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Genealogy and the U.S. Census Records, A Cautionary Tale!

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

Genealogy of Ralph H & Ruth (Hinkson) Convers (Source: Collection of R Stewart) 1940 Census Record (source
Ralph H & Ruth (Hinkson) Convers (Source: Collection of R Stewart) 1940 Census Record (source

Ancestry Story of Ralph Hudson Convers and Ruth Summers Hinkson

Stories can emerge from the United States Census Records when researching your ancestry that give us information about families, their lives and the generation directly before them. What happens though, when that all goes sideways? Read about Ralph and Ruth and find out why genealogists conducting family tree research need this cautionary tale before adding any records from the United States Census Records. Within the story about Ruth Summers Hinkson and Ralph Hudson Convers, and their genealogy, as told by the US Census Records, is where we find our cautionary tale.

Ruth Summers Hinkson, daughter of Richard Summers Hinkson and Mary Frances Sharp was born in Volcano, California on May 31, 1880. Her entry into the Census world was on the 1880 U S Census Record in Volcano. For some reason, she was listed as "baby". This was puzzling to me. Why wouldn't they have mentioned her by name? Was it because she was their sixth child and names were not the first thing on their minds? I would hope not!

Well, as it turned out, the Census Taker arrived to collect the information about the Hinkson Family just two days after Ruth was born. It also turns out that this would not be Ruth's only encounter with a Census Taker, which will be revealed later in the story.

Ralph Hudson Convers was born in Cataract Wisconsin on July 26, 1874. His first appearance on the US Census Record was in 1880 in Empire, California.

This Census Record provides genealogy researchers with the places of birth for Ralph's father, Frederick Deloraine Convers who shows being born in New York and his mother, Effie (Blodgett) Convers who shows being born in Ohio. The Census Record is a primary source. Genealogists can feel confident in this documentation, or can they?

Ruth's family was living in Hanford, Kings County, California in 1892. Ralph's family was living in Snelling, Merced County, California by 1888. Sometime before 1899, Ruth and Ralph's paths crossed. They were married on August 28, 1899 in Merced County. The sources for this information were found on as well as prior research on Richard Summers Hinkson and Mary Frances Sharp.

The 1900 US Census Record

This Census Record shows them living as a married couple in Snelling, California. Their first child, Effie Convers, born in March of 1900 is listed as well. She shows as being 3/12ths of a year old, but then it was crossed out and 2/12ths was inserted. The Census Taker took this information on June 1, 1900. They rented a house in Snelling and Ralph was a farm laborer. A double check of Ralph's parents' places of births shows them as being born in the same places, New York and Ohio.

Taking a look at the 1910 Census Record

Ralph and Ruth, living in Turlock California, now have 3 additional children, Howard, Ruth and Richard. They own their own house but have a mortgage on it. Ralph is listed as a farmer, instead of farm laborer, but they live in a house, not on a farm. The birth places for Ralph's Father and Mother? Well, something has taken a turn. While Frederick's birthplace shows as New York, Effie, his mother's birthplace now shows as Wisconsin! Hmmm. This Census Record has different information. This kind of source, considering it is primary just blew up the whole idea that primary sources are rock solid when researching ancestry! Let's look at the 1920 US Census Record and see if we can clear this up. Maybe it was just a fluke? Let's continue with this family tree research.

In 1920, according to the Census Record

Ralph and Ruth are still living in Turlock. Ralph is still engaged in Farming. Ralph's father's birthplace is Maine. His mother's birthplace still shows as Wisconsin. Wait, what!? Ralph's father was born in Maine? What could be going on? Let's take a closer look.

Effie, their eldest daughter is no longer living with them. Howard is now 17 years old, Ruth is 12 years old and Richard is 10 years old. All of them are in school. In addition, we see more children, Della who is 8 years old, Ralph Jr, who's 6 years old, both also school aged. We also see A Boyd who is 4 years old, John who is just shy of 2 years old and twin girls both 4 months old.

Girl using imagination of genealogy story

Well just about now, here is the genealogy story that is playing in my mind.

Laundry hanging on line for Genealogy Story

The sun is shining directly down on the fresh laundry hanging on the line that Ruth and her daughter, Ruth hung earlier that morning. A small-framed man with a hat, tie and white button up shirt despite the warm June day, walked through the small gate in front of Ralph and Ruth's house that is just north of Turlock on Highway 99. He continued up the walkway until reaching the raised porch. The man couldn't have known that the house had been driven down the road through the town of Turlock on running gear with 6 mules hitched to it many years earlier. Taking each step up to the porch, with a couple boys playing nearby, he noticed the watermelon crop just to the left of the house, definitely just about ready for picking.

He raised his arm and gave a good solid couple of knocks to the door. A moment later, the door opened and a girl about 8 years old with straight bangs and a bobbed haircut answered. For a moment, she stared at the man because he was unfamiliar to her, but then she called out, "Mama! There's a man at the door!" Just as she got out the last word, Ruth, wearing a white apron, having just finished getting the two and a half pans of biscuits in the oven, appeared behind her.

The home of Ralph and Ruth Convers just north of Turlock CA on old Highway 99. for Genealogy
The home of Ralph and Ruth Convers just north of Turlock CA on old Highway 99.

The man lifted his hat and gave courteous nod to the woman standing in front of him. "Warm weather were having, Ma'am", stating the obvious. "My name is P. T. Nye and I am the Census Taker #184 for the U.S. Census." He showed her his official credentials and asked if he could come in and collect some information from her. She agreed, even though she had a list as long as her arm to finish that day. She politely showed him to the table in the kitchen.

He pulled out his fountain pen from the pocket on his shirt and began writing down the information she gave him on a rather large book filled with the names of her neighbors. He recorded each child's name, not stopping to check spelling, their ages and whether or not Ruth and Ralph owned their home or rented. Then the question of where her and her husband's parents were born came up. She certainly knew that her mother and father had been born in Missouri, but Ralph's parents' places of birth were a little fuzzy in her memory.

She looked out the window to where she could see that Ralph and his horses were way out in the field busily working. She knew he did not have time to stop everything and come back to the house. She searched her memory for what Ralph had told her so many years ago about where his mother and father were born. I know it was back east. "Was it Maine?" she thought. "His father was born in Maine." she stated with a little more confidence than she really had in that answer. "Was that right?" she thought, but then moved on. "His mother was born in Wisconsin. That's where they're from." she told him, nodding her head with an equal amount of unsureness. "What does it matter? Who is ever going to look at this information anyway?" she convinced herself.

Ruth Hinkson Convers and children for Genealogy
Ruth with 4 of her 10 children about 1916. Richard behind her, Della sitting on the step next to her, Ralph Jr just under Ruth's arm and Arlington Boyd on the step below.

Mr. Nye jotted down the two places and finished completing the rest of the information. Not very much later, he stood up announcing the end of their session. "Thank you, Mrs. Convers. I'll be on my way." Ruth, very ready to get back to her long list of things to get done, escorted him to the door.

While all of this is just a story in my head, it is possible that Ruth was busy, Ralph was unavailable, and it all just happened in some way close to that. No one will ever know for sure. I guess, the vague reference of her, being called "baby" in her Census Record past was enough to influence her decision whether or not to provide accurate information in the future. Well, that would be highly unlikely, but it would be a funny twist to the story!

What to Know about Census Records for Genealogy

What is important about this cautionary tale and the information provided by the Census records is that humans are almost always involved in the events that happen. Memories are fallible. As genealogists, we do our best work when we confirm information in more than one place.

The 1930 Census records showed that Ralph's parents were born in Maine and Wisconsin too. What were the actual places they were born? His father was born in New York and his mother was born in Ohio, based on additional research and sources. For more information about Ruth and Ralph, check out their Family Group Sheet Stack by clicking here or you can download it below.

Ralph Hudson Convers and Ruth Hinkson Convers Family Group Sheets
Download PDF • 20.22MB

For access to a Family Group Sheets Stack Template like this one, click here.

More Information about the Breakdown of U.S. Census Records and your Family Tree Research

1. 1790 Census:

- This was the first U.S. Census conducted after the country's independence.

- It counted the population of the original thirteen states, plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont.

- The information collected included the head of the household's name and the number of free white males (16 years and older), free white females, other free persons, and slaves.

2. 1800 Census:

- The second U.S. Census expanded to include new states and territories acquired from the Louisiana Purchase.

- The census now recorded more detailed age categories for free white males and females.

- It also began collecting information about agriculture and manufacturing.

3. 1810 Census:

- The 1810 Census continued to expand as the country's territory grew.

- New states, including Ohio, Indiana, and Mississippi, were included in the enumeration.

- Data collection expanded to include additional age categories for free white males and females, and the census added questions on industry and manufacturing.

4. 1820 Census:

- The 1820 Census marked the inclusion of Maine as a separate state, and Missouri was added as a new territory.

- For the first time, the census counted the number of free African Americans, in addition to other demographic data.

5. 1830 Census:

- The 1830 Census included new states such as Arkansas and Michigan.

- The age categories expanded to provide more detailed information about the population.

- This census recorded the number of deaf and blind individuals, and the first time recorded the number of slaves by age and sex.

6. 1840 Census:

- The 1840 Census introduced statistical tables, providing more detailed information about the population and its characteristics.

- Questions about the number of pensioners, individuals engaged in agriculture, and other professions were included.

7. 1850 Census:

- The 1850 Census was a significant milestone as it was the first to record the names of every individual in the household, not just the head of the household.

- The census now included information on birthplace, occupation, and literacy status.

- The enumeration also included separate slave schedules.

8. 1860 Census:

- The 1860 Census was the last conducted before the outbreak of the Civil War.

- It continued to expand the data collected, adding questions about the value of real estate and personal property.

- Slaves were counted separately from the rest of the population.

9. 1870 Census:

- The 1870 Census was the first conducted after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

- It included former slaves as part of the population, recording their names and other demographic information.

10. 1880 Census:

- The 1880 Census added more detailed questions about the relationship to the head of the household, marital status, and parents' birthplaces.

11. 1890 Census:

- The 1890 Census data, unfortunately, suffered significant loss due to a fire that destroyed much of the collected records.

12. 1900 Census:

- The 1900 Census added questions about the number of children born and surviving for each mother.

13. 1910 Census:

- The 1910 Census included questions about citizenship status and the mother tongue of foreign-born individuals.

14. 1920 Census:

- The 1920 Census added questions about the naturalization status of foreign-born individuals and the year of immigration to the United States.

15. 1930 Census:

- The 1930 Census included questions about home ownership and radio ownership.

16. 1940 Census:

- The 1940 Census collected information on income and employment status.

17. 1950 Census:

- The 1950 Census continued to collect data on various demographic characteristics, but it was the last census to release individual responses to the public due to privacy concerns.

These U.S. Census records offer a valuable source of information for genealogists and historians, allowing them to trace family histories and study the changing patterns of American society over time.

Cuzens Genealogy

Robin Stewart is the founder of CuZens Genealogy. She is a retired teacher and school administrator and lives with her family in California. She has been researching genealogy since 1983. Her passion has always included the pursuit and preservation of family history and designing creative digital solutions for organizing information. Why? Because genealogy matters.

For more information about CuZens Genealogy visit:



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