Census Records

Genealogists rely on census records to meticulously track individuals and families across time and place. Discovering an ancestor consistently residing with the same partner across multiple census records serves as a compelling clue that they were in a committed relationship. Let’s delve into an example discussed in last month’s blog post—Willa Cather.

Willa Cather, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for her 1922 novel One of Ours, formed the most significant friendships of her adult life with women, and most notably with her editor, Edith Lewis. Cather shared the last 39 years of her life with Edith. In the 1910 U.S. Census [1] Willa and Edith are living together in Manhattan, both listed as lodgers in the house of Mary F. McQueeney, with their marital status recorded as single. In the 1920 U.S. Census [2], we find Willa and Edith both enumerated as “HEAD” of the household—an unusual designation that serves as a Rainbow Flag clue. I can only imagine the enumerator’s confusion on how to record this wife-less relationship. Remarkably, their marital status remains recorded as single.

Cather, known for her extreme privacy, was a prolific letter writer. Although she burned most of her correspondence and forbade any publication of surviving letters in her will, surviving letters were published in 2013 in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, revealing the depth of passion she held for Edith.

In historical census records, it’s essential to note that you won’t find same-sex couples listed as “Head & Wife” or “Head & Husband” before the 21st century. Instead, look for terms like Boarder, Roomer, Lodger, or Partner. Identifying couples who consistently cohabitated in subsequent records establishes a pattern that strengthens the case.

Stay tuned for next month’s post, where I’ll delve deeper into the nuanced use of the term “Partner” in census records.

[1] “United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:M5MT-SH3 : accessed 11 December 2018), Edith Lewis in household of Mary F Mcqueeney, Manhattan Ward 15, New York, New York, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 807, sheet 10B, family 222, NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 1030; FHL microfilm 1,375,043.
[2] “United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MJBS-RJ8 : accessed 11 December 2018), Willa Cather, Manhattan Assembly District 10, New York, New York, United States; citing ED 729, sheet 1A, line 22, family 8, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 1203; FHL microfilm 1,821,203.

Willa Cather image from Wikipedia Commons.