A 1910 U.S. census record contains a puzzling notation in the rightmost column. (U.S. Census Bureau via FamilySearch)

Here’s how to approach an unrecognized or illegible notation, as well as missing information, in a record.

Dear Professor Gates:

I have come across the abbreviation “WS” in the column for “Place of birth” in the 1910 census for Monroe County, Miss. It occurs several times, in both the mother’s and father’s “Place of birth” columns, for both blacks and whites. I have consulted the 1910 abbreviation book, as well as other years’ abbreviations, and I have not been able to find it. I have Googled it and have turned up nothing. 

Specifically, I do know that [my] second-great-grandfather Green Verner, who was recorded in that census, was born a slave, with a white father and presumably a black mother. He is identified as black in this particular census. Also, I am fairly certain that the letters spell out “WS” and not “US.” Although “US” would make sense if the respondent did not know the state of birth, the letters on the census look like the “W” that is used for “white” in the “Race” column. 

Is it possible that it stands for “wouldn’t say”? And do you have other advice for navigating the abbreviations used in census records? —Hiawatha Northington II 

We’re not surprised at the difficulty you encountered. A number of factors can make a record hard to read or decipher, particularly in the case of census records. Human error during the creation of the record, damage in the course of its preservation or transcription error can all come into play.

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Of course, before you can figure out what the notation might mean, it’s important to know what the parameters are. You did the right thing by consulting the instructions for the 1910 U.S census (pdf). Anyone searching census records should understand the format established for each enumeration year, since they all had different questions and different instructions for the census takers.

How Things Can Go Wrong in a Census Record 

Once you know the lay of the land, it’s important to understand the various ways in which errors, omissions or confusing data can be introduced into a census record:

  • The person in the household who was providing the information to the census taker could have been incorrect or, in some cases, deliberately misleading.
  • The way in which the census taker understood and documented the information could affect the data. This is most often the case when names are misspelled. Accents and ethnic backgrounds of both the family in question and the census taker can affect what was written down.
  • The census taker’s handwriting may be difficult to read.
  • The quality of the record may be poor, whether because the original was damaged or because the copy is rendered poorly. Professor Gates and New England Historic Genealogical Society researcher Jason Amos addressed this scenario in a previous column that is worth rereading: “Deciphering Illegible Genealogy Records.”
  • With the digitization of records, errors in the transcription of a record’s data into a database can result in misspellings and other incorrect information. This is why it is important to inspect an original document or try to get a high-quality copy of it whenever possible.

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Sometimes It Comes Down to Penmanship 

Like you, we consulted the 1910 census instructions (pdf) to see if “WS” is an abbreviation used. Starting on Page 30 are the instructions for documenting nativity, which say that the state or territory is to be given for people born in the United States. There are more detailed instructions following about how to fill in the form for those born outside the United States.

The next page gives the same instructions for filling in the place of birth for the father and mother. In cases where the parent’s birthplace was in the United States but the state is unknown, the instructions say to write “United States” rather than “unknown.” There is nothing in the document that allows for the census taker to write something to the extent of “would not say.”

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With this in mind, take a look back at the record in question of your ancestor Green Verner in the 1910 census, residing in Hamilton, Monroe County, Miss. (FamilySearch; free registration required)—he is toward the bottom of the page. He was identified as black and widowed with an adult daughter and two minor children.

You can see in the “Mother’s birthplace” column the abbreviation that looks like “WS.” Our first thought was that the “W” was a messy “M” and it was an abbreviation for “Mississippi,” but considering that Mississippi is spelled out in every other instance on this page, it does not make much sense that the enumerator would choose to abbreviate it only a few times. This is an instance where it is helpful to examine the pages before and after the page where your ancestor appears so that you can get a feel for the census taker’s handwriting.

It is a bit more evident on the page before the one that contains Green Verner that the census taker, Andy W. Sandifer, wrote the abbreviation the same way. However, on the page after, which also was written by Sandifer, the abbreviation is a much neater “U.S.”

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If you continue to flip through the pages, you’ll notice that at times he would get lazy with the tail of the “U” and drag it into the “S,” which makes it appear as a “WS.” On the pages where he was neat, it is very clearly a “US” and there are no instances of “WS.” Based on this and the instructions for that year, it is likely that the abbreviation you are questioning is a messy “US,” not “WS.” In other words, he was noting the birthplace of Verner’s mother as unknown. The father’s birthplace was written out fully as “Mississippi.”

We checked the previous census enumeration to see if it contained more information about Verner’s parents. We found him in 1900 in Monroe County with his wife, Martha, and two minor children. He is identified as black. Here, his mother’s birthplace is said to be Georgia, and his father’s Alabama. The greater specificity of this census record (enumerated by Charles Smith) with regard to his parents’ birthplaces suggests that it may be more reliable. However, you will want to extend your record search backward and forward to see what information is contained in other records about Verner’s parents’ origins.

What’s Missing? Another Example of Record Sleuthing 

Though this does not relate to your own family, another example of how fully understanding census records can help you solve mysteries is an instance that NEHGS researched where a record was damaged, along with the information it contained. In the 1790 U.S. census, the family of Timothy Pond Jr. of Whitestown, Montgomery County, N.Y. (bottom of the page on the right), had a portion of the record for their household deleted where the page was damaged.

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This is likely the only copy of the record that survived, given that, from 1790 to 1820, the county courts maintained the enumerations of the censuses taken in their jurisdiction and the county clerks did not take proper care of the 1790-1820 enumerations. The microfilmed copy is likely the best copy of the original census that exists.

The tricky columns to read for Thomas Pond Jr.’s family are the last two: “Free white females including heads of families” and “All other free persons.” Happily, the enumerator for this 1790 census in Whitestown, Thomas Tyron, made a clear total for each page number at the end of the enumeration (top of Page 73).

For Timothy Pond Jr., we could read from the record itself that he had a household of:

“Free white males of 16 years and upwards including heads of families”: 1
“Free white males under 16 years”: 1
“Free white females including heads of families”: Cannot read
“All other free persons”: Inferred from above tally by the enumerator, Thomas Tyron, to be zero

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The one column that was too hard to read was the third, “Free white females including heads of families.” Since we could read the totals for other households, you can then apply a little math to determine that the number of free white females listed in the household of Timothy Pond Jr. was 3. By examining the census as a whole, we were able to fill in the gaps of a damaged record.

We tend to view census records as easy records to quickly locate information about our ancestors, but when questions or problems arise, it is important to research the census itself to understand what information was being asked by census takers, how they were trained to report that information and where or how the records were kept. This deeper level of research may help address some of those mysteries.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.