Getting the stories straight |

Getting the stories straight

While researching and fact checking an article written by my great-grandmother, I came to have a deeper respect for those who work with genealogy. They have to recognize when names are spelled differently, such as Van Nice and Van Nuys, that it is the same family. In our lineage the name Tilston became Tilottson before it was the currently used spelling of Tillotson. I haven’t had to do this tracing; family members have done it and passed on the records. When I read through the records, I received I can’t help but wonder how the writers of our family tree could discern the credibility of this lineage. I imagine crosschecking is the byword of such studies, yet could you ever be sure of your conclusions?

Genealogists quickly learn that census records are not infallible, sometimes due to mistakes by the enumerator and other times because of the difficulty of reading the enumerator’s handwriting. Naturally everything was handwritten, the original listings and the copies required census offices and some years for counties also.

I found a great aunt who was listed as 8 years old in the 1880 census, though we know she wasn’t born until 1882. Considering that the 1880 census started on June 1, 1880 and just 30 days was allowed for completion in rural areas and two weeks for communities with over 10,000 people, it’s no wonder that mistakes happened. For the most part the census lists so much that is correct and certainly gives leads — yet it brings up questions.

In our family we know that my great-grandparents emigrated to this area from Story County, Iowa, in 1882. The confusion comes because the 1880 census lists them in a county in Nebraska, not Iowa. The entry threw me off but a certified genealogist told me that people were counted where they were on the day that household was counted. From that tidbit, it is apparent that the great-grandparents were visiting in Nebraska as they were recorded in that Nebraska county, not in Iowa.

It’s a puzzle that, in recent years, after a census has been taken, there are groups who holler that there was an undercount. How do they know there’s an undercount? If that’s true, why didn’t these same groups work to get the individuals counted by encouraging them? A great deal of information comes from a census count. The apportionment which determines how the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are delegated to states is one. The census also causes statewide legislative districts to be redrawn and much wrangling takes place.

It may be surprising how the census numbers trickle down to affect the local level, where lines in city wards are changed if population numbers have shifted within the city limits, as they were in Hot Springs in 2022. It is at that point when the census has personal meaning. It proves the old adage “all government is local.”

Sanders is a national award winning columnist and author. She can be reached through her website,


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