A Comedy of Errors: My Family in the Census (Part 1 of 3)

Antoni Bulak, August 1938
(Copyright (c) 2011 Cynthia Shenette)

My Apologies to Shakespeare

I love the U.S. Census. I love other sources too, but whenever I look at a census record I feel like I'm looking through a window back in time, one that offers a glimpse of life on one particular day in my ancestors' lives. You know what's really cool? I even know which day! The census tells me. I can see who was living in my ancestors' home, who their neighbors were, where they were living, where they worked, how many children were still at home, and so on. I'm also amazed at how much information is, for lack of a better word, wrong.

My Bulak family is a perfect case study on errors in the census. My grandmother and her family lived together as a family unit in the U.S. by 1897. I have found them in all of the census records in which they should appear--1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930. I also know the basics of my grandmother's family so I can discriminate what's right, what's wrong, and speculate as to why some of the information was recorded incorrectly. I pity the researcher who finds a census record without knowing, "the rest of the story" as veteran newsman Paul Harvey use to say. Context is everything. So with apologies to William Shakespeare, I'd like to present my version of...

"A Comedy of Errors: A Play in Four Acts"

 ~ Act I: 1900 Joliet, Illinois ~

Overall, the 1900 census was the most difficult census in which to locate my Bulak family. It took me a couple of years of searching on and off before I finally found them. Why? Nineteen hundred was a transitional year for my family. The Bulak family was supposedly living in Chicago in 1900 but moved to Worcester, MA the same year after being displaced by a fire. The family could have been enumerated in Chicago or Worcester, or missed the census altogether if they were in transit and somewhere in between. Another reason, my great-grandfather's name, Antoni Bulak, was seriously misspelled by the census taker. I found him listed as Tony Bolak. I also discovered the family was living in Joliet, IL not Chicago.

The 1900 census lists Tony Bolak (33), his wife Eva (27) and daughters Helena (5), and Antonina (4). Antonina was my grandmother. The family had two boarders living with them--Adam Bolak (Adam Bulak), my great-grandfather's brother and another boarder. The census was enumerated on 05 Jun 1900. Despite the spelling of the name, the rest of the information seems accurate. How did Antoni Bulak end up as Tony Bolak? My great-grandfather was never called Tony. My best guess is when the census taker asked his name, he no doubt responded in a heavy Polish accent with an emphasis on the second syllable.

~ Act II: 1910 Worcester, Massachusetts ~

Let's fast-forward in time. Antoni Bulak, who was Tony Bolak in 1900 Joliet, has now become Anthony Bolack in 1910 Worcester, MA. Are you still with me? You might want to take notes as there will be a quiz at the end. According to the census enumerator on 11 May 1910, Anthony Bolack (43) was living in Worcester with his wife Eva (38), daughter Helen (15), son Anthony (14), and four boarders. You noticed it too, didn't you? My grandmother Antonina has now become a son, Anthony. The years of immigration have changed for the family as well. In the 1900 census my great-grandfather is listed as immigrating in 1895 and my great-grandmother and her two daughters as immigrating in 1897. In 1910 Antoni-Tony-Anthony is listed as immigrating in 1896 and the women in 1898.


A Comedy of Errors: My Family in the Census (Part 2 of 3)


Carol said...

I love the census too, and all my surnames were always spelled the same, why weren't yours?? (she asks via tongue in cheek sarcasm)

Can't wait for part 2 and 3!

Misty said...

Love this posting and am glad to say I don't have to wait in line for the restroom at intermission:-)I'll be rushing back to my seat for act two!

Barbara Poole said...

I love your sense of humor. I have a Dr. Beluk, wonder if he is a relative (of course it is spelled differently). Nobody is better at these challenges than you.

Greta Koehl said...

I love your perspective on this - the census should not be a source of irritation but of mirth! Should definitely promote better blood pressure among family researchers!

Cynthia Shenette said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Carol - Your surnames are always spelled correctly? Wow, I want to be related to you!

Misty - Don't rush! Unlike the regular theatre, I'm not flickering the lights before you finally get to the front of the line!

Barbara - Say "hi" to my cousin, Dr. Beluk, for me!

Greta - If we don't laugh, we cry. Didn't Shakespeare say that?

Barbara Poole said...

I just read this, so the good doctor, the one I hate going to (private joke, you know what I mean), is your cousin. Small world.