Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Don't Believe Everything You Read

I have told you many times don't believe everything you see but I wanted to show you an example:

Here is a snippet of a census page. This would be the 1920 in Purvis, Lamar County, Mississippi. You can click on the image to make it a little bigger.

This census page clearly says that Houston Simmons is the son of W. Isaac Simmons. This one actually gives you a clue that something is amiss. If Isaac and Mary were Houston's parents, they would have been age 53 and 55 respectfully. 55 is a bit old for a woman to give birth. There are many census pages that wouldn't have been so nice to give you such a clue.

In this case Houston is actually Isaac's nephew. Houston's mother died in childbirth and his father was not in a position to take care of a newborn. If I was seeing this for the first time I would have been inclined to think that Houston was a grandson. I would have used that as my working hypothesis and then I would have conducted a thorough search for additional evidence. I would have found that my hypothesis was incorrect but I would have uncovered the truth if my methods were sound. You should never use one piece of evidence in isolation of all of the other clues out there.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. A great reminder! Thanks for this wonderful post...

  2. You've used a good example to illustrate. I've run into this and similar discrepancies - usually the carrying down of the Head of Household surname to non-children and even non-relatives.

    It can be tough, especially when you are excited about being on a new trail, but one must always strive to see what is actually on the page and question its assertions.

    Timely reminder, thank you

  3. Michele, this is a great example of the danger of relying upon one document to prove a "fact." I strongly agree that you should always take census and other records with a grain of salt and confirm them as many ways as possible. However, I wanted to point out that one assertion in your evaluation - "Isaac and Mary were Houston's parents" - was not actually made. The census only shows (inaccurate as it may be) that Isaac was Houston's father. It shows that Mary was Isaac's wife, but not that she was Houston's mother.

    This just goes to show that we not only need to make sure we know what the records are telling us, but also what they are NOT telling us. It's easy to presume "facts not in evidence" when we are researching - something about which I am trying to be very cognizant nowadays. I don't always succeed, but I try :)

  4. Excellent, Jenny! You are correct. We can say the census says that Mary is Isaac's wife and Houston is Isaac's son but we can't say that Mary is Isaac's mother!

    Here is a funny thing. Houston adored his uncle Ike and put his name on all documents that required a father's name. Houston didn't like his real father at all because he felt abandoned. Even after his real father remarried, he never came back for Houston. Houston didn't like Mary though. On those documents that required a mother's name, Houston wrote his real mother's name though she died at his birth. If you were to look at any of those documents it appears as though Ike was married to Corrine and not to Mary!


  5. Haha ... secret family scandal maybe? :)

  6. My great-grandmother gave birth to my grandfather and never named or married the father. On most census records they are correctly described as the daughter and grandson of the head of household but when she was living with her brother, my grandfather is listed as the child of his uncle.

  7. I know there are countless stories like this and I am afraid that many of them, especially the earlier ones, end up being recorded in files incorrectly.