In 2092, will someone find me in the 2020 census?

J. H. Osborne • Jul 5, 2020 at 3:35 PM

Relieved but disappointed. That’s how I’d describe my experience last week finally filling out the 2020 U.S. Census. I did it online.

Why was I relieved? It was very simple and easy — just a few questions, and all very basic.

Why was I disappointed? It was very simple and easy — just a few questions and all very basic.

If you’ve read many of my columns or ever spoken with me, you know I seldom keep anything short. I guess I assumed the government already knows the answers to the questions I was asked to answer: how many people live at our address; what is each person’s name and date of birth, their race and relationships to one another; rent or own; own outright or have a mortgage.

Pretty dull stuff.

But, as someone who has been slowly trying to trace my genealogy, I realize someone in the distant future might stumble on my answers and have a lightbulb-over-the-head moment. Because my genealogy searches have led me to read multiple U.S. census forms from the late 1800s and early 1900s, I hope I spelled everything correctly. Filling out our household census myself, especially online in a very few minutes, made me appreciate how far we’ve come.

In trying to learn more about my great-grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side, I’ve recently looked at the 1870 U.S. Census and the 1900 U.S. Census

Best I can tell, Americans didn’t always have the convenient option of filling out their own census forms. Instead, an “enumerator” came around door-to-door. At least that’s what I gather from “The Twelfth Census of the United States” (1900), “Schedule No. 1 - Population,” for Hancock County, Tennessee, 4th Civil District, District 67.

That’s where I found my maternal grandmother, Pearl Johnson Wallen, listed as a member of her grandfather William Willis’ household. According to the handwritten document, great-great-grandfather William’s “dwelling-home” was the 18th home visited by census enumerator Charles W. Wallen, who dated his filing June 1, 1900.

William Willis was listed as head of the house and a farmer, with his wife of 38 years, Annis, listed as mother of nine children (eight of whom were then living). Others in the home were: Hampton (son, 19, and single); “Docia” (daughter, 17, and single); Minnie (daughter, 14); “Mollie More” (daughter, 29 and widowed, mother of four children, four of whom were living); “Hamme” Johnson (grandson, 8); “Pearly” Johnson (granddaughter, 6); William “More” (grandson, 2); Azie A. “More” (grandson, 2 months old); and Hiram Johnson (grandson, 3).

I can make these names work in what I know of family history, but with some corrections in spellings and explanation of nicknames. “Mollie More” is my great-grandmother, Mary Willis Johnson Moore Baker. We’ve long known some called her “Mollie” or even “Moll.” “Pearly” is obviously my grandmother Pearl, although I’d never heard that nickname. “Hamme” is my mother’s Uncle Hammie, brother to grandma Pearl. “Docia” is a sister of grandma Pearl. But we’ve always spelled it Doshia, thought to be short of Theodoshia, and Mom often refers to her simply as “Aunt Dosh.” As for Hiram Johnson, 3, we don’t know where he fits in, yet. He is listed as a grandson of William, but we don’t think he is a brother to grandma Pearl and Uncle Hammie. The census itself notes “Mollie” had four children and all four were living (the other two, besides grandma Pearl and Uncle Hammie are William Moore and Azie A. Moore (not “More”), fathered by her second husband, who left her widowed for the second time.

The 1870 Census shows the home of great-great-grandfather Willis and wife Annis was the 69th home visited.

And four homes later, at number 73, is the first documentation I’ve been able to find about my great-grandfather, Moses Johnson — first husband to Mary Willis and father of grandma Pearl and Uncle Hammie (I’ve always wanted to believe this was short for “Hamilton,” but I’m just not finding anything to back that up).

This leads me to believe the Johnson family didn’t live far from the Willis farm. According to the 1870 Census, Mary Willis was not yet born and Moses Johnson, her future husband, was a 1-year-old, youngest of nine children, son of Moses and Phoebe Johnson. The handwriting on the 1870 document is so fanciful I can’t quite make out some of the names of baby Moses’ eight older siblings.

But it’s more than I’ve known before. And now I know a beautiful headstone I’ve admired in the Willis Cemetery at Kyles Ford, inscribed “Phoebe Johnson,” marks the grave of my great-great-grandmother. 

The U.S. Census and your privacy

Federal law prohibits release of any identifiable information about individuals, households or businesses, even to law enforcement agencies. The law states that the information collected may only be used for statistical purposes and no other purpose.

To support historical research, law allows the National Archives and Records Administration to release census records only after 72 years.

All Census Bureau staff take a lifetime oath to protect your personal information, and any violation comes with a penalty of up to $250,000 and/or up to 5 years in prison.

If you haven’t already, respond to the 2020 U.S. Census. It helps your local community get its proper share of federal dollars — and representation.

And in 2092, some of your descendants might be trying to find their roots.

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