Finding and Using State Censuses
June 10, 2022
Nearly all genealogists are familiar with the U.S. Federal Census, which has been taken every ten years since 1790. Far fewer are familiar with similar censuses taken by various states. Most of these state censuses were taken on the off five years from the federal censuses. For example, Colorado took a state census in 1885, between the 1880 and 1890 federal census dates. The fact that so many researchers are unaware of state censuses has caused them to be underutilized.
As anyone who has used the federal censuses knows, the censuses are the basis of much genealogical research in the United States. They are particularly helpful from 1850 forward since they list everyone by name and include other useful information. Depending on the year, this can include age, place of birth, year of immigration to the U.S., family relationships and more.
Although not all states chose to take state censuses, many did. It is worth seeking out state censuses since they contain similar information to the federal censuses. Sometimes the state censuses contain even more information than the federal census. For example, some state censuses will give detailed immigration and citizenship information, while the federal information is often less specific. Minnesota was one state that took an 1895 census. I was able to find my second great grandparents on that census. That census gave me information on their year of immigration to the U.S. The information included both how long my grandparents had lived in the United States, as well as how long they’d resided in Minnesota. This specific information helped me find their passenger lists.
A state census can also help fill in the blanks when federal censuses are missing. Almost everyone knows that most of the 1890 federal census was destroyed in a fire. Several states conducted 1895 censuses which can help bridge the long gap between the 1880 and 1900 censuses.
In the past, finding state censuses usually required contacting state archives who held these records. This often meant an in-person visit to these archives. Most of these censuses were unindexed, which made them even more difficult to use. Nowadays, most of the state censuses are digitized and available from Family Search, Ancestry, My Heritage or Find My Past. Many of them can be found on all four of these platforms. A few states, such as Oregon, do still require researchers to contact their state archives for information about accessing their state censuses.
To obtain more information about what states took state censuses and what years are available, Family Search has written an informative article called “The Complete Guide to U.S. Census Records by Year.” The article also gives information about where the censuses can be found and whether access is free or paid. It can be accessed at https://familyhistorydaily.com/free-genealogy-resources/state-census/ .
If you haven’t already been using state censuses, today is a good day to start exploring them. They’ve never been more accessible.