Saturday, May 2, 2020

Odd Quirks, Unintended Consequences,
and All Those Piano Lessons

There are some discoveries from the pursuit of family history which can only be classified as quirks in the record. I ran across some of those quirky surprises today. Truth be told, all that discovery did was make me come to realize I don't like my second cousin thrice removed. Not that I ever had any chance to meet him; it's just that he had this habit of re-inventing himself for the census enumerator.

I won't mention this cousin's name, simply in case that cousin bait would draw an unsuspecting closer relative to click through and read what this guy did, then suffer any embarrassment on his behalf. So don't expect any links to proof of his statements, or scholarly footnotes, or any other verification. Just come along for the story and take my word for the details.

So this guy—we'll just call him my distant cousin to avoid tangling with all those "times removed" labels—and his wife and obligatory two kids lived in a city which, at the time, was home to about sixty thousand people. Granted, any one of those other 59,999 people could have had the same name as this guy, but I don't think so. His name was not one of the most popular surnames, nor even given names, of that time period, so I'm pretty sure I was on the right track with this distant cousin.

I was reviewing this man's entry in the 1910 census, mainly to confirm I had the right family. However, in that quick glance, my eye happened to fall upon the column for place of birth of the subject's father. The answer had been overwritten, and I wanted to see what the original entry was.

The entry on the line—likely the original answer—was Holland. Above that entry another answer was squeezed in, having the explanation, "Dutch," likely to designate the native language spoken by that relative. I had my doubts about that alien status, but it was time to move on with the research process.

And so I did—to the next census where I could find this family. Again in the same city—but for some reason, not until the 1930 census—I found this distant cousin and his family. I couldn't help but take the time to note what his response was, this time, for location of his parents' birth.

I wasn't disappointed. There, for his father's place of origin, was again listed Holland. But this time, instead of answering with the expected home state of his residence as had been the case in previous census records, for his mother's place of birth, he reported France. Even more, his own place of birth now changed from his home state to Colorado—halfway across the country from the truth of the matter.

What was up with this? Keep in mind, as I exercise my regular research routine in building my family tree, I do what is now called "reverse genealogy," wherein I confirm all the descendants of a given ancestor. I happened upon this distant cousin while working my way forward from my Tison line, which originates with a man born in North Carolina in 1770. I assure you, none of his progeny ever had a descendant who moved from the United States to give birth in either the Netherlands or France. In fact, the only way I had arrived at this cousin in my tree work was to carefully proceed via documentation through the subsequent three generations in that Tison tree. In other words, I already knew where this guy's dad was born, and believe me, it wasn't on the other side of the ocean.

Seeing that multi-national report of family origins brought to mind that childhood taunt of "Heinz 57" when kids compared what nationalities their families claimed. Only, in this case, it wasn't true. But it was "documented."

Think of the confusion which would ensue, generations later, when one of this distant cousin's great-great-grandchildren got that school assignment to research their roots. "But the census said..." would be a laudable argument—but not entirely correct.

Of course, not many people think about what will become of a census record, decades after the fact. The government may have used it then, but it's mostly only genealogists and other historians who use it now, years later.

It calls to mind that lament of many parents when they whine, "Think of all those piano lessons I paid for!" Of course, in my case, my parents never paid for any of my piano lessons; my mother learned from my professional musician father, then turned around to teach me for free. From there, I eventually ended up in a music conservatory, where knowing how to play the piano, regardless of the instrument which qualified a student for admission, came in handy. But what do I do with that knowledge today? Perhaps the best I can come up with is that, thanks to knowing how to play the piano, I am a pretty speedy typist.

Not much of a consolation for parents whose sacrifices were supposed to end up benefiting their children. Perhaps—especially for those who see government as one gigantic "Nanny State"—that might be similar to the disappointment over how governmental investment in the betterment of society turns out. There are so many unintended consequences for programs which were designed by people who, surely, meant well. The beleaguered purpose of the decennial census has really become only one of those quirks. 


  1. Boy, I bet this guy was a piece of work! Wonder what the purpose of the inventions was at the time? He must have had a hard time keeping track of his stories.

    1. One would think, Miss Merry! And yet, those were only part of the imaginary universe he reported as fact to the census taker. He added a few more reports about his wife. And yet, he was consistent with some of the same stories over two enumerations--prompting me to double- and triple-check my research. But I'm positive I have the right person. Who knows what he was thinking!


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