Nov 27, 2020

Differences in Various Censuses

November 27, 2020

The last couple of weeks I’ve written about census records, and today I want to continue on that theme by discussing the differences between the various United States Censuses. Although all of the censuses were meant to enumerate the population of the United States at a specific date, the censuses varied on the exact date chosen as census day as well as on what questions were asked. Knowing when and what the census asked can help a researcher analyze the information found on a particular census.


A good starting point for figuring out these differences is the United States Census website at . “Through the Decades” is a quick look at how the censuses varied in terms of what questions were asked and what instructions were given to enumerators as they began taking a specific census.


One of the first questions to ask yourself when considering a specific census is what day was considered the official census date for each census. This date has varied over time. The 1790 through the 1820 censuses were taken on the first Monday in August; 1830 through 1900 were taken on June 1; 1910 was taken on April 15; 1920 was taken on January 1; the 1930 and 1940 censuses were taken on April 1. These dates do not mean that all the censuses were physically taken on the official census date, but enumerators were told to record who lived in a specific household as of the census date, even if they were asking the question months later. As a practical matter, enumerators did not always follow the dating instructions exactly. For example, the 1920 census was to be taken as of January 1. My aunt was born on January 31 of that year. If the regulations had been adhered to, she should not have been counted in 1920 since she was not a member of my grandparents household on January 1. She does, however, show up on the 1920 census. Clearly, the enumerator didn’t visit the family until sometime after January 31, and he recorded everyone who lived there on whatever day he visited – not the official day. Mistakes of the same sort were also made when someone died after the official census date but before the enumerator visited a family. Sometimes these types of mistakes can lead to someone being enumerated in a census more than once. My distant cousin Clarence Fernelius, who was born in July of 1885, was enumerated once in Minneapolis with his parents in 1900 and once in Todd County, Minnesota in the same year where he was listed as boarding with his aunt and uncle. It’s definitely the same person, but he apparently spent the summer of 1900 helping his relatives on their farm and was enumerated there, as well as in Minneapolis where he probably lived with his parents for the rest of the year.


Even more important is knowing exactly what questions were asked in each census. Everyone knows that the earlier censuses do not provide as much information as the later ones. From 1790 through 1840, only the heads of households were listed by names. Everyone else was listed by a hash mark in various age ranges. In spite of this, it’s worthwhile seeking them out to help place a family in a specific place at a specific time. However, for most of us, our primary focus will be the censuses from 1850 forward which list everyone by name. Beyond that, the amount of information given varies by census.  The later censuses may include name, age, sex, race, profession, value of real estate, whether the person could read or write, whether the person was married within the last year and questions concerning conditions such as blindness, deafness, insanity and mental capacity. It’s important to remember that even in the later censuses not all the questions were asked each year.


Starting in 1880, the census began to list the relationship between various household members and the head of the household and the marital status of household members. 1900 is everyone’s favorite census since women were asked how many children they had given birth to and how many were still alive. In addition, all household members were asked not just their age but also the month and year of their birth. This census also asked immigration and naturalization questions about when a person had arrived in the United States and whether he/she was naturalized or not plus the year of that naturalization. This makes the 1900 census a great resource for information about folks who were enumerated that year.


To make sure you are getting the most out of each census, it’s worthwhile to take the time to review exactly what questions were asked on a particular census and to make sure that you pay attention to how an ancestor answered all of these questions since they can lead to further records such as marriage and death certificates, naturalization and immigration records and military records for men who were veterans.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large