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The 2020 Census

Note: This article was originally published in Home&Harvest magazine, January / February 2020 edition.

Historians LOVE when our calendar rolls over to a new decade. Why? It is that time of year when we get to participate in creating new historical records for our descendants. I don’t know if you caught it or not but I’m talking about the decennial Census. The Census, which is outlined in Article I Section 2 of the United States Constitution, is an accounting of the residents of the United States of America. The main purpose of this exercise is to better understand how many people live in each area of the country for the purpose of determining how many representatives are granted in the United States House of Representatives.

Representation in the House of Representatives is important to ensure that the popular voice is heard in the United States Congress. However, that's not why the census is exciting to local historians.

I lookup and use historical United States Census data nearly daily in my position. The census, at the very least, tells historians who lived where at a given time. It is a single record that answers three of my five favorite questions (who, what, when, where, & why). That’s the making of a great historical record.

One of the most interesting facts about the census is how it has changed over time. The government has expanded the reach of the census from telling us what county & state a person lived in (1790 & first U.S. Census) to telling us a host of information about the residents of the United States of America. While many questions have changed over the years some have remained rather constant. These common questions and themes are Name, Address, Sex, Race, Marital Status, Occupation, Education Level (literate vs illiterate, & what their primary language is), where they were born (country or State), whether they rent or own their house, and the birthplaces of their parents. Wow, that’s a lot of information.

One page of the 1880 US Census, showing information on Moscow, Idaho residents.

The census is taken every 10 years and provides historians a snapshot of the population at the time. The Census is a great way to see where someone was and where they came from. In Latah County, like much of the USA, people immigrated from other countries and other parts of the country. The census helps us to track these movements. It is also interesting to watch the occupation of people change as they move geographically or perhaps change their livelihood by shifting careers.

Is all of this information out there in the public domain? I’m not safe. I don’t want you to know (or be able to look up) my wearabouts, profession, education, family, etc. The Census Bureau understands your trepidation. That’s why individually identifiable Census information (anything with a resident’s name on it) is sealed for 72 years. After 72 years the Census records are opened for research. Currently the 1940 census is the most recent Census that we can draw from as historians. But, mark your calendars. In April 2022 the 1950 US Census is officially open for research, HOORAY!!

Some of the unsung heroes of this whole process are the enumerators who work to ensure the data that they are collecting is accurate and truly represents the population within a given area. Enumerators used a very methodical technique and seemingly walked down the street (in urban areas) with their census ledger containing the questions and information that they were gathering. Therefore it becomes rather easy to determine the neighbors of your research subject as well.

When looking at census records it can be very interesting to examine the enumerator as well. Let’s take a look at one such enumerator in 1910 who performed the Census for (at least) the North Moscow Precinct. In April, 1910, J Ralph Naylor.

John Ralph Naylor was born in October of 1886 in Idaho, one of four children of John L. Naylor and Rebecca E Naylor. The Naylor family lived on North Polk Street in Moscow, Idaho. By the age of 13, John Ralph Naylor was able to read and write in the English language. John Ralph Naylor first appeared in the Census in 1900, due to the 1890 census being lost in the fire.

On April 23, 1910 John Ralph Naylor enumerated himself and his family. In 1910 John Ralph Naylor and Helen M Naylor had married and were living on a farm which they owned in the North Moscow, Idaho precinct with John’s brother: Roy Naylor.

By 1920 Roy Naylor had moved off John & Helen’s farm and in his stead their two children, John C. (age 7) and Lois M Naylor (age 4 ½ ), were living with them. By 1930 their family continued to grow, adding Carol Naylor and Earl Naylor to the family. In 1930 John Ralph Naylor must have needed some help on the farm. Edward Neal was hired to work on the farm and lived with the family. Throughout the 1920s-1940s the Naylor children are being listed as students in lieu of employment.

One page of the 1940 US Census, showing information on Moscow, Idaho residents.

Although John Ralph Naylor’s profession was still listed as a farmer in 1940 John & Helen Naylor were no longer living on a farm. In fact at this time they were only living with Carol and Earl Naylor. Their home was located at 510 S. Monroe Street in Moscow, Idaho. We also learn that the family lived at the same address in 1935 and that John Ralph Naylor worked 52 weeks in 1939 and that he had alternative income rather than simply working for pay.

This is all we know about John Ralph Nalor, based purely on census data, until April of 2022 when we get a glimpse into the next decade in the Naylor family.

All of the above information comes directly from the Census. As you can see these questionnaires serve many purposes but can be an amazing resource for historians and genealogists. Please keep in mind how important these public records are while you join me by promptly responding to the 2020 Census.

Zachary Wnek

Museum Curator

Latah County Historical Society

For further information on the 72 year rule you can read here:

Kelle Bake wrote a fantastic piece on the 1890 Census that can be read here:

“First in the Path of the Firemen” The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 1 Spring 1996, Vol. 28, No. 1 | Genealogy Notes has a powerful and free way to search United States Census records. Note: you are required to setup a free username for full functionality.

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