Just because you found it in the census doesn’t make it true, Case #1

So in the previous blog post, I covered the impact on Roots on mainstream America and how important census records were to those of us who launched into genealogy following the miniseries.

What I also alluded to is that while census records are important documents, there were enough variables in the collection of the records that make them less than “bulletproof” in their finality as ultimate sources.

As a foundation of what is to follow, lets lay down ground rules.

  1. As mature people – and skeptics – we know that some people play by the rules, some people play by most of the rules, some people think they know better than the rules and other people who just don’t care for rules at all.
  2. And we also know that some people speak clearer.  Some people hear better.  And some people have horrible penmanship.
  3. And finally, most people only know what they know.  Just ask them.  They’ll tell you not only what they know, but some people are happy to tell you what you know.
  4. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY: Just because it’s a primary source document doesn’t mean it is an accurate document.

When we add in all of these variables, can we see how mistakes could have been made between how the interviewer would ask their questions and how those question would be answered?

Not always major mistakes, but little ones that can throw people off.

Now, one of my great great grandfather’s was one John Thomas Monnett (pronounced Muh-nett) of Marion County, Ohio.  And John Thomas led an unbelievable life, not always good, but he’s the type of ancestor that keeps you digging because there is always another layer.  He’s had me digging for forty years, and he seldom fails to either make me groan or shake my head.  And as the blog move’s forward we’ll come back to John time and again because there is a lot of good stuff on him.

So let’s look at this example that has caused a great deal of problems over the past 137 years.


This is the 1880 United States Census for Ohio, Marion County, Grand Prairie Township, Page 2.(1)  And the highlighted family is that of John “Monett”, a farmer and his family.  John is 42, born in Ohio and both of his parents are born in Ohio.  Seems plain as nose on your face, right?

But I have already told you that his surname is “Monnett”, so we know that either the enumerator wrote it down wrong, or was given a bad spelling, or tried to sound it out the way he thought it was spelled.

Then there is his wife, son and two daughters.  The “Monett’s” (sic) have a hired hand living on the property, and a house servant.  What we know is what we see – so without looking for further information, what is the one thing that looks “off”.

Found it?  No? Look closer.

It’s the name “Nerve” for John’s wife.  How many woman have the name “Nerve”?  And if this is a “formal” document, “Nerve” must be her name, right?  Right?  So we know that this may not be an accurate name, and needs further probing.

But the bigger issue is hidden in this family, and if one doesn’t probe this “Nerve” thing, they won’t be able to compare, review and seek the additional verification that the enumerator in 1880 got everything right, right?  But if they chose to accept this one census, and don’t look any further, then we know that they have “accumulated” these people (which is the genealogical equivalent of notching one’s headboard regarding “conquests”) without verifying these people.

So logically, what should we do?  We can start looking through any variety of records and searches online, TODAY, but lets get into the mindset of a researcher in 1977.  You have no internet, so you have no internet databases.  All you have is books and microfilm.  What do you do?

Well, you could pull the 1870 census microfilm reel for that same place and see if this family is in place – shall we?  So if we do this, this is what we get:


This is the 1870 United States Census for Ohio, Marion County, Grand Prairie Township, Pages 4 (bottom) and 5(top) . (2)

The first thing that should note is that yes, the family is in the same place.  But there are some differences.

The second thing that should strike you is that the spelling of the surname is different.  In 1880 it is “Monett”, but in 1870 it is “Monnett.”  Which one is correct?  The correct one of the two spellings is “Monnett” – with two n’s, not one.

Thirdly, John’s wife in 1880 is “Nerve”, which isn’t a name, but an endearment (of sorts, I guess) for “Minerva” which appears on the 1870 census.  This has also been verified on the 1860 census as “Minerva Harvey” before their marriage.

Fourthly, there is Eva, their daughter, age 3.  Factually, her middle name is Frances, but the 1870 enumerator scripted a sloppy “F” that looks more like a “T”.

But where is Alfred, the son who is 15 in 1880’s census?  He’s not on the 1870 census.

And who in blue blazes is “Byron Monnett” age 5 in the 1870 census?

Folks, this is the nugget of misinformation that throws the whole shebang off course.

We know from court records that John T. and Minerva had three daughters, Eva, Lola and Lottie, all born in Marion County, Ohio.  And we know that Lottie died before her third birthday, and that Eva and Lola made it to maturity, married men, divorced those men and remarried.

There are no death or burial records for Alfred Monnett.  According to the 1880 census, he would have been 15, and Ohio didn’t require birth recordings until 1867 – two years after Alfred’s birth.

And, that same birth year for Byron means that Ohio would have no record of his birth because those records didn’t exist.

But we do have Byron’s marriage recording, his death certificate, his mention in his father’s probate records and his Last Will and Testament.  We also have various other probate records, sworn under oath by his mother, and father, that Byron E. Monnett (aka B.E. Monnett) is the son of John and Minerva Monnett.

Byron is 5 in 1870 and Alfred is 15 in 1880.  So both are the same age.  Twins?  Well, why wasn’t Byron enumerated in 1880?  Why wasn’t Alfred enumerated in 1870?

I can tell you that all of the children that John and Minerva Monnett had together were the product of John and Minerva’s union.  There were no adoptees or foundlings.  So there goes that out the window, too.

And that together, they only had four children, one boy and three girls.clutch

So what is the deal with “Alfred” and “Byron”?

Simple. Fact is, Alfred never existed, only Byron did.

How could this be? (Clutches the pearls moment, right?)

But you say to me “But Cookie, he is in the census, its an official document, and official documents are the truth, and I have seen that he was counted, his name was written in the census.”

Well, Byron E. Monnett is my great grandfather, the father of my grandfather, and the grandfather of my mother.  He existed.  We know this as fact.  He died in 1915 and is buried in the family plot in Ohio.

But what goes against Alfred is that aside from this one census record, no birth, no death records,  no additional census records and no cemetery records is that he most likely did not exist as far as primary source records go.  And his father’s will and probate file is important because all of John T. Monnett’s children received notices of probate.

But, there is an explanation if you look close enough, and you know where to look.  And in 1978 I found someone who told me about “Alf”.  With the infirmities of old age settling in and clouding her ability to live clearly in the present, Mildred Hill Kennedy was razor sharp when it came to the past.  Mildred grew up on a farm about a mile, as the crow flies, from my great grandfather Byron Ellsworth Monnett.  And Byron married Mildred’s mother’s cousin, making Mildred my second cousin, twice removed.  Mildred knew the family, attended the same church and knew her kin because she lived with them.  So in 1978 you have a woman approaching 90 and lad, who was 14.

To keep Mildred, and Stu busy while my mother visited my grandfather (whose memory had dropped into the abyss of Alzheimer’s), Mildred would tell me “stories of the country” and I would take notes.  So I asked her about “Alfred Monnett” on one of those visits.

“There was no Alfred. That was your great grandfather was called “Alf”.  No one ever called him Byron, or Ellsworth.  Too stuffy. His father used to say that he grew like “alfalfa” to cover up his real age.  So everyone called him “Alf”,  said Mildred.  “He loved to laugh, and when he did his eyes scrunched up.”

So the census taker spoke with someone who either called Byron “Alf” and implied that “Alfred” was his name.  Or spoke with someone who didn’t know his real name was Byron.  Or “Byron” was given as his name and the enumerator verified that and the person providing the information said “We call him Alf,”, or…

See what I am getting at?  I think that it was most likely an error made by the enumerator based on who he spoke with.

And the problem that it caused was when one, then two, then twenty well meaning people started publishing their family trees online.  And you could always tell whose research was minimal and faulty by the inclusion of Alfred Monnett in their trees.  And when I tried to correct them, the scoffed.  It’s in the census, it must be true.”

The good news is that a mystery was solved.  The hard part was getting it cleared out of people’s trees.  The information was correct online, and for the Marion Area Genealogical Society, which published an index to the 1880 census.  And slowly but surely, one by one people updated their trees.  I think that there is only one tree with “Alfred” in the family unit at present.

But Mildred said something else that my young ears picked up on: “His father used to say that he grew like “alfalfa” to cover up his real age.”

And THAT is a story for another entry.


(1) – Year: 1880; Census Place: Grand Prarie, Marion, Ohio; Roll: 1046; Family History Film: 1255046; Page: 71B; Enumeration District: 091; Image: 0468

(2) – Year: 1870; Census Place: Grand Prairie, Marion, Ohio; Roll: M593_1240; Page: 52A; Image: 240688; Family History Library Film: 552739