You may remember that a short while ago I finally tracked down the Gavins in the US Census of 1860. I had been unable to find them via a simple search of the family name in the Ancestry.com US Census database, and this was because their name was misspelled by the census taker: he spelled it “Gavver” instead of “Gavin.” Typically, the way a US Census worked was that the census taker would leave a census form to be filled out overnight by each family he was assigned. The census taker would collect the completed forms the next day. However, if the family was illiterate, the census taker himself would transcribe the family’s information as they provided it verbally. Now, according to the census, Elizabeth Gavin was illiterate but her husband Michael was not. Did the census taker arrive at the Gavins’ household in the daytime, and with Michael at work have to get the census information verbally from Elizabeth? Maybe. I will probably never know, but it’s certainly worth considering.
In light of this, I want to recommend a thoughtful article by Michael John Neill on the many opportunities for misinterpretation of information along the long, fine thread of communication that separates our ancestors from us. While you’re at it, browse through his entire blog, RootDig; it’s chock full of great tips for the genealogist.