1940 Census, and why I miss the Earlier Questions

Yesterday’s blog post addressed a question Geneamusings’ Randy Seaver asked in his blog  What is the Value of the 1940 U.S. Census?    I wrote about why it is valuable to me.    I am excited about the the 1940 census, but I can also understand feeling a little let down by the information it provides.

I was disappointed when I saw the categories of the 1940 census.  Sure, there are some good additions to the data collected, including residence five years earlier, income and education, and the return of the question about real estate.  One of the most valuable additions may be the notation of which household member answered the questions.  In studying data in a past census, I always wonder about who supplied that information.

The questions I wish had been continued are those concerning parents, marriage and children.  Having the parents’ birthplace is often a great clue as to whether this John Smith is “your” John Smith.  How long a couple has been married narrows your search for their marriage records.  The number of children born and the number still living is one of my favorite questions.  I have learned so much from this.  Unfortunately, it was only asked in 1900 and 1910.   I feel that I understand much more about a family’s lives when I know that they have lost many children – or that all of their 17 children are living!

One of my own marriage mysteries concerns my gg grandparents Louise Johnson and Jay Lansing French.  In the 1850 census, Luiza is living in the town of Neosho, Missouri, while her widowed mother and siblings are in a more rural area of Newton County.  She appears to be boarding, although no occupation is listed; two others living with the merchant and his family work for the county court.   Her uncle Robert Brock, who is Clerk of the County Court, is listed three households later.

I wonder why Luiza was living in town.  Luiza’s mother and siblings left for California in the spring of 1852, but she didn’t go with them.   I always thought that her mother would not have left her unless she was married, but there is no indication when the marriage took place.  No marriage records survive for this area; they were all destroyed during the Civil War.  We don’t have any family information handed down.  And, Luiza’s first child was born in 1856 so this offers no support for an early marriage.

The 1900 census might, however.  Here was a small detail that could easily be overlooked:  Maria L, 3 of 6 children living.   No one had ever mentioned this.  My mother knew nothing about it.   As far as we knew, Luiza and Lansing only had three children:  Martha, born 1856; John, born 1858; and Mary, born during the Civil War.  Adding three more children certainly makes stronger the probability of a marriage sometime after the 1850 census and before her mother and siblings left for California.

A cousin descended from one of the siblings who went west sent me a most precious document:  his great grandmother’s memoirs of the trip from Missouri to California, with a few details of her early life.  In it she had written:  “The eldest girl married a man by the name of Lancing French and remained in Missouri. He had been a farmer in Cherokee Nation.”

So the pieces fell into place.  Luiza and Lansing had married before the Spring of 1852.  Some or all of the three children discovered because of the 1900 census were probably born before Martha.  We may never know more about these children — but at least we know that they did live, if even for a very short time.  We can imagine Luiza and Lansing’s early married life in Newton County, Missouri, a little more clearly, and continue to look for clues.

Unfortunately, the 1940 Census won’t give me answers to these questions for most of the people that I am researching.  However, supplementary questions were asked of two people on each page and this did include some of the information from previous censuses.  Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to find someone on one of those special lines.  And hopefully, over time, I will find that the new information is just as valuable.

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One thought on “1940 Census, and why I miss the Earlier Questions

  1. I’ve had success with that question, too. Imagine how our descendants will feel when the 2010 census comes along! It barely gives names and the fact that I am not of Hispanic descent!

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