Federal Census Records
Starting Your Search
Census records are one of the most valuable primary sources created by the federal government. Large groups of
census enumerators counted the United States’ population every ten years beginning in 1790, because our government is based on equitable representation in our legislative branch. Those enumerators (called “marshals” in earlier years) visited each family in their districts and asked a set of specific questions. Those questions and the format in which they are recorded varied
throughout our history, moving from just a tally by age, sex and race of how many people lived in a household, to much more detailed information in recent times.
As with all primary sources, you want to know
- how the records were created,
- where they were created,
- how they are filed, and
- where copies of the old records are stored now.
Most beginning genealogists are only concerned with where to find the records now. For federal census records, that’s
easy—they’re online in at least two places, Ancestry.com and
HeritageQuestOnline. When you find, however, that
you want to know exactly what all the questions were so you can better understand the answers, here’s the next step.
The Minnesota Population Center has posted a
list of the census forms and questions for the years 1850 through 2000.
In addition, they’ve posted an interesting article by Diana L. Magnuson
“History of Enumeration Procedures, 1790-1940.”
And a digitized copy of Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000
published by the U.S. Census Bureau is posted on the MPC website to read or
Here’s an example of why you’d want to know what was behind the questions. Suppose you find a census listing for some
of your folks and the woman in the household has an entry in the occupation column as “housekeeper.” Other women in the area are listed as “keeping house.” Is it the same thing? When you read the instructions to the enumerators, you’ll
learn “keeping house” was the usual occupation of a wife, but a woman paid to do the job was a “housekeeper.” Big difference.
Since reapportionment, the original purpose of the census, was based on geographic location, the census was compiled
by state and then county, and in enumeration districts in more recent years. That is how the records are filed. To locate past census records about your family, you must know or find the family’s geographic location in a census year.
Finding Census Records
The 1930 federal census is the most recent available to researchers. With your ancestors in mind, from information
from older relatives and family knowledge you have collected, you must create a picture of the probable family groups and where they lived in 1930. For example, if you know your grandfather was born in 1921, and you know the names of his brothers and sisters and his parents and have a general idea of the area in which the family lived, you can probably locate the family in the 1930 census with your grandfather listed as a nine-year-old child.
However, you must have access to copies of the census records. The
National Archives in Washington, DC, publishes copies of census records on rolls of microfilm. (Microfilm is a long strip of
photographic material containing reduced images of printed material. You must use microfilm on a specially designed microfilm reader or viewer which enlarges the images.) In the bad old, pre-Internet days, we had to go to a library that
had census microfilm in its collection. No more.
Federal census records are available online from two major sources.
Ancestry.com (paid subscription for home users; often available for onsite patron use at libraries)
HeritageQuestOnline.com (home use through a local library’s website; see more about
Both services provide detailed search boxes for name inquiries. However, with both Ancestry.com and
HeritageQuestOnline.com, you can geographically page through the census records, just as we used to turn through the pages on microfilm. If you think your people were in a particular location, but they don’t turn up in the online indexes, go
to the state and county of interest and read through the names yourself.
Save images of census pages where you find your folks in electronic form. Attach those digital files to people in your
Family Tree Maker software.
Using Census Records
The best method for using census records is to start with the most recent available to you and work backward in time,
relying on clues found in the census to guide you. Remember not to skip a census year because you think you know what you’ll find in the record. An elderly relative may have been enumerated with the family in the year you skipped, giving you a new name and new set of clues for your search.
Unfortunately, census records are prone to a variety of errors. The census enumerator did not tell us who he talked to
when he knocked on your ancestors’ doors. Perhaps a neighbor supplied the names and ages of the family members. Using your personal frame of reference, imagine what answers your neighbors would give about your present family to a census enumerator. Even if the enumerator received correct information, he may have written it incorrectly. He was working from the spoken word, translating it to paper. The copyist may have made errors. Accept what you find in the census records with a grain of salt, but record the information just as you find it—make no effort to correct the record. And cite your source!
Census records for 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900 and 1880 list more detailed information about families than earlier census
records. For these years, relationships between family members are stated. Sometimes a person in a household is listed as a “boarder,” but watch for clues in other records, because that “boarder” may actually be a relative. Each person’s record in these census years contain reported birthplaces of parents—not the parents’ names, just the states or countries in which they were born.
The census records for 1870, 1860 and 1850 list the names of everyone in the household and other valuable information,
but relationships among the people in a family are not stated. You must be careful to prove relationships with other records.
Census records for 1840, 1830, 1820, 1810, 1800, and 1790 list only the names of the heads of the households. Tally
marks by age, race and sex indicate other people in the households. You have no way to know if the people represented by tally marks have the same last name as the head of household or are even related.
Remember county and state boundaries changed over time and since that is how census records are filed, you must be
aware of these changing political boundaries. Your ancestor may have lived in one place but changing political boundaries can cause him to appear in census records for different counties in different years. There are online sources and
maps about boundary changes.
William Thorndale and William Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the US Federal Censuses, 1790-1920, is a wonderful
resource showing the evolution of county boundaries. For a specific state, Google “[whatever state] county formation dates.”
Why no mention of the 1890 federal census? All but a small fragment burned in 1921. Some early census reports are
missing as well for other areas.
While the most popular census records are the federal population schedules, there are other census schedules for
researchers to comb for information. Other schedules or parts of the federal
census list different information.
- Mortality schedules, available for 1850 through 1880, list people who died during the
twelve month period preceding the census enumeration. Many of these schedules
have been abstracted and published.
- Slave schedules, available for 1850 and 1860, list slaves by age, sex and color under the owner’s
- Agricultural schedules, 1850 through 1880, list farmers’ names, crop information, and acreage.
- Manufacturing or Industry schedules list the names of people who had businesses and include
statistics about the activity. They were taken as early as 1810, although most
for 1810 have not survived. Records for 1820 have been compiled and published by
the National Archives in microfilm form. Schedules for 1850 through 1880 exist
in various records repositories.
- Revolutionary War pensioners were specially noted in the 1840 census. The 1890 census listed a
special schedule of veterans and their widows. Unfortunately, the veterans’ schedules only exist for Kentucky and the states through the rest of the alphabet. The states’ schedules listed alphabetically before Kentucky were destroyed in 1921 with the 1890 population schedules. Many of the existing veterans’ schedules have been published in book form and on CD-ROM and all are
found in National Archives publication M123, on microfilm.
In addition to the federal government, states or territories often conducted census enumerations. A list of these has
been published in State Census Records by Ann S. Lainhart.
Remember the Neighbors
For all the census years, one of the most valuable categories of information, sometimes overlooked by beginning
researchers, is neighbors of the family of your interest. Census information was
gathered as the enumerator went from house to house, neighbor to neighbor, down
the streets and roads. When you begin census research, look carefully at other
families in the census records after you discover your family. Families with the
same surname as the one you are researching will be of particular interest, but
look also for similarity of unusual first names and coincidental places of
birth. Families seldom moved alone from one area to another; they moved in
groups related by blood, marriage, religion, ethnic origins, and social cliques.
Tracking groups of people across the country through time in the census records
can be easier than tracking a single family.
Researching a family with a common name can present special problems. For example,
the John Jones family can be especially challenging. But if
you find John’s son Samuel married the daughter of Bartley Abernathy, and other
in-laws of the Joneses included the Huddlestons, Bledsoes, and Rutherfords,
you’ll have more names to look for in previous places of residence. People
tended to marry within their own social and economic groups—identify kinship
groups to look for in census records.
Federal census enumeration occurred only
once every ten years. You must fill in the other years with primary material
from other sources. You want to find the records your ancestors created while
doing their day-to-day business and most of those are found in county or other
local jurisdictions. That is the subject of the next chapter.
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