Organization of Census Pages & Images:



8 February 2014

Do you study the organization of census pages—and their online images—or do you just accept what's there and look up a name? When the provider has imaged a county in “subdivisions” and arranged those in alpha order, rather than imaging the whole jurisdiction from its page 1 to whatever, do you reassemble the county's return in its natural order to see what you can learn?

Let us say you're studying Chesterfield Township in Cheshire, New Hampshire, at the turn of the 18th-to-19th centuries. You go to one of the standard online providers of the 1800 census, click the boxes for New Hampshire, then Cheshire, then Chesterfield; and you are given 10 images totaling 20 pages.

Wonderful! ... Well, sorta. You also say Darn! when you notice that the names are semi-alphabetized by the first letter of the surname, thereby destroying clues to neighborhood arrangements. But, at least you have 20 pages identifying all the heads-of-households in Chesterfield Township. Right?  Wrong. You have some 340 households starting with Nathaniel Bingham and running through James Wire, and you have the totals at the end of the return, but you don’t have the whole township.

Then you mutter more frustration when you notice that the first page of the the township has no columnar headings. The last page gives you totals for the whole township—but no columnar headings. Do you ever add up the totals in a column or two to double-check that all the pages are there and that a block of names is not missing? Sometimes a page (or several) was omitted when the original filming was done—as with St. Clair County, Alabama, 1850, or its sister county Tuscaloosa in 1860, or Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, 1880, or ... .

Far more often, as the New Hampshire case at hand, the missing page has been imaged with the wrong subdivision. In this case, the first page of Chesterfield Township is imaged with Acworth Township—not with Alstead or Charlestown, which intervene between Acworth and Chesterfield on the provider’s alphabetical list. Chesterfield is with Alstead because that’s the order in which the enumerator himself visited the households.

Similarly, the first page of Plainfield Township is with New Grantham and the last page of the Plainfield set of images is actually Springfield. Of the 35 townships in this county in 1800,  only a handful are self-contained within the group of images the provider gives us for that township.

We do love our record providers. But expectations and assumptions can cause us problems.