Thomases in the U.S. Census Before Ever Stepping Foot in the U.S. (Mainland)

Over the past couple of years I have come across warnings about the disappointments that come with researching one’s family history.  Having conducted research in undergrad and graduate school, I understand that this process will not be linear and every clue I find will not always be immediately or easily understood or verifiable.  In particular, one thing I have come to understand about the task of answering a research question is that almost every discovery you make will lead to several more questions that need answering.  The following is a perfect example.

Nathaniel, Clarissa, and the Kids in the U.S. Census

Last summer I made a trip to my local genealogy library to take advantage of the resources they provide free of charge to patrons.  With a minimal amount of effort – just typing in one of my great-grandfathers’ name and estimated year of birth on Ancestry.com – I was able to pull up U.S. Census records from 1920 and 1930 that listed Nathaniel and Clarissa Thomas and their children.  It was quite cute to see my grandfather, who was born in 1924, appearing in the latter survey as one of the runts of the clan at the tender age of six. 

So why were my Barbadian great-grands and their Panamanian-born children enumerated in the U.S. Census?  Well, they resided in the community of Red Tank on the Panama Canal Zone, which was official U.S. territory from 1904 through 1999.  All residents were counted in the U.S. census regardless of their citizenship.  Somewhat surprisingly, I was able to find my relatives quickly because there was only one Nathaniel Thomas listed in the few Canal Zone records that came up in my search.  The names of his wife and children verified that this was indeed my grandfather’s family. 

Name and Age Inconsistencies

A few discrepancies can be found in these census records.  The first discrepancy, inconsistencies in the spelling of names, is an incredibly common issue for genealogists to encounter.  My great-grandmother’s name is recorded as Clarissa in the 1920 census and then as Clarica in 1930.  This called to mind another curious finding related to her name.  On my grandfather’s birth certificate her name was typed out as “Clemencia” but was then crossed out and corrected to “Clarissa” by hand.  According to my grandfather and father, “Clarissa” is the spelling and pronunciation that should stand.

1920 census listing Nathaniel (33 yo), Clarissa (32), Garfield (10), Alwilda (6), Ulrich (4), and Clyde (6 months). As you can see, the facsimile of the census record is not the easiest to read.

While the name confusion appears fairly simple to sort out, there were other inconsistencies in the census reports that were not so easily reconciled.  Of the six Thomases who were counted in both censuses (Nathaniel, Clarissa, and their four oldest children), the gap in ages reported from one point in time to the next is technically not, um, possible.  How is it that my great-grandfather Nathaniel was 33 years old in January 1920 and then 46 years old in March of 1930? Clarissa also somehow managed to age 13 years in just one decade (hey, at least that was consistent!). Hmmm, maybe this is the real reason they say “black don’t crack”… 

Cute jokes aside, you can see the dilemma this presents going forward in my research.  In addition to not having a birth month and date for Clarissa and Nathaniel, I don’t have a reliable birth year.  Moving forward the best I can do is use a range counting back from the ages given in both censuses. 

1930 census listing Nathaniel (47), Clarissa (45), Garfield (18), Alwilda (16), Ulrich (13), Clyde (11), Carmen (8), and my grandfather Kenneth (6).

Remarkably, time marched on at a much slower – and varying – pace for Nathaniel and Clarissa’s children. Their oldest, Garfield, was recorded as 10 years of age in 1920 and 18 in 1930.  Things started to look better when I compared their second child Alwilda’s 1920 and 1930 ages, which were listed as 6 year and 16 years, respectively. However, we start to get off track again with Ulrich, who is 4 in January of 1920 and 13 in the March of 1930.  The discrepancy here is not horribly off, but it does raise an eyebrow.  The last child who appears in both the 1920 and 1930 census reports, Clyde, was six months old in the first census and 11 in the next.  Now both of my recently waxed eyebrows are raised!  Given that the discrepancies for Ulrich and Clyde are down to a matter of months, it is conceivable that their ages were reported as the ages they would be turning in 1930.

Whatever the explanation may be, my next mission for my Thomas family research is clear – gather birth certificates from the descendents of my great-uncles and great–aunts and obtain their certified birth records on my next trip to Panama.

An Important Clue

While comparing the data in the two censuses frustrated my attempt to pin down the birthyears of my great-grandparents, it proved to be a potential gold mine in another respect.  A question about the subject’s year of immigration was asked in 1920 but not in 1930.  Better once than never!  Nathaniel reported his year of immigration as 1906 and Clarissa reported hers as 1909.  Having learned a lesson about dating events based on these census records, I am wary of taking the years given as the actual years their individual migrations took place.  But at least I have a ballpark – something no living person in my family has been able to give me.  This information will be instrumental as I put it together with other clues that will bring me closer to uncovering the connection between my Thomas and Beckles lines and their regions and families of origin in Barbados.

Note: As far as I know, the Thomas-Beckles clan were my only predecessors who lived in the Canal Zone.  My other grandparents grew up in Panama City proper, thus I will need to consult Panamanian censuses for information pertaining them.

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