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.
My ancestor Mike Fendricks lived with a man named Dee Suggs in 1920. He was enumerated as a Boarder:
It took many years of research before I discovered that Mike was actually Dee’s brother.
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:
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:
“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?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
So I have a question how did you find out they were actually related instead of lodgers or boarders? Also I have seen recorded family with the surname and the Head has adopted the child with my families surname can you explain this.
You will amass enough evidence eventually to be able to prove a relationship (or not). For example, see this post:
In other words, research the person AS IF they were family, and see what you find.
Yes, I have seen this in several cases. Now, I need to revisit those census. Another I have seen is “servant.” My great grandmother is in the home of an older lady and a teenage boy, who is also listed as “servant.” The head of the household’s job is listed as cook. I interpreted this to mean that they all worked for the white family that was listed above and lived in another house that was on the white family’s property. At the time, I had suspected there was a possible family connection to the head of household or the young man, but have since learned her actual surname. However, I am still at a lost for her mother’s surname, which I think has a connection to the white family on whose property, I think, she was residing. I have bee on this quest to find her mother from my beginning. Thank you for all you do.
Hi Le Roy,
Thank you for sharing some of your research here. It was indeed typical, especially for African-Americans, to be enumerated in the household of the white family where they work. So your conclusion there is probably a good one. Surnames, of course, trip us up in our research all the time. This is one area (finding the mother you mention) where DNA research could prove valuable. I am many others have uncovered the identity of family members using DNA.
I appreciate your kind words!
Thank you for the article. I have run into this phenomenon many many times in my research. I never thought twice about it until now. Great info. I’m going to share this on our LOST RELATIVES page on Facebook. We volunteer to do genealogy research daily.
“I never thought twice about it until now” That is music to my ears;) Thanks for writing!
I have seen this. In the 1880 Nicholasville, Kentucky census, my 2nd great grand parents are listed as boarders. I never really considered anybody elses names on the record, but I will look more carefully at others on the page to see if there are relatives. Good article!
Thanks for writing, I’m glad this post encourages you to examine this situation a little more closely when you see it in the census. I often think of how much easier our research would be if all those boarders and lodgers true relationships were stated!
Hello Robyn, Yes I have indeed came across this dilemma many times and only once did I search the family Henry Dobins (great uncle) was living with (Reynolds family). I have not tied the two families together, but I am sure they are relatives. Also, I found his father, my grandfather, Dave Dobins living as a boarder/lodger with his family at age 24. I was able to use his death certificate to determine that he was living with his parents and that he was their oldest child. I will visit the other living as boarders and/or lodgers to see if they were also family members. I thank you so very much. It is never a time that I read your information that I do not learn something. Your work is recognition worthy. I too have a passion for genealogy and a desire to be better at researching. I am unable to travel to the towns where my family once lived so I must rely solely on the internet. You are precious to me.
I appreciate your kind comments! I am glad you have found these posts helpful in your research. I always believe that sharing the kinds of things I have come across in my own research will resonate with many other researchers as well. I am thankful that so much more information is available online from when I started researching! Also, remember that you can pay researchers to do research in your hometown, I have done that many times when I can’t travel someplace. You can find many researchers at reasonable fees, and you can pay for 4 or 5 hours of research. I plan to talk about that more in a future post.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts,
Great information. Thank you.
Thanks for reading, Robin. Love your name;)
I’ve experienced this in my research, also, in particular with the case of my mother’s paternal grandmother, who it took YEARS for me to discover who her family was. She ran a boarding house in Chesapeake (then Norfolk County) and I’ve just recently discovered that several of the people living there were here relatives (including a brother!) from North Carolina! I’ve been looking at the names of those “boarders” for many years but never knew!
Hey Renate, thanks for chiming in. I haven’t run into many longtime researchers who haven’t run into this. It has cost me many years as well. How very much simpler my research would have been had they been properly identified!
Wow! I’m so happy I found your site! I’m soooo new to genealogy research so your site and book that I recently purchased are a breath of fresh air!
Thanks so very much, I appreciate your comment. Good luck to you!
I have found this too. I’m especially suspicious of people the same age as the householders or children.
Yes, yes, Kristin. I always wonder if the person was correctly identified as a family member and the enumerator just wrote boarder or lodger anyway.