Interrogating evidence in census records.

Here is a vexing example of why you cannot accept census entries at face value, but must interrogate them to get closer to truth.

This snippet from the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County, appears to show Willis Barnes, his wife Farby, their children, and his mother Rose. The reality is quite different.

In fact, this is a blended family. Willis Barnes’ first wife, Cherry Battle (or Eatmon) Barnes, died in the mid-1890s. They had at least nine children together, none of whom are listed here; their younger children were taken in by older siblings when their mother died.

On 2 March 1897, Willis Barnes, 59, of Wilson township, married Fereby Artis, 47, of Toisnot township, in Wilson County. They had not, as the census taker noted in the column next to that in which he wrote an M for “married,” been married 25 years.

Fereby (or Phereby, or any number of spellings) Barnes was born about 1849 to Silas Barnes and Rosetta Farmer Barnes. On 20 December 1879, Fereby Barnes married Benjamin Artis Jr., who was born about 1849 to Benjamin Artis Sr. and Fereby Woodard Artis, a daughter of London and Venus Woodard. (So, yes, Ben Jr. and his wife had the same names as Ben Jr.’s parents.) Fereby and Benjamin Artis Jr.’s children included Harriet Artis Simms, Morrison Artis, Silas A. Artis, Louvenia Artis Hayes, and Wade Artis.

The four children listed in this census entry — despite the dash implying their surname was Barnes — were Fereby’s children (Willis’ stepchildren) and were Artises. And Rosa Barnes was not Willis’ mother at all. She was his mother-in-law —  Fereby Barnes Artis Barnes’ mother.


  1. Silas Barnes and Rosetta Farmer were my third great grandparents. Their son Simon marrried Pennina Woodard who was the daughter of London Woodard and Penelope Lassiter.

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