Census Records

History and How to Use them

(c) Linda Haas Davenport

Updated 2003

Not Public Domain Respect the Copyright

Copying, posting, reprinting or any other use of this essay (other than for your personal use) without the express written consent of the author is prohibited (and a breech of copyright laws). Not familiar with copyright laws? - click the box above.

The original of this article was distributed to the on-line genealogy community in the Genealogy Record Service Newsletter in September 1998

Time for an Update

I wrote the original of this essay in 1997 and at the time the majority of the people who visited my Learning Center were family historians who were already familiar with genealogy research and were looking for more in-depth information on different source records. I didn't feel it was necessary to actually explain why a family historian needed to search Federal Census records nor to explain the basics of census research. However, things have changed since 1997 and for this series of essays to be helpful to many new family historians I felt it was time for a major update. I have re-written this essay and each of the individual census year essays.

Before We Meet the Census Records

Novice family historians are instructed to begin their research by gathering as much information as possible from their homes and family members and to verify the information by collecting marriage, death and birth records. The next step is a search of the Federal Census records. These are usually the first large body of source documents a family historian has to search.

The history of the Federal Census follows and will help you to understand the records you will be searching. To successfully use the Federal Census records you need to develop good research habits from the very beginning. One of the first things you will need is census abstract forms. These are forms that are formatted to match the columns on a page of the census schedule. They are available from many places on-line, often at local genealogy libraries and local genealogy societies. I usually download the ones found at ancestry.com. If you prefer to purchase preprinted abstract forms go to Everton Publishers and check out all the forms they have for sale. Gary Minder has come up with the perfect tools for census record research - he has the census abstract forms set up in spreadsheet format and also a set of spreadsheets to help you organize your research and show you what you are missing. I personally prefer to abstract census records by hand onto an abstract form and then transfer the information to my computer - but I come from the old school of genealogy research and many of the new family historians prefer to use a laptop.

The next tool you need is access to either Everton Publishers' Handybook for Genealogists or Ancestry's Redbook. One or the other of these books is available at most local genealogy libraries but sooner or later you will probably want to own one of them. If you can afford to buy only one reference book - spend your money on one of these. Of all the reference tools you will use in your research one or the other of these books is almost indispensable. Both books are divided into states and then into the counties of the state. Information about courthouses, available records, addresses and genealogy societies is provided for each state and county, but the thing that makes this book indispensable for census research is the information on when a county was formed and what existing counties it was formed from. Probably the best way to explain why you need to know when a county was formed is to use as an example an e-mail I received not too long ago.

" Linda I have followed your instructions in searching the census records but I simply can't find my family and I know they were there because my family has lived in the family home for over a 100 years. I have checked the whole county line by line and can't find them. What do I do now? Thanks for your help."

I wrote the lady and asked what state and county she was researching. When I received her answer I pulled out my Handybook for Genealogists and checked the information on her county. I found that the county she was looking in had lost a part of its land when a new county was formed during the 10 years between censuses. I suggested the lady look in the new county and she found her family immediately. They hadn't moved the county line did. Many a family historian has spent hours and hours trying to find information on a family in the wrong county because they were not aware of county line changes. Another wonderful research tool is a book by William Dollarhide called Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Census (once again most local genealogy libraries have this book). This book has see-through overlays showing the county boundary line changes for each Federal Census. Maps are also available individually by state from many places.

You now know what tools you need so let's talk a minute about the basic How To of census research. As a family historian you will always be traveling backward in time. You begin your family research with yourself and then move back to your parents and then back to your grandparents, etc. To successfully find information on each prior generation you need to accumulate information about the current generation that will help you locate the previous generation in time and space. Unless you were born before April 15, 1930 you will not find yourself in the most currently available census - the 1930. Whichever generation (yourself, your parents or grandparents) are of an age to be on the 1930 census that is the generation you will have to begin your census research with.

I have an essay for each federal census year and you should read the essay that matches the census year you are working with for detailed information.

The usual way to research census records is to begin with the most current census, find your family, record the information and then move backward to the next census in line (1930 then 1920 then 1910, etc.). This is feasible as long as you know the family names you are looking for. Sooner or later you'll hit a year when you won't be able to determine which family is yours. That's when you go back to the 1930 census abstract form and begin to locate other source documents to confirm that the family is really yours. One word of advice - always list the information on at least 10 families before and after your own. Prior to 1900 most families did not move as a single family unit (mom, dad and kids) rather they moved with other family members, extended family, neighbors or good friends. It was only after the 1900s that families started moving as single units. When you make it back to the 1840 census you will be faced with only the name of the head of the house and that's when all those names you record from later census will become invaluable. That's not to say you won't make use of these neighbors all the time they just become much more valuable in 1840.

Be prepared to return to the census records over and over and over. As new people surface you will need information on them, a new clue found in other source documents will send you back to the census for information. I have been researching my family history for over 30 years and I still use the federal census records. The better research skills you learn and develop early on the more successful you will be in the future.

A summation of this essay is found in the last section and it offers many suggestions of how the information on census records can be used to locate source documents and other information.

One last comment before we visit the history of the federal census - many of you may have found what you believe to be your family history on-line and may be wondering why you should bother looking at the census records. I can only say that until you yourself verify the information you receive from someone else you can never be sure the information is accurate. If you share information you do not know to be accurate you will be doing a major disservice to other family historians and the hobby of genealogy. The amount of misinformation and sloppy research has reached such proportions that there is now a definite distinction between the term genealogist and family historian. A genealogist has been trained and usually certified in the field of genealogy while family historians are hobbyists who's quality of individual work is as varied as the individuals.

Now let's go find out how the census came about and why we have it.

History and Background

According to Webster's 9th New Collegiate Dictionary a Census is: "1. A count of the population and a property evaluation in early Rome 2. A usu. complete enumeration of a population: specif: a periodic governmental enumeration of population."

Taken every 10 years the United States' Federal Census endeavors to account for every person residing in the US. This every 10 year census is used to apportion government representatives to the House and Senate, to gather information and specific data the government is interested in, and to produce statistics of one kind or another. I'm sure that it never crossed anyone's mind (in the government) that someday this collection would end up being one of the most popular and most used tools of a genealogist and family historian.

Prior to 1790 there was no full census taken in the colonies. There were some state and local censuses taken prior to 1790. Also scattered throughout the colonial records are population lists of one kind or another; such items as property tax lists, church membership lists, etc., are found at the county / town level.

However, all of this changed after the Revolutionary War. The new fledging government found itself in charge of a nation and had no idea how many people it was expected to govern. Along with the need to know the population count and where people lived the new government needed to raise money. The War had left the new government flat broke and in debt.

"Article I, Section 2, of the United States Constitution required in 1787 that Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." (1)

With the enactment of this law the brand new US became the first country in the world to call for count of its citizens on a regular basis.

In subsequent decades, the practice of "Service for a Term of Years" died out. "Indians not taxed" were those not living in settled areas and paying taxes; by the 1940's all American Indians were considered to be taxed. The Civil War of 1861-65 ended slavery (abolished legally through the 13th Amendment in 1865), and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, officially ended Article I's three-fifths rule. Thus, the original census requirements were modified. Direct taxation based on the census never became practical.

The census count still has a direct impact on the congressional districts of each state and the number of representatives per state is still determined by the census count. The first congress was wise in that it left the census to be done in "such manner as they shall by law direct". This has allowed the contents of the census to change from time to time, the manner in which the census is taken to change and finally it allowed for the forming of a full time Bureau of the Census.

The men who served in the first Congress of the new Union had vivid memories of the laws of Europe. As they molded the new country's government they instituted laws they felt would protect the people from an oppressive government. One of the laws enacted made available to the populace the records of the Federal Government. For the family historian this open record policy gave access to the Federal Census records. The census law required that every household be "visited and that completed census schedules be posted in 'two of the most public places within [each jurisdiction], there to remain for the inspection of all concerned' and that 'the aggregate amount of each description of persons' for every district be transmitted to the President."

It wasn't long before the government ended up between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The government directed that Federal Records be opened to the Public, yet people wouldn't give the Census Takers information that could be readily accessed by their neighbors. To resolve the issue the Census Bureau instigated the "72 year rule" to protect the privacy of the people enumerated. 72 years was well over the life span of the average person at the time the rule was enacted. Under this act the Census would be made available (opened) to the public 72 years after the census was taken.

The last census to be opened to the public was the 1930 census in 2002. The 1940 census will be opened to the public in 2012.

The first census of the U.S. (1790) was interested in how many people resided in the new United States and their approximate ages. By the 1930 census the questions had grown to include such things as marital status, whether a person owned or rented their home, was it mortgaged, were they citizens, information on education levels, occupation, birthplaces, what language was spoken and whether the family owned a Radio. The Censuses from 1790 to 1930 increasingly gathered more information about a family and the questions asked reflected the current interest of the government at the time of the census.


Next Page 

 You Are visitor # - Thanks for stopping by!

Dividing Line

Rtd To Learning Ctr


Linda Haas Davenport