The United States Constitution requires that a count – a census – be made of everyone living within U.S. borders every ten years. The constitutional purpose of this census is to determine the number of representatives in the House of Representatives each state is entitled to elect. The first such constitutionally required census was taken in 1790; the next will be made in 2010.
From very early days, Americans have found additional uses for the census: state and local governments could determine how many men of military age were available, and could measure their economic progress by counting grist mills and tallying the acres being farmed; in more recent censuses, sociologists have counted toilets and telephones, and private industries have sought information on our eating habits and preferences in everything from soap to sports equipment.
Genealogists have also found a use for these records. The census acts as a giant roll call of our ancestors, enabling you to learn the names of earlier generations, trace your family’s movements across the continent, and learn all kinds of useful and entertaining bits about their lives. If you know the name of a grandparent who was living in 1930 (the most recent census available – privacy laws require later censuses to be held confidential for 70+ years), you are ready to tackle the census.
The census is most conveniently available in digital scans, with digital index, from for-profit companies like Ancestry.com. Ancestry’s digital census can be searched from home if you pay a hefty subscription price, or at no charge in many public libraries and LDS Family History Centers. (It used to be free at all FHCs; I understand that Ancestry demanded such a high fee two years ago to continue FHC access that it is now available in only selected FHCs. I do not know who or how many currently have it.)
The census is also available on microfilm, with printed indexes for many states and years. If your local library or FHC does not have the census film you need, appropriate reels can be ordered at the FHC for a nominal charge and a short waiting period.
A transcription, but not census images, for the 1880 census is available as part of the church’s FamilySearch.org service.
Some general tips on searching the census:
1. Start with 1930 and work backwards to earlier years, one census at a time.
2. Check every census for each family, even if you think there is nothing more to be learned. Each census asked different questions. Also, if you skip one census, you may miss a chance to learn Grandma’s name because she was living with her son’s family that year.
3. The census was usually taken by walking from one house to another up and down city streets and rural lanes. When you find your target family, scan the names of the neighbors – you may find your family living next door to grandparents or uncles.
The beauty of using the census for genealogical work is that you start with what you know and gradually learn more as you move systematically back. Let’s say you find your grandfather as a 16-year-old in the 1930 census. He will almost certainly be listed in a family group with his parents and brothers and sisters, and those names may be new to you. You’ll be able to estimate the birth dates of everyone in the family, and you’ll find out where – at least in which state or country – each person was born. You’ll also learn such things as what your great-grandfather did for a living, whether your family owned or rented their home, and whether they owned a radio.
Then go back to the 1920 census and look for the same family, with your grandfather as a 6-year-old. Maybe you already know everything on that census, but maybe you can learn more. There may have been a sibling who died before 1930, or who married and moved away from the family by 1930, but that sibling will be listed in 1920. You might find that a sister called “Nellie” in 1930 is called “Helen” in 1920, so you now have a more formal form of your aunt’s name. You might find that your great-grandmother was 50 in 1930, but 45 in 1920 – you’ll learn not only that your great-grandmother may have been a little vain and under-reported her age, but also that you need to take some of the census record with a grain of salt. It’s only as accurate as the information the people reported!
Then you go back to the 1910 census. Your grandfather won’t be on this one because it’s four years before he was born, but you should still be able to find your great-grandfather (you’ve seen him in both 1930 and 1920 and know where he was living then, how old he should be in 1910, where he was born, and maybe what his occupation was, so you should recognize him easily enough). If your great-grandfather was not yet married in 1910, you will probably find him living at home with his parents, and you will learn the names of your great-great-grandparents. And so on.
There will be snags, of course – research is never quite as ideal as any lesson makes it seem. You may not find your family in 1910 where you expect them to be (maybe they hadn’t moved to that town yet), or their names may not be quite right (maybe the census enumerator misunderstood your family’s accent, or maybe his handwriting was so bad that the indexer misread it). If you can’t find the name of the person you’re looking for, search for the names of siblings in case those are more readable. If your family lived in a town that was small enough, you could scan through the pages for the whole town, in case the problem was bad indexing. With the Ancestry search features, you can get very creative – “show me every male living in California who was born in Kentucky anytime between 1892 and 1902.” Such searches can be quite profitable.
Don’t be overly concerned if everything on the census doesn’t match up with what you know, or what you found on an earlier census. People make mistakes. Maybe a wife didn’t really know which state her husband was born in. Maybe the family was not home and the information was supplied by the next door neighbor. Maybe Aunt Mary claimed to be younger than she was because she was starting to feel like an old maid. Maybe Uncle John claimed to be older than he was because he wanted to join the army. Use the census as a general road map, a snapshot of your family, and confirm the details with more exact records.
Don’t worry about discrepancies in the spelling of names. The census taker didn’t ask your family how they spelled their names; he wrote down what he thought he heard.
There’s a special circle in hell for the few enumerators who wrote down only initials, not full names. And there’s a special degree of celestial glory for the census taker who, instead of making check marks on a census that asked whether you had been married during the previous year, asked every couple the year they married and wrote that year down.
Virtually all of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire; there are some general substitutes that we can talk about if you run into a real roadblock in not being able to jump over the 20-year gap from 1900 back to 1880. The 1850 census was the first one that listed everybody in the household by name – in earlier censuses, only the head of household is named, and everybody else is represented only by tick marks in columns indicating age groups. Those early censuses can still be useful if you’re very familiar with your family, but don’t expect the same kind of help from them that you will find in, say, the 1870 census.
When you find the census page with your family and make a photocopy or a printout, compare it carefully to the screen to be sure you can read your copy (often, copies are too small to read numbers clearly). Make handwritten notes on your copy to clarify any difficult-to-read data. Be sure your copy notes the year of the census, and the state, county, and local district where your family lived.
Many states took censuses in non-federal years: New York, for instance, took state censuses in 1815, 1825, 1835, 1845, and so on, up to 1892. Other countries, including Canada and Great Britain, took censuses that can be used in much the same way as the U.S. census. These can sometimes be found on Ancestry.com, or more commonly can be found on microfilm through the FHC system.
Assignment: Find a library or a Family History Center near you (I can help you find that if you’re not sure where to look – just ask for help in a comment), or someone with an Ancestry subscription who will let you try it out at their house. Start searching for your family members. Please report some of the fun successes you find. If you have real trouble, explain what you’ve tried in a comment, and perhaps I can offer some alternate searches.
This would also be a good time for Keepa readers in the Salt Lake City area to make a field trip to the Family History Library, before bad weather and holiday plans make it difficult. We can search the census there, helping each other with snags we encounter, and I could perhaps make some individual suggestions for further research based on whatever records you have to show. If you’re interested in such a field trip, please comment or write to me directly at Keepapitchinin -at- AOL -dot- com.
And if you haven’t been able to carry any of your lines back as far as 1930, please write to me privately. Let’s figure out what you can do to get to the point where you can take advantage of the census.
Good luck! This can be a very, very useful source for new genealogists.