Census Records

History and How to Use them

 (c) Linda Haas Davenport

Updated 2003

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



Since we work backwards in time the first census you should consult is the 1930 census and then move backward to the 1920 census and continue to move backward one census at a time.

You will have a greater understanding of the census and what you can expect to find if you begin to read the essay for the 1790 census first then go to the 1800, etc. As you prepare to search a particular census, come back and look again at the essay for that particular census year to refresh your memory.

In each explanation of a census year there is a sample of the Census Abstract Form for that particular census year. These forms are available from many, many companies, libraries, local genealogical societies and downloadable from several websites. These Abstract forms should always be used when you are researching census microfilm. They help you to enter information in the correct columns and to organize your abstracts.

And, we should never ignore the information found in local and state census records. Although this essay is about Federal Census Records, drop in on my Other Census notes for additional information about Census Records.


A Recap Of Information To Help You

Most of this information is covered in more detail in the individual discussion of each census year.

The 1930 Census is the last census that has been opened to the public. The 1940 census will be opened in 2012.

The 1930 census is the census that family historians should begin with. And, every single one of us gets spoiled by the abundance of information found on this census. Unfortunately, the information gets less and less the farther back you go in time.

Since it's doubtful that most of the people who read my census essays will ever do what they should and read all of them in order, I'll take a minute and recap some information that is found in much more detail in each census year essay.

In 1790 the first Federal Census was taken in the US. The Congress was placed in charge of the census and the requirement of information changed over the years. The 1st Congress decreed that a Federal Census would be taken every 10 years.

The first few census counts were exactly that, counts by age groups with only the "head of the household" listed by name. Local courthouses and later the State Dept of each state were instructed to keep the originals but most did not. Almost all of the original schedules have been lost. The census schedules we see on microfilm today are copies of the originals or copies of copies. This means that a lot of errors are found on the census films and the information should always be taken with a grain of salt and cross checked against other sources.

99% of the 1890 census schedules were destroyed by fire and Congress had not authorized any copies to be made. The 1900-1940 census schedules were microfilmed and then destroyed. What actual paper schedules remaining at the National Archives are not available to the average person for research. Even the newer scanned images available on CDs or on-line are scanned images of the microfilm. So whether you use a microfilm machine or a CD or an on-line company you are still looking at the microfilmed images.

Census records should be compared year by year to verify the accuracy of the information. They should never be used as a stand alone source, but should be used to aid in further research of local records; marriage records, tax lists, court records, deeds, church records, newspapers, etc. Use of the census records can pinpoint a family in time and space and give you an abundance of clues, but they are not the end all of your research.

No family historian can hope to successfully put together a family history without becoming thoroughly acquainted with counties. Their formation, their changes and their problems. Using available indexes can help you locate your family on the census records which in turn will lead you to the correct state and county to do further research.

Most of the federal censuses have been indexed and these indexes are found in many locations. The Soundex Indexing System was done by the census bureau as follows: The 1880 census has a partial index, all families with children age 10 and under are indexed. The 1900 census is completely indexed and the 1910 census is fully indexed for 21 states, the remainder of the states have no index. The 1920 census has a full index. All Soundex Indexes are by head of household name with all the persons found in that household shown on the soundex card. If there was a person in the household with a different last name they have their own card. Printed indexes are available in many libraries for the years 1790-1850. The LDS on-line site has a full index of the 1880 census. Ancestry on-line has almost all of the censuses indexed and say will have every name indexed by the end of 2003. They have a full index for the 1930 census. Genealogy.com has indexes for several censuses and has some that Ancestry.com doesn't have. Indexes on CDs are available from some companies and are found in many libraries. In using any of these indexes always remember that they are subject to errors and omissions. They should only be a finding aid and should never be used in place of a search of the actual Microfilm.

The Congress, who is in charge of the Census, designates an Enumeration Date for each census. This is the date when all information is to be recorded. It did/does not matter the actual date the information was recorded, the information was to be accurate as of the enumeration date. This difference in dates confuses many beginning family historians. If a person was alive on 1 June 1850 they would be recorded even if he/she was dead by the time the census taker visited the family to record the information. The same with births. If a child was alive when the information was recorded, but was not born on or before the enumeration date then the child wasn't to be recorded. Many a family historian has been tripped up and spent years searching for people because they didn't pay attention to these dates.

The censuses that recorded the age of person or whether that person was born, married or went to school within the year also causes problems for many family historians. You need to always remember that a census year was from the day after the enumeration date of the prior year till the enumeration date of the census year. For example: if the enumeration date was June 1st, 1850 then the census year would be from Jun 2, 1849 - June 1, 1850. Looking for a marriage license in 1850 won't help you if your folks were married in the last half of 1849.

It's important to keep track of the changes in the enumeration dates. These changes meant that sometimes not a full 10 years lapsed between censuses. For the 1790-1820 censuses the enumeration dates fell within the first week in August. 1830-1900 the date was the 1st of June. 1910 was the 15th of April, 1920 was the 1st of January and 1930 was April 1st. Trying to nail down the year of birth from the age listed on the census can lead to mistakes if these dates are not taken into account.

Different Censuses had different rules about who was to be recorded and who was not to recorded within the household. Some of the Censuses required that everyone in the house on the enumeration date be listed, even if they did not live there; others required that all members of a household be recorded (if the household was their normal abode) even if they were absent on the enumeration date. For those censuses that don't list relationships this information can cause researchers to skip a household thinking there are too many or too few members.

Today we think nothing of packing up our immediate family unit and moving across the country or the world. We can quickly make trips home, talk via phone, e-mail and fax to those we leave behind. However, that was not the way it used to be. When our ancestors moved they often moved to areas that were, if not wilderness, at least a long way from the closest town. Most people did not move as a single family unit (Dad, Mom and kids) but rather moved in groups. Groups that included family (most often), neighbors and extended kin folks (in-laws). When researching the census records always record, at a minimum, 10 families before and 10 families after you ancestor. These are most likely family and friends. When looking for your family on the next census back these names will probably also be found with your ancestor and can help sort out men with the same names. For the census records of 1790-1840 (which list only head of household) you should record the information for everyone with your surname for the entire county and if possible for the whole state. What seems a foolish waste of time will actually save you untold hours of hard work.

Use the information found on the census records to point you in the direction of marriage, school, land, war, probate and court records. War service information sends you to look for pension files. Mortality schedules can help pin point death dates at a time when death certificates were not required and remind you to search for a will. Use the information on the location (county, township, post office, street address or county road and house number) to locate your ancestors place of abode in today's physical world. This will lead you to churches, cemeteries, funeral homes, newspapers, voting records and tax records. If you are searching for an African-American ancestor being able to locate a slave owner on the slave schedules will lead you to court records and old newspapers. By using the owner's information you can pin point the physical location of where your ancestor lived which should lead you to search Universities and State Archives for possible surviving plantation records. If an ancestor was 60 in 1935 you need to find out if your ancestor filed for Social Security and order a copy of their application. If your ancestor died after 1920 there is most likely a death certificate or record of death at the local courthouse or state's vital records office. Use every scrap of information on each census schedule as a pointer to send you looking for the appropriate source document.

Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com offer scanned copies of the census microfilm on-line for a subscription fee. I do not have a subscription to Genealogy.com but do for Ancestry.com. My experience with Ancestry's scanned census images is if you use a dial-up modem the census images are horribly slow to load. They load reasonably well with a high speed cable modem and great with a DSL line. Other companies such as Heritage Quest sell scanned copies on CDs. More and more census records are being transcribed and placed on-line. This is a tremendous undertaking considering that the census records cover thousands and thousands of microfilm rolls. By all means search the web for census records and census indexes on-line, but remember that all of these volunteers are struggling to read old handwriting, squinting at bad ink, watermarked copies, etc. etc and trying to figure out unfamiliar names. No one can spot your ancestor's name quicker and more accurately than you. Once you have a lead to your ancestor's location order the microfilm, use Ancestry.com or Genealogy.com or buy a CD, but which ever you do - Read the Census Yourself.

I would suggest that you take some time to, at least, browse the information for each census year. A small amount of time invested in doing this can save you untold hours of time later.

Use the box below and read the information about each census year and how to use that census in your research.

Good Luck and Have Fun!


As with any of my essays I appreciate any corrections, additional information or comments.



 1790 Census

1800 Census

1810 Census

1820 Census

 1830 Census

1840 Census

1850 Census

1860 Census

 1870 Census

1880 Census

1890 Census

1900 Census

 1910 Census

1920 Census

1930 Census


 Links to On-Line Census Information

John's site has excellent examples of how to use the census to unravel family mysteries

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