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United States Census Records for Beginners

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What are the United States census records?[edit | edit source]

  • The Federal Population Census is an inventory of everyone living in the United States, taken for the purpose of determining representation in the House of Representatives.
  • A census is a count and description of the population of a country, state, county, or city for a given date.
  • A census took a "snapshot" of a family on a certain day.
  • Every individual contacted by a government representative is required by law to answer truthfully.
  • Census lists are also called population schedules.

What time periods and locations do they cover?[edit | edit source]

  • The Federal Census has been taken every 10 years from 1790 to the present.
  • Because of privacy laws, a census is not released until 72 years after it is taken. Currently, the most recent census available is for 1940.
  • The 1890 census was destroyed by fire and only a few fragments remain.
  • Censuses start from the beginning of statehood, with some territorial censuses earlier.

What types of useful information can I find in them?[edit | edit source]

  • The 1790--1840 censuses are more limited, naming only the head of household and headcounts. Beginning in 1850, the census records began asking for more information.
  • Notice in the following chart additional information helpful for genealogists added each year.
Basic Family Information Found in the U.S.Census by Year
(other smaller details also given but not listed here)
Year of census
Useful Information
1850
  • Name, age, and gender of each family member
  • Occupation
  • Birthplace
  • If married that year
1860
1870 Adds:
  • Whether father and mother are of foreign birth
1880 Adds:
  • Marital status
  • Relationship to head of household
  • Place of birth for father and mother
1900 Adds:
  • Number of years in current marriage
  • Month and year of birth
  • Mother of how many children
  • Number of children living
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • How many years lived in U.S.
1910 Drops:
  • Month and year of birth
  • Number of years in U.S.

Adds:

  • Whether Civil War Veteran
1920 Drops:
  • Number of years married
  • Mother of how many children and number of children living
  • Whether Civil War Veteran

Adds:

  • Year of naturalization
  • Native language
  • Native language of father and mother
1930 Drops:
  • Native language of father and mother

Adds:

  • Age at first marriage
  • Military veteran, which war
1940 Drops:
  • Age at first marriage
  • Father's and mother's birthplaces
  • Military veteran, which war
  • Year of immigration
  • Native language
  • Indirectly, you can use the census records to find:
    • The other locations where they lived on earlier dates. Earlier residences can be determined by the birthplaces of their children.
    • Extended family members, such as elderly parents and in-laws who also live in the home.
    • Relatives living next door or nearby.


How do I find the census records to search them?[edit | edit source]

The census records are digitized and indexed by many organizations and are available online. United States Online Census Records gives links to the most popular.

What are the best strategies for searching them?[edit | edit source]

Study the following census quick start guides to United States Census Records and United States Census Records both by Jill Shoemaker, Riverton FamiliySearch Library, (printable). 

Census index search strategies:[edit | edit source]

Censuses indexes may help you find your ancestor in a matter of minutes. If you can’t find your ancestor quickly in an index, you may falsely assume they have been missed in the census. With more effort, you will probably find your elusive ancestor. Here are some helpful hints for searching census indexes.

1. One census year at a time: Only search one census year index at a time rather than all the censuses at once.

2. Try different spellings: Try spelling the first or last name differently. It may have been indexed incorrectly.

3. Wildcard searching: Try a wildcard search substituting a question mark (?) for one letter or an asterisk (*) for several letters.

4. Try using surname or first name only: If you have an idea of where the ancestor should be, such as a specific county, try using just the surname and do an exact search with the county and state. Or if the first name is fairly uncommon, try using just the first name and do an exact search with county and state.

5. How to treat middle names: Often a person who has both a first and middle name will appear with his first name in one census and his middle name in another census. Try searching both ways.

6. Look of initials: Sometimes the individuals were listed with only the initials of their first and/or middle names, so look for an initial in the index.

7. Try maiden name and married name of women: When searching for a woman, make sure to search for her under her maiden name and under each of her married names.

8. Try other relatives: If you can’t find the particular person for whom you are looking, try searching for siblings, children, parents, or other family members who may be living nearby.  Also try neighbors from previous or later censuses.

9. Try a different index: If you can’t find your ancestor in one census index, go to a different website and search their census index. Another website may have indexed the census with a different group of people.

10. Get creative! Be creative in thinking of other ways to find your ancestor!

Be thorough in your search:[edit | edit source]

1. Search every census: Look for your ancestor in every census in which they could appear because each census asked for different information and something new will be learned about the ancestor and their family in each census they can be found. If they lived from 1878 to 1935, you would check the following census years: 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930.

2. Changing family configuration: Look for your ancestor in every census in which they could appear because the configuration of the family changes over time. Children are born, family members marry, family members die, an older couple may live with adult children, or extended family members may live with the family.

3. Other families with same surname:Also look through the census in the county where your ancestral family lived for other families with the same surnames who may be related.

4. Use actual images: Look at all the information on the actual image of the census—not just the information that was indexed. The other information will help you know what other kinds of records to search for your family. These records could be vital, church, cemetery, court, land/deeds/taxes, military, immigration, or naturalization records.

How census records lead to other records[edit | edit source]

The information you learn from the census records will lead you to search other records, such as vital, church, cemetery, court, land, probate, military, immigration/emigration, or naturalization (citizenship) records to learn more about your family.

1. Finding all the children: Compare “Mother of how many children” and “Number of those children living” in the 1900 and 1910 censuses to make sure you have accounted for all the children. Watch through the census years as children drop out of the family and determine whether that was because of marriage, death or some other reason. This leads to searching marriage, death, and cemetery records.

2. Using birthplace information: Looking at the birthplace of the parents of the father and mother helps to locate the family in earlier censuses. If the father and mother were born in different states from each other, check the state where the oldest child was born for a marriage record.

3. Computing marriage date: “Number of years married” on the 1900 and 1910 censuses gives an approximate marriage date to add to your data on a family. The 1930 census asks for the age at first marriage, which can be subtracted from the age in the census to come up with a marriage year. The 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses ask whether a person had married within the census year. The marriage date can also be estimated 1 or 2 years before the birth year of the first child. Then, look for the marriage record.

4. Divorcees and widows: The 1880 through 1930 censuses asked for marital status. If a marital status of "D" for divorce or "W" for widowed is indicated, check for divorce, court, probate, death, and cemetery records.

5. Immigration clues; If the census shows your ancestor was born in a different country, check for immigration/ emigration records. The 1820, 1830 and 1840 census asks for foreigners who are not naturalized. The 1870 census has a column for "male citizens of the U.S. of 21 years of age and upwards." If the census showed the person was born in a different country, but this column was checked, this means that he had become naturalized by 1870. The 1900 census asks for the year of immigration and the number of years living in the United States. 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census asks for the year of immigration to the United States and the naturalization status. AL meant they were an alien and had not started the naturalization process. PA meant they had filled out their first papers (declaration of intention). And NA meant they had completed the process.

6. Military clues: Revolutionary War pensioners were recorded on the reverse of each page of the 1840 population schedules. See the published version at Ancestry.com. Civil War Union veterans and widows (and some Confederates) are recorded on surviving 1890 veterans schedules for the states of Kentucky through Wyoming. The 1910 census had a column for survivors of the Union army or navy or the Confederate army or navy. The 1930 census had a column for veterans of United States military or naval forces, asking for the war in which they had fought. The supplemental questions in the 1940 census asked if the person was a veteran of the U.S. armed forces or the wife, widow, or minor child of a veteran. Military service and pensions records can then be searched.

7. Occupation clues:Be sure to look at the occupation. Occupations sometimes stayed constant in families. If it is a skilled occupation, such as tailoring or shoemaking, know that the individual likely had an apprenticeship where this skill was learned, usually around age 12-14. This may have been learned from a parent or relative, or a close friend. Also use the occupation to determine if you have the correct family when searching for common names. The occupation may also lead to searching non-population schedules such as manufacturing schedules (1820 and 1850-1870) and agricultural censuses (1840-1910).

8. Land records:If there is an indication that a farm or house was owned, check the farm schedule and look for land records, probate records, and tax records.

Accuracy issues[edit | edit source]

1.Enumerator error: The information on the census is only as good as how the enumerator recorded the information—there may be errors in the information—especially with ages and spelling of names. The enumerator was sometimes not competent and was paid low wages.

3. Phonetics: Look for all phonetic spellings of a name. Spellings were not standardized until the 1900's. Enumerators wrote what they heard, and didn't always ask how names were spelled.

4. Informant errors: The information on the census record is only as good as the information that was provided by the person who was asked the questions. The person answering the questions may have been an older child or a neighbor and may not have known the answers to the questions being asked. Sometimes the family or the persons being questioned did not know the answers to the questions being asked.

5. Foreign language issues: There may also have been a lack of communication between the enumerator and immigrants who did not speak English well, which resulted in errors in recording names and birthplaces.

6. Secretive or dishonest informants: There was a lack of cooperation from some citizens--some did not want to answer all those questions and some deliberately gave false information.

7. Name variations: Nicknames and middle names were substituted for first names and initials were used instead of full names.

8. Missing records: Some people were missed when the census was taken. Some census schedules were never returned to the Federal Government and are missing.

9. Reading difficulties: Legibility and poor penmanship make census records difficult to read. Poor storage, moisture, faded ink, insects, or rodents result in difficult-to-read entries.

10. Indexing errors: The readers indexing records sometimes interpret handwriting incorrectly. Or, when transferring the information into the index database, typing errors can occur.