Census Takers Are People Too

As they traversed the countryside taking written snapshots of the lives of millions of Americans, the lives and dramas of the census takers themselves were also ongoing.

Here’s an account about Great-Granddad Edward Clyde and the census, from his wife Hannah’s memoir:

In 1921 farm crop prices took a terrific drop so that the first year we lived on the farm we made barely enough to pay interest and taxes.  Ed worked at the sugar factory and took census that winter to make enough for us to live on.

There’s an obvious issue here – there was no census in 1921; it had been completed in 1920.  Census forms have the enumerator’s name written on them, and I have been unable to find any that were filled by Grandpa Ed, either in the family hometown of Springville, Utah, or up in Carbon County, Utah, where he was living at the time.  His brother Grover, however, did.  Either Ed’s census pages were lost (which sometimes happened), or Hannah misremembered the event.

Being census taker has been quite a mixed bag over the past  22 decades.  The enumerator’s job is to be nosy, and many citizens throughout the centuries have not appreciated what they felt to be a governmental imposition on their privacy.  Youtube is full of people filming their parleys with census takers.  Some folks take it as an opportunity to share their views on politics, and others to stick it to the man.

Whatever you think about the politics of the census, that sort of display is very undignified.  Census enumerators are attractive targets only because they are easy targets, for while the pen is mightier than the sword in many contexts, it really isn’t in these doorstep scenes.  Thus little people get to feel big and strong by trying to argue down or intimidate a harmless and usually well-meaning individual.

The tension of the confrontation has become a source of much comedy in film and literature over the years.  Learn what happened at Hannibal Lecter’s house.  And in O Brother Where Art Thou.  And the Three Stooges.  There’s even a movie about townspeople murdering the census taker.

It’s always impressed me how little care people have had for the census compared to how useful it is for us today.  Nowadays these records are a starting point for family history research, as they are meant to have every person in the nation on them.  They are a priceless national treasure, and a measure of the value of every individual.

And yet the censuses were treated so casually!  Some enumerators tried really hard, but others were inaccurate and lazy, and many citizens evasive or dismissive.  One of the main frustrations of genealogy research is when you find that the census seems to have every single person in American except the one you are looking for.

Grover was more diligent than average, I think.  Grover was a census man in Springville, Utah precinct for the 1920 census, and in January and February of that year he tramped around southern Utah Valley, both in Springville proper and the boonies outside of town.

At that time the Spanish Flu pandemic was killing millions of people around the world.  US servicemen (including Grover) were coming home from Europe and many of them were bringing death with them.  Grover spent most of January going door to door, but on the 31st his father (and my great-great granddad) Hyrum Smith Clyde died suddenly from the flu, and Grover left off, in the middle of a page, for ten days to be with family.



Enumerated by me on the 30/9 day of January/February, 1920.  Grover Clyde, Enumerator.

When Grover went back to finish the precinct record on 9 Feb, his sister-in-law Hannah (Edward’s wife) and niece Pauline (my Grandma) were still dreadfully sick with the flu.  One of the families remaining to be enumerated was his own, which included himself, some siblings, and his parents.  Since the census was meant to be a snapshot of the nation as of the first of January, 1920, anyone who died between that day and the day the recorder took the record should still be included among the living.  I am sure it was with considerable poignancy that Grover wrote his father’s name as if he were still alive:


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