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


How Alex Haley’s Roots, and the U.S. Census gave white America an identity crisis.

Mom? Who are these people?

Following America’s Bicentennial in 1976, and missing its “Bicentennial Minutes”, Americans felt a bit let down.  First of all, we had trashed our homes with all sorts of red, white and blue “Americana”, but all those spread eagles and tavern signs, not to mention the red, white and blue candlesticks phones, just kind of depressed.  Yes, we loved the nation, but what about us?  We the people?  Now what?

I mean you can’t get geeked about the 201st anniversary of something.  It’s like you wait and wait to get to 18 years old, and then you get to look forward to being 21, and then there is 25 and then, nothing.  No one, except your grandparents and your parents aunats and uncles care when you hit 26.  Nope.  That’s when the ribbing about being over the hill and steaming towards 30 and the end of life start.

Well, that’s kind of how people felt in 1977.  Big freaking deal.

Then, in 1977, ABC launched a juggernaut unto this nation, a miniseries that would change the face of television, Alex Haley’s Roots.  

How big was Roots?  Well, I am 54, and I clearly remember that while most homes in cities had just 13 channels if they had cable at all, 40-45% of all television viewers were tuned into roots.  That was BIG in those days to get a 40-45% share.

Then people flooded the nations libraries, wanting to make that huge find.  Community based genealogy societies that had been quietly working away at what they were doing grew exponentially in membership.  And communities that didn’t have genealogy societies all of sudden found that at least one was forming. 

Everyone seemed to be searching for their “roots,” especially white, middle class people.  It was the thing to do. I know it was because people started using “roots” in place of “genealogy”.  Even as a teenager, when I heard people say “I want to discover my roots,” all I could say to myself was you all understand that this is the story of black people, enslaved, brought here, abused and eventually freed, right?

But even I got involved in the whole fevered event because I couldn’t get answers from either parent.   And I couldn’t have been alone.  I mean back then, what family didn’t have a big box of photographs?  We all had them, and we all got into them.  And we all had this conversation with our parents:

Child: “Mom/Dad who is this?

Parent: “Who said you could get into that?” -or- “Some relative,” -or- “I think that it cousin Blah Blah and a friend,” -or-  Go ask your grandmother”

So many of our parents had no idea who anyone was.  And some of our grandparents had come here to forget

Child: “Grandma, where did you come from”

Grandmother: “I came from the old country.”

Child: “Where was that?”

Grandmother: “Here, eat this.”

And that was all you got.  Evasion and stuffed cabbage.  And if you went to the globe and looked for the old country, it was nowhere to be found.  USSR, da. 

I mean I grew up with a Jewish father and Methodist Episcopel raised mother.  My mother would watch Nicholas and Alexander on the Saturday Night movie and say “This is so sad, it won’t end well.”  My father’s sister, who translated for my father’s mother would say “Don’t bother grandma, she when she watched Nicholas and Alexandra, the good part is coming up.”

White people didn’t have a miniseries about them, I mean us.  Never mind that all American history to that point was basically white people history.  No, all we had were John Jake’s novel series that launched off his book The Bastard, with its noble men and full breasted women.   And white people wanted in on this meaningful journey that Alex Haley had taken.  Or they wanted to join the DAR because they served tea and cookies.

In 1977, we didn’t have an internet or home computers.  We had public libraries, so that’s where people swarmed.  And we were usually disappointed by what we found.  The courthouse was another place to search, but that meant going downtown.

So we focused on what we could get and get easily.  The United States Census. 

One of the first things that people my age learned when we started to dip our toes into genealogy as a hobby was that the U.S. Census was the vital tool to provide proof that someone existed, that they existed in a year, and that they were in fact someone, and that they could be documented.

Most county seat libraries had was an old microfilm reader and a copy or copies of the U.S. Census records for that county.  If not all, they had at least one year, usually mid 1800s. So the pursuit of census records, was fast and furious, but they weren’t indexed.  So many society volunteers divided up a year, say 1880, and indexed the records.  The indexes showed you that John Smith appeared on page 189, or 201 or 357. 

As researchers, we went to those pages, found John Smith and pointed at it, amazingly, and SHAZAM!   QUICK!  Someone get a paper form so we can write down what we have found! There it was!  Our roots!  We were someone!

Or were we?   

I mean, we were so hungry to crave being counted, that many of us just copied down what we found without proving its value.  Very few people were wondering if John Smith was our John Smith, what seldom crossed our minds was: Is that John Smith, or is it Jonathon Smith?  Could it be John Smithe?  Smythe?

Now these are all very logical questions to ask now, but back then we were too busy FINDING OUR ROOTS(!) to take a breath and say “wait a second.  Is that an informed entry, or is it an entry of misinformation?”

Because it was a census, many people took it as gospel truth, because it was an official government census.

What we forgot to consider, and we should still consider, is that the census enumerator would be hired, given some basic training, and sent out into the great unwashed to get answers. 

In tomorrow’s post, I will show you how the best of intentions can go horribly wrong in a census enumeration for one family.

“Honestly George, why do they have to bring up this ‘gay’ thing?”

“Oh, for the love of God Dorcas, why must everything offend you so?” said George, disgusted by his wife’s constant judging of anybody and everybody.

So Dorcas wants to know “Why?”

Because in this blog I intend to be honest and write about what I find, what I have found and I will also be complaining about the bias that exists, and leads bigoted people down the path of altering facts so they become lies in family trees.

Now, I do not plan on outing anyone.  Neither should you.  If you have an agenda either to prove your point, or punish someone, don’t go there.   I don’t.

We will now take questions from the audience:

Question: Murial Fahrquartet, Omaha. “I do not approve of homosexuality.”

Answer: That isn’t a question, is it?  The simple fact Madam, is that what you approve of, or disapprove of, is your problem, not mine.  Do you understand what I am saying?  A question ends in a question mark, or is something said to which you expect an answer.   A statement of fact ends in a period.  This is the Q&A of the post.  Got it, Hon?   Next?

Question: Preston Thingmerajobbie, Tallahassee, Florida. “Why do you gay’s feel like you need to rub in our faces?”

Answer: First of all, calling an entire population set “you gay’s” is simply bad grammar.  Why do gay people feel the need to rub it your face?  I don’t want to rub anything in your face sir.  You are not my type.  What I am trying to do is point out that you are the one with a problem, while I am the one with the blog.  Get it? Got it? Good?

Question: Teena Moore, Hog Liver Bayou, Texas. “So why are we here?”

Answer: Why, indeed.  That Teena, is the $64,000 question.

We are here because this blog writer is gay.  I will be drawing from my own experiences in researching PEOPLE.  And PEOPLE are all different. Black, white, gay straight, smart, stupid, in all their colorful glory, and you need to embrace it.

In genealogy there are two tenants that we need to follow when it comes to all people:

  1. Be accurate and honest. For your own good, make sure that your person biases are set aside when you are researching.  If you have a person issue with a group of people, a race of people, a nationality and you let it taint your work, then all of your work gets tainted.  Remember, we are here to unlock a human logic puzzle.  We are not here to witness your hatred towards others, we are here to learn and to expand the field of knowledge.
  2. Remember: Do no harm.  If your aunt was a Lesbian, and she is alive, and she prefers to keep her private life a private matter, do not out her.  I mean it.  I was outed to my parents by a college roommate let me tell you, their moment of self righteousness hurt a lot of people.  Keep your nose out matters that involve the private “private” lives of the living that do not concern you. If your Uncle Cletus is living with his friend Floyd, do NOT assume that they are a couple.  You wait until they say they are a couple.  And if Uncle Cletus tells you they are a couple but not to tell anyone, you respect his wishes.  Trust me on this.  You betray Cletus and he will clean your clock, and cut you out of the will.

And trust me, people.  When I tell you that LGBT people are not a new invention, believe me.  When I tell you that it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that Queen Victoria criminalized it – but refused to criminalize Lesbian sex because “a lady would never do such a thing.” – believe me.   An trust me when I tell you that most likely, that at least one of your ancestors, going back ten generations, was most likely attracted to a person of the same sex as they, you had better bet that I am right, because I am.

As for Cookie, I can tell you that I have been my husband for over 20 years.  And that is longer than any of my parents marriages to people of the opposite sex.  For the record, neither of my parents was ever in a same sex relationship.  Don’t believe me, then get out your Ouija board and hold a séance because they have both passed.  In fact, according to the Washington Post, more same sex married couples have a edge at staying together than their straight counterparts.    In fact in 20 years, we have had one fight, we have never attended nor hosted an orgy, and in 20 years we have faced obstacles, and we are still together.  Can you honestly say the same thing?  Really?  Be honest.

So just as we understand:  This is not a “Gay” blog, but it is also not a haven for your biases.





Why another genealogy blog?

So, I am sitting here, in my home office, still out of sorts from jet lag, and I got to thinking.   Now this is dangerous stuff, because my mind, which is a bit ADHA, OCD,  dyslexic and scatterbrained, and at the moment, it is full of ideas, and concepts.  Focus is not my strong suit.  But sometimes, the gears mesh and “stuff” gets done.

Anyway, the jet lag comes from a trip that my husband and I made to Salt Lake City, Utah, for RootsTech 2017.   From the mid-Atlantic, it’s about a four hour flight.  And because our plane – a lovely, brand new Airbus – didn’t come with seatback screens, you can either do something like read a book, watch a movie on your smart device, drink (we were in First Class – so it was an option) or you can think.

Now reading isn’t an option because of the dyslexia.  It’s hard enough for me to read on surface that isn’t bouncing through turbulence.

Watching a movie on a my smart device wasn’t an option because there is that battery issue, and since we were in the bulkhead seats, my backpack, with the charging cord for my iPad, was trapped in the overhead bin, and because the fasten seat belt sign was on and even the airline attendants were strapped in, getting up wasn’t an option.

Drinking was out because I really don’t drink, and when I do I like being on firm ground, and with the turbulence 1) no attendants were manning the trollies and 2) jolts and roller motions and booze don’t mix unless you like that sort of thing, and I do not.

So thinking was my only option.

Now I have been an avocational genealogist for forty years.  And I have learned that when you have a passion as I do, if you really care about what you are doing, you can either do it carefully, or you can do it by applying the shampoo principle, which is “apply, wash, rinse, repeat.”   The problem with the shampoo principle is that if you aren’t careful, you are going to run out of shampoo and hair for that matter.

And yes, I am bald.

My point, and I do have one, is that we all have to start some place when we decide that we are going to begin something in Genealogy.  Whether is the interest in it as a hobby, the opening of a new line, the search for education or the  repeated ramming our heads into the preverbal brick wall over and over until we break through it, or, we get smart enough to step back, take some time, and decide if we are going to take a new path, or if we are simply going to let time, and new databases or DNA testing to advance our cause.

For me the challenge is whether or not I am going to pursue becoming “accredited” or “certified” in the field.

So why another genealogy blog? My hope is that I can give voice to the issues that you may have faced, or show you what kind of hole that I have fallen into (and hope you take away something from my mistakes to keep you out of that hole) or that you will read something and correct, or encourage me.

I do understand that for a while, I will be pretty much talking to myself.  I don’t plan on advancing this blog or promoting it until it gets some meat on the bones of it.

So if you see me, here, rambling about, with no feed back, do be kind to the man who is blogging to himself.