We all know how problematic the census is as a source. Nevertheless, it’s often the foundation of much of our research, so census records are a favorite subject of mine.

Here’s another common error we see: a census household includes lodgers or boarders. Later, we discover they are actually family members.

Why didn’t the enumerator just write that? ARGH.

Here are a few examples from my own research.

Mike Fendricks

My ancestor Mike Fendricks lived with a man named Dee Suggs in 1920. He was enumerated as a Boarder:

1920 Mike Fendricks

It took many years of research before I discovered that Mike was actually Dee’s brother.

Matilda Neely

Several of my second-great grandmother Matilda’s records contained inaccuracies and misspellings. Her 1940 census household in Jacksonville, Florida included a young man named Cornelius Garner:

1940 Matilda “Vickerson”

Cornelius was marked as a Roomer, but he was really Matilda’s grandson. (Oh, and her name was Matilda Vickers, not Vickerson.)

A Reason to Doubt

I have several Maryland ancestors named Rezin Prather. In a previous post I illustrated methods for sorting same-named men. This is the 1910 Washington, D.C. household of one Rezin Prather:

1910 Reason Prather

“Lodgers” Ethel and Wilson Prather were actually Reason’s children, his son and daughter.

A Sanity Check

I took a look at the census enumerator instructions for each census year. Nothing explicitly instructs the enumerators to return someone as a relative instead of as a lodger or boarder.

As researchers, we know how flawed a source the census records often are. As the examples above illustrate, we need to have a healthy dose of skepticism when we see lodgers and boarders in census households. Be curious about who they are. The principle of cluster research should lead you to research them anyway.

Some people will indeed turn out to be actual lodgers and boarders. But many will turn out to be relatives of the people they are living with.

Readers, who else has seen this in their own research?

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