The Washerwoman’s Genes

September 12, 2006

Double Identity

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 3:44 pm

You can’t be in two places at the same time, goes the old saw. But sometimes you can, at least in the U.S. Census. The census was premised on recording each person once, and only once, at the residence he or she was at on the day the census taker came around. The problem is, the census wasn’t built in a day; rather, it took a month or so to collect the data, as the varying dates on the census page headings indicate.

I know, for example, that my great-uncle Willie was living in two places in 1880: with his ageing and possibly ill mother Jannette in Esopus, and with his sister and her family in Brooklyn. He was transitioning to Brooklyn; in fact, he marries in Brooklyn before his mother dies in 1884, suggesting he moved there early in the decade.

I have just found another example. My great-grandfather Walter (on my grandmother’s paternal side) lost his father at an early age, I gather from the census. Born in 1854, Walter seemingly has no father by 1860. He’s six, and the census catches him living in two places. At the start of June, he’s with a man I take to be his mother’s younger brother and his wife, in Brooklyn, Ward 10, District 1. Two weeks later, he’s in the same census district but in the household of his remarried mother Kesiah (here spelled Keziah). He has four siblings, all older, with his last name. The three eldest are born in England, indicating the parents married in England and emigrated between 1846 and 1852, that is, between their third and fourth children. And then, it seems, Walter’s father died after his birth but before the 1860 census—long enough before for his mother to meet and marry another man. Also in this household are two children the same ages as Walter and his next-oldest brother, children who must be the step-father’s by his first marriage.

We think of today’s families as less stable than those of yesteryear. But doing genealogy means studying family life, and the message is quite clear. Families shift and change constantly. Children commonly have only one parent, or live in blended families, or are bunked with other relatives. These cases of two homes are symptomatic, I think, not exceptional. In every branch of my ancestral families I explore, I find families in pieces. Early death seems a major cause, but there’s also abandonment and divorce and temporary separation and serious illness.

* * * *

And then, there’s researcher’s rage: why, why, if I can find some people twice in the same census, can’t I find other people once?

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