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Len’s Expert Advice: the Census is not perfect

Searching census records:

Census enumerations occur in specific years. In Ontario these are 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, and 1911. In the U,S the federal census was taken in the previous year: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910, but most of the 1890 census was destroyed.

Some states have state censuses half-way through the decade.

All census records are taken as of a particular date, and record what the enumerator thought he heard. They took some weeks to carry out so replies may not always be accurate for the eventual census date.

If an ancestor should be in an enumerated district, but was not enumerated, an explanation is demanded. People did get missed, but most likely they were elsewhere, and a wider search may find them.

-Len Chester

Len Chester is the Resident Genealogist at the Ontario Genealogical Society’s provincial office. He is a retired librarian and Family History Centre volunteer with over 40  years experience assisting others in conducting their genealogical research.  He is available to help you puzzle out your records. Contact him at

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One Response to “Len’s Expert Advice: the Census is not perfect”

  1. Pat Jeffs says:

    In 1861, in the large towns and cities of Canada East and Canada West, census forms were filled out by householders and collected and, possibly, inspected by the enumerators on the doorstep. The municipalities involved included Hamilton, Kingston, London, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, Toronto and one more I can’t remember.
    The method of collection lead to a great variety of mistakes–those made by the householder, those made by the enumerator who did not always follow his instructions, and those made by transcribers who have provided the indexes that most of us use on Family Search and on Ancestry. Nevertheless, the 1861 census provides a very good illustration of the way people of the time, from the highest to the lowest, expressed themselves in writing and how they described the people and the things closest to them.