52 Ancestors – #5 – In the Census- Who Was Dong May? (Why I Couldn’t Find My Mother in the 1940 Census)

The most recent U.S. Census (1940) was released in 2012. Due to privacy concerns, censuses are not released to the public until after 72 years have passed. (Other countries wait 100 years.) So, it was with great excitement that I sat down to glean facts about my grandparents from the newly released images. I don’t know why I was so excited – I already knew their names, where they lived, where they came from and many other pertinent facts. But, there is something about seeing your family’s vitals splashed across a webpage for all to see.

Maybe they (the genealogy websites responsible for gathering, transcribing, and posting the information) should have taken a little more time. In the rush to get the most images indexed and posted, many errors were made. Don’t get me wrong. I really appreciate the effort. I have participated in indexing projects and do understand the intricacies involved. Some handwriting is almost impossible to read. Some images are poorly scanned. But – seriously, use some common sense!

What do you see on the top line of this image?

If you’re anything like the persons transcribing for Ancestry.com, you said, “Dong May.”
How about now? Still see “Dong May” or something else?
How about now? Read the entire line.
You may still see “Dong May.” But stop and think about it for a second. Put it in some context. Does “Dong May” make any sense? 
According to this entry, “Dong” is an 8-year-old white girl from Vienna, Austria. Now, it was 1940, not 2017, when anything goes for names! Maybe it’s just me, but I highly doubt any white girl from Vienna would be named “Dong.” These transcribers were just in too much of hurry to get the job done.
In fact, “Dong” is actually “Doris.” If you look again at the image, you can clearly see the dot of the letter ‘i’. The ‘s’ is slightly obscured by the ‘h’ from the name “Sophie” below. 
How did I find her in the 1940 census, despite her name being mangled by the transcribers? These tips might help you in your search:
1. Search for family members. This is what I did. It’s probably the easiest method. A search using the names of my mother’s parents brought up the correct record right away.
2. Try a different website. Perhaps image was transcribed differently.  A search for my mother’s name on familysearch.org brought up the correct image. 
3. Search by address. If you know where the person lived, but can’t locate them in the census, try searching the images. You could search EVERY image of the particular census, but that would be hugely time-consuming! Instead, use the Unified ED Finder (ED means “enumeration district”) at http://www.stevemorse.org. Following the instructions, you will be able to narrow down the census pages to the ones close in address to the person you are searching for.
4. Consider and try various spellings. As in my example, errors are made in transcribing records. In this case, however, I never would have tried “Dong”!
5. Search without first/last name. Searching in this manner might return an overwhelming number of results, You can reduce those if you know the approximate city and/or state. Including a birthdate will help as well.
Still can’t find them? Consider these ideas:
1. Perhaps your ancestor was away the day the census taker came to the door. 
2. They simply didn’t respond to the “knock on the door.”
3. They lied. There are many reasons someone might give incorrect information to a census taker – fear of government, participation in illegal activities.
4. Language barrier – perhaps the enumerator simply couldn’t understand what your ancestor was saying, and as such, did the best he/she could taking down the information.
5.  Uninformed. Census takers assumed that the informant was giving correct information. Perhaps the informant was simply a boarder, who had no real knowledge about the other occupants of the home. The 1940 census was the first census to identify who the informant was. Knowing who provided the information can help researchers evaluate the accuracy of the responses.

One thought on “52 Ancestors – #5 – In the Census- Who Was Dong May? (Why I Couldn’t Find My Mother in the 1940 Census)

  1. Excellent advice! Too often transcriptions are incorrect. Another trick is to search on multiple sites, because they use different transcribers. So I like Ancestry, Heritage Quest, and Fam Search. Happy ancestor hunting!


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