 1904 - you know how they talked a little different back then). The stone carver hears "Eighty-four", and carves 1884. Who has money to change it at that point? Or, the family isn't as concerned about accuracy or any number of reasons it isn't fixed. Now, you have to figure it out. Good luck and keep us posted!