While struggling with the search for the family connection between John Kelly Stevens of Fort Wayne and young Raphael Kruse of Lafayette, Indiana, a thought dawned on me. It happened after I agonized about connecting the two families through what turned out to be a young widowed immigrant. And it occurred while working with the 1860 United States census which, as we’ve all realized, is not quite so handy at providing all the familial details we’d like to receive.
It was in finally finding Eliza Murdock Clark Stevens’ whereabouts in the 1860 census that I noticed a habit I was developing. It was a simple, understandable reaction to government labels: I quite cooperatively took them literally.
The first time I looked for Eliza in 1860 records, of course, I had no idea her surname would be listed as Clark. I hadn’t yet found that missing step in her life’s story. Oh, I had also searched for her by using her brothers’ names as listed in John Stevens’ obituary—but as I mentioned yesterday, I really hadn’t had any luck with that approach, either.
It may have been possible that I did notice this other Murdock—who turned out to be Eliza’s brother Samuel—by using search terms “Eliza” with “Murdock” and limiting the results to 1860. After all, she did show up in a Murdock household.
However, even if I wasn’t thrown off the trail by the unexpected surname of Clark, there would have been two other clues to keep me from pursuing that possibility any farther:
- First, there was another Clark listed—Ellen—of whom I knew nothing at the time
- More importantly, there was an occupational listing that immediately would have thrown me off track.
Trust in the procedural instructions for census takers had been so solidly cemented in my mind that when I saw the occupational label, “domestic,” I dismissed that particular Eliza out of hand as merely a “maid” coincidentally working in that household rather than seeing her a relative. I don’t know why. We certainly have seen more than our fair share of mistakes in census records over the years. I guess it’s just time for me to shake that implicit trust in governmental systems.
I have to confess: this isn’t the first time I’ve been too quick to discard any notion of the possibility for error in governmental documentation. I’m thinking now of some other records, where households included people with surnames other than the one I was researching. Why did I dismiss them? Because the census taker labeled them as “boarder” instead of including the fact that they might also have been distant relatives.
Right now, I’m mentally doing a records census of my own, thinking of all the times I’ve come back to the fact that the label affixed by the census taker wasn’t exactly the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me, God.
If nothing else, this teaches me to slow down and not be so quick to trust every person with a pen and clipboard who comes to the door promising, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”