Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Visit to the Archives: Census Records

Headquarters of Library and Archives Canada
photo by Padraic Ryan
I recently had the opportunity to visit Ottawa, and while I was there, I spent some time at Library and Archives Canada, looking for information about Alice’s early life in Goderich. As anyone who’s done genealogical research knows, censuses, birth and baptismal records, city directories, and newspapers are all good ways to find information about people, but they all have their downsides. Just finding the document you need can be tricky, though digitization is making things easier. And any data collected by human beings—especially on a large scale like a national census—is bound to contain some errors. 

Alice’s brother James Saunders Trainer
In doing my research, I began by examining the records of the 1861 census of Canada West (what’s now Ontario), the 1871 and 1881 Canadian national censuses, the United States censuses of 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 (unfortunately, almost all the records of the 1890 census were destroyed in a fire), and the 1925 New York State census. I found some curious discrepancies among these records which raise some questions. 

One of the things I wanted to find out is when the various members of the Trainer family emigrated from Canada to the United States. We can say with some certainty that the three oldest brothers (Ephraim, James, and Bernard) had left by 1881, because they don't appear in that year’s Canadian census. One of the questions on the U.S. census is the year that non-native-born residents arrived in the United States. In 1900, James Trainer’s year of arrival is listed as 1880; in 1910 it’s 1879; and in 1920, 1885! So what caused this discrepancy? Did James forget or misstate the year? Did the census enumerator write down the wrong number? Was there some miscommunication at work or just simple human error? It’s impossible to say at this distance.

Bernard “Barney” Trainer and his wife,
Grace Scoresby Trainer
Another curious thing came up regarding Alice’s brother Bernard. The Canadian censuses as well as the 1910 U.S. census indicate that he, like the rest of the siblings, was born in Ontario. However, on the 1925 New York State census form, “Canada” has been crossed out and corrected to read “U.S.” as his place of birth. Then in the 1930 census, he gives his place of birth as Michigan. Did Bernard deliberately mislead the census enumerator, and if so, why? Bernard was born in 1859 but Canada did not require municipalities to record births until 1869, so until we can find some other record (perhaps a baptismal register) to confirm his place of birth, that will remain a mystery.

Alice’s youngest brother,
 William Edwin Trainer
Census records are a snapshot of a specific moment in time. For example, when we look at the 1881 Canadian census, we see that only five Trainer siblings remain in Goderich. Matilda, Bertha, and Louisa are all working as teachers, William is attending school, and Alice is at home. We know that their parents, Bernard and Louisa Saunders Trainer, have both died, and the three oldest boys have gone off to Chicago, but of course that information isn’t recorded in the census. Other sources are needed to fill in the details, and it would also be helpful to know something about what was happening in Goderich more broadly during that time.

In my next post I’ll tell you what I found out about the Trainer family during a particularly important period in the late 1860s and early 1870s. It’s a very sad story, but one that I think gives us some valuable insight into the later lives of Alice and her siblings.

The Trainer family photos in this post were donated to the museum by Helen Highley Matel, James Trainer’s granddaughter.

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