The Census Taker Cometh

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The Census Taker Cometh 

It is June 3, 1860. 

Anna Gufferman, who is twelve years old, sees a stranger approaching her small home. He looks reasonably 
dressed and does not appear to be carrying a weapon. Illinois is not as wild a place as Nebraska where her 
cousins live, but mother has warned her that one can never be too careful. She shoos her five younger 
siblings in the house as the man approaches. 

He approaches the front yard and calls out for the man or the woman of the house and says he is here to 
ask questions for something called the “census.” Anna is wary of calling for her parents if there is no need. 
When Father and the boys are in the field, he does not like to be disturbed, not even if Grandfather comes. 
Mother is down at the creek by herself, having left Anna with the children. The weekly washing is one of the 
few times Mother does not have several small children underfoot, and Anna is hesitant to bother her if it is 
not absolutely necessary. Anna decides this “census” does not require her to disturb her parents. She tells 
the census taker that she is very familiar with the family and the goings on in the household. After all, she 
is twelve years old and responsible for several younger siblings. 

The census taker asks Anna several questions, which she frankly thinks are none of his business. He tells 
her that the government needs to know this information and that it is important it be accurate. Anna does the 
best she can to answer his questions. He starts by asking her the names of her parents and her siblings. 

“It is a good thing my parents are not here,” Anna thinks to herself. While her English is rudimentary, it is 
considerably better than the handful of words her parents have managed to learn. Determined to impress 
the census man with her knowledge of English, she indicates that her parents are not Hinrich and Anneke 
Gufferman, but that they are rather Henry and Ann. Her other siblings all have names more German
sounding than Anna's. She decides to provide the census taker with English versions of their names, just 
as she did with those of her parents. 

Anna is not quite certain how old her parents and her siblings are, but the man seems to insist on knowing 
their age precisely. Their christening names and dates of birth would be in the family bible, but Mother would
fly into an absolute rage if Anna got the bible herself and began leafing through it. Deciding it was not worth 
the risk of her mother catching her in the act, Anna guesses as to the age of her parents. Despite her 
uncertainty, she speaks clearly and distinctly to convince the census man that she knows the ages 
precisely. He seems pleased to get the information. 

He then asks where her parents were born. Anna knows they were born in Germany and were married there. 
Those questions are easy. The census man then asks where she and her siblings were born. These 
questions are not so easy. She cannot remember which of her older brothers were born in Germany and 
which ones were born in Illinois. She remembers that her parents lived for a while in Ohio before coming 
to Illinois. And frankly, she is getting tired of all the questions. Consequently she tells the census taker 
that her two older brothers were born in Germany, the next was born in Ohio and that all the remaining 
children were born in Illinois. 

Anna decides to give hurried answers to the rest of the census man's questions. He has taken time away 
from her chores and Mother will not be happy if the morning tasks are not done when she returns. 
Occasionally impatient with Anna's delayed answers, the census man seems pleased when Anna begins 
answering the questions more quickly. Eager to please and knowing she should return to her chores, 
Anna speedily answers the remaining questions, paying little concern to the accuracy of her answers. 

It is June 25, 1880. 

The census taker arrives at the home of Hinrich and Anneke Gufferman. It is a different place than his fellow 
enumerator encountered in 1860. Hinrich and Anneke have two children at home, the youngest son who 
helps his father farm and a daughter who works as a hired girl for a Swedish couple up the road. There is 
still plenty of work for Anneke to perform around the house, but no longer meeting the needs of twelve 
children makes her life less harried than it was before. 

Anneke invites the census taker into her kitchen and after he indicates some of the information he needs, 
she goes and gets the family bible, which contains the names and dates of birth for her husband and her 
children. She opens the bible to the appropriate page and tells the census taker there is the information. 
The entries are written in Hinrich's bold, clean script and the census taker only has difficulty in reading the 
name of the youngest daughter Trientje, which he copies down as Fruita. Otherwise the odd-sounding 
names are easy to read and the census taker simply copies them into his record. 

There are additional questions and Anneke provides the answers as best she can. In Germany, her husband 
was a day laborer and had moved several times looking for work. When asked where her husband's parents 
were born she is not certain; Hinrich's mother died when he was a baby and the father had died shortly after 
their marriage. Anneke told him the parents were born in Germany. Anneke was not certain of her father's 
place of birth, either. He had died before her birth and had been a soldier. Anneke had been named for her 
father's mother, with a first name that was unusual for the area of Germany where she was from. Thinking 
her father was Dutch, she told the census taker that her father was born in Holland. But she was not really 

It is June 16, 1900. 

The census taker comes to the door of Hinrich Gufferman. It has been a month since his beloved Anneke 
has died. Hinrich does not know the census taker. He swears at him in German in a booming voice and the 
enumerator senses that he will get no answers. Gufferman's son Johann lives a few miles up the road, 
fortunately in the same township. The son had told the census taker that Hinrich was taking the death 
very badly and was only speaking to a few family members. Johann told the census taker to come back if 
information was needed on the father. It looked like the enumerator would have to take Johann up on his 

Ever wondered why some census entries look like creative accounting? Have you ever thought about what 
actually transpired when the census taker arrived at your ancestor's home? 

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