The problem of Literacy & Language -part 1

Maybe your family is like mine. We come from a long line of hard working, salt of the earth people. Yes, that means many of them could not read or write.

Language & literacy present interesting problems when it comes to genealogy. Problems are exacerbated when families leave an area where one linguistic group dominates, say French speakers, and move into and area dominated by another linguistic group such as English speakers. Such was the case with my French Canadian forebears.

At its most basic level this transition in languages means name spellings are random and inconsistent. In my family alone Deyo, Deo, Dion are the same familiy name; Robidou, Rabideau, Rabidue, Robidoux, Robidox, Wrobidoux also represent a single family name. As you can imagine, that makes things a bit dicey when I look for a relative’s Census data, for example.

How do you cope?

I have come up with a couple of ‘tricks’ to help me through the linguistic morass. I’ll list them out here, and in no particular sequence:

  • Kids, spouses and ages, I always look for family members to ‘reasonably’ match in number and ‘name’ (I know the names might be mis-spelled.) Be certain not to look for 4 year olds in a 10 year old census, though! Also remember, ages are approximate and become more approximate as one ages; so a person 22 in the 1870 Census could be 32, 30 or 34 in the 1880 Census (People are not always good at counting!)
  • Location matching. Remember we have only truly become a mobile society in the last 80 years or so; that ‘probably’ means people in the 1880 census didn’t move too far from where they were in 1870, unless you have reason to believe they were part of the western migration in the US (or similarly motivated in another community). If you read my site you probably know my family has ‘been’ moved a lot.
  • Job Matching. Once a farm always a farmer is a pretty good rule of thumb. In other words, don’t expect your ancestor to have gone from day laborer to Doctor in the span to two or three Census reports.
  • The grim reaper. Remember people die at off at the oddest of times. So the absence of one or two can be readily explained especially if there was a war going on nearby or an epidemic came through. When in doubt, check your history books.

All of this just adds to the genealogy adventure.

I’ll follow-up with more observations in a later post.

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