Two Places at Once

For years now, I’ve complained that I needed more hours in the day. Or a secretary. Or a clone.

Wouldn’t it be great to have the ability to be in two places at once? Think of how much you could accomplish: you could be cleaning your house AND visiting the Family History Library! You could go to work AND go to that genealogy conference! All at the same time!

Ok, I know my cloning fantasy is a little twisted, but I’ve actually been thinking about this subject for another reason. While doing some research for a client, I ran into an ancestor who seems to appear in the census twice in the same year, and this is causing me a great deal of annoyance.

For example:

* John Smith A, age 37, shows up in the 1870 U.S. Census in Connecticut living with his wife and children. His occupation is listed as “minister.”

* John Smith B, age 37, shows up in the 1870 U.S. Census on his parents’ farm in Vermont with his parents and siblings. His occupation is listed as “farm worker.”

Weird, no?

Now, I suppose this isn’t completely impossible. After all, the two census enumerations were taken at least 2 months apart. Connecticut and Vermont aren’t all that far away from each other, distance-wise, so I suppose John Smith could have left his wife and children to run down to his parents’ place to do a little late-summer farming.

But why?

And why the two different occupations?

I envision John’s little brother answering the door saying something like, “Oh, he’s just here working on the farm.” 

Farm worker. Check.

So my question for you is: Have you ever run into an ancestor who was in two places at once, or enumerated twice in the same census year? If so, how did you resolve this apparent ancestor duplication problem?

* NOTE: Names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent. And yes, I’m sure that this is the right guy. And no, he wasn’t a “boomerang” child. Did they even do that in the 1870s?

Copyright © by Elizabeth O’Neal

Elizabeth is a professional genealogist, writer, and consultant. Likes: long walks in the cemetery, and the smell of old courthouse books. Dislikes: people who copy stuff off the internet without giving credit, and county clerks who can't tell the difference between Eastern and Pacific time zones. Secretly hopes her daughter will one day develop an interest in family history (but no luck so far).

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  1. Maybe he was just visiting. Or doing roots travel, visiting his parents to help out on the farm.

  2. Perhaps he had two wives. I met a woman at a meeting who had trouble with her great grandfather.

    She found a family with the same ancestor information in Ireland but a different wife. After research she found he had a family in the USA and Ireland. He worked on a ship and crossed the Atlantic many time.

  3. I’ve had a number of ancestors show up twice – at least a dozen, probably more. My gg-grandfather showed up with his family (wrong ages for him and my gg-grandmother – maybe one of the kids gave the ages?) and back across the county line on the old family farm that he used to own (the brother he must have sold it to had died, and perhaps gg-grandfather had gone back to help his widowed sister-in-law). A set of children who had just lost their mother were shown with their father and then with their grandparents two weeks later. A son is shown at home with his parents and then living in town where he worked a few days later. A spinster sister is shown with her mother and then visiting her brother’s family. And so on.

  4. I’ve come across this five or six times in my research. Sometimes a young man was living with his parents and then was enumerated again two months later when he apparently got a job elsewhere.

    It threw me for a loop at first because I had to go through the process of elimination to confirm it was one and the same person.

    When I make notations on my tree, I indicate the date of the census enumeration so the two different census records appear in chronological order on my person’s timeline. I also enter a summary of who was in the household, sometimes their ages and occupations. It helps me see a little bit more of the story ‘at a glance.’

  5. I’ve only run into this once – the Scottish Census returns were all enumerated on the same day but my great grandmother was listed at home, and also listed as a visitor in her aunt’s house. I came to the conclusion that her father listed everyone who lived in the house, rather than who was actually IN the house. Jo

  6. Well, it’s good to know that this happened more than I thought it did. In all my years of research (about 23), I’ve never found anyone enumerated twice. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough? Hmm… something to think about.

    @Claudia – Yikes, I hope a minister didn’t have 2 wives! :-(

    I think @imagespast might be on the right track for the case I’m working on: perhaps the informant just gave the names of everyone in the family, regardless of where he/she was living??

    But to prove this… that will take some thought. @Susan, what method did you use for your “process of elimination?” I’m thinking timeline.

    I really appreciate all of your thoughts and advice on this, everyone! Thank you!

  7. The situation reminds me of a nephew who teaches high school on a nine month contract… does two or three other jobs, often in other parts of the state, during the summer…. 😉

  8. I’ve learned to take census listings as clues, but often more than a little inaccurate. My favorite pair of informants are my husband’s great-grandparents who were in the same small Kansas town but living apart in 1930. Each told the census taker they were widowed. Confused me no end when I found the first listing because I knew they were both still alive. Once I found the second it became clear they simply would not admit they were married but living apart. Maybe it was a bit of wishful thinking…

  9. One relative, I believe, was enumerated in three different places. He was a traveling salesman, though.

    Somewhat related, I have some relatives who were enumerated in the census, but were also residing somewhere definitely different – six feet under, and had been there for several years at the time of the census. (They had died as children, and whoever responded to the census taker decided to include them as among the living.)

  10. My great-great-grandfather showed up twice in the 1892 NY census. Once as a resident of the county poorhouse in Lyons, NY and once in Butler, NY (same county) I’ve assumed the first was his residence and the second was a job location. The county historian thought the assumption was reasonable.

  11. My 3rd great grandparents along with their children and grandchildren were enumerated twice on the 1870 census for Martin County, NC. One enumeration list my 3rd great grands as the head of the household and the other list my 2nd great grand uncle as the head of household. The enumerations were only days apart but it appears as if they are in two different locations as the neighbors are totally different. Since this was the first census after slavery I’ve assumed that in that few days span they relocated from one farm to another. Either way, I’m looking at both enumerations to try to determine the last slave owner.

  12. @Dr. Bill, I’ll bet your nephew would be a nightmare to research in future censuses! 😉

    @Susan, you’re so right. If only we had a Wayback Machine so we could find out what truly happened…

    @John, yikes! How sad to lose young children, but it sounds like your ancestors had some serious trouble letting go.

    @Frances, Sounds like you’ve got a good reason for the double-enumeration. Was an occupation given on the census?

    @Mavis, If they’re definitely the same people, then it does sound like they moved. How confusing!

    Everyone, thank you so much for your comments and advice. You’ve definitely given me plenty to think about, and some good arguments for my case!


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