Brushing Up on Using the U.S. Census
April 12, 2019
Federal censuses are usually one of the first records genealogists learn to use when they begin United States research, in fact, it’s hard to imagine trying to do U.S. research without using censuses. In spite of this, many genealogists tend to take this wonderful resource for granted and don’t bother to learn much about using it.
The first United States Federal Census was taken in 1790, and one has been taken every ten years ever since. Amazingly, nearly all of those censuses have survived – except for the 1890 census which was nearly all destroyed in a fire, although a few fragments do survive. Because of privacy issues, there is a 72 year waiting period before a census is released. This means that the most recent census available to genealogists is the 1940 census, with the 1950 census due to be released in 2022. All available census records from 1790 to 1940 are fully digitized and indexed and are available on a variety of websites including subscription and free ones.
The questions asked varied by census year, with the later censuses having more information. The early censuses from 1790 through 1840 list only head of household by name with other members of the household indicated by hash marks in age and gender columns. This limits the value of these early censuses, but they shouldn’t be overlooked since they can still help to place a person in a specific place at a specific time and can help in figuring out family groupings based on the hash marks in various columns. Starting in 1850, the census lists each individual by name along with birthplace, age, gender and occupation, although relationship to the head of household is not stated until 1880. Also in 1880, the birthplace of each individual’s parents is listed.
For many researchers the 1900 census is their favorite since it adds a lot of helpful information including month and year of birth, number of years in current marriage, naturalization status, year of immigration and number of years lived in the U.S. For married women it also lists number of children born to them as well as number living. Finding a family member in the 1900 census is a head start on research. Sadly, for genealogists, most of the added questions were removed in later censuses.
One of the best strategies when using census records is to find an individual in every census that he/she should occur. This means that if someone were born in 1874 and lived until 1945, they should be searched for in the 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses. It’s important to do this since each census asked different questions and new information can be gained from each.
Since all available censuses are indexed, it’s usually fairly simple to find someone in a given census. However, some ancestors may prove elusive. Remember that a census is only a accurate as the enumerator who made it, and some were barely literate themselves or were incompetent in other ways. This can mean misspelled names, phonetic name spelling, foreign language misinterpretations and even missed houses. Add in indexing errors and the fact that some informants purposely lied to the enumerator, and it’s easy to see why some ancestors are tricky to find. Often, a little extra work can locate those missing ancestors; this might include trying variant spellings of an ancestor’s name or searching line by line in an area where the ancestor was known to be. Unfortunately, there will probably be a few ancestors who will never show up, but it is surprising how few of those there are considering all of the possible ways for errors to have been made.
The U.S. Census is such an important part of U.S. genealogical research that it should be thoroughly searched for every possible ancestor. Once an ancestor is located, it’s also important to wring every bit of information about that ancestor from the census. Make sure to look at all columns, not just the name and age. It may turn out that the census holds just the piece you need to break through a brick wall.
Researcher/Director at Large