5 Frequently Asked Questions About Census Records

The U.S. Federal Census is one of the best known tools for researching your family history. Whether you are a novice or a veteran of using the census, there is always more to learn about this fascinating record set. Here are five top questions genealogists of all levels have about the census, and their answers.

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If you are a beginning genealogist or an experienced one, you have undoubtedly used census records in your research; at the very least, you have heard of them and how important they are in uncovering your family history. And, believe it or not, no matter how long you have been using census records, there are always new and interesting things to learn about them that can help take your research even farther. There is hidden information in the census records you may not have noticed, no matter how many times you’ve looked at an entry.

Whether you are new to census records or have been using them for years, here are the answers to five frequently asked questions about them you need to know to make sure you are using them to get the most information out of them and onto your family tree.

  1. What Years Have Census Records Available?

Beginning in 1790, the United States took a census of the entire country every ten years. This tradition is still continuing today. The census records are divided by state, then county, then city or town. However, this does not mean the exact census you are looking for will be available. Many counties and entire states have had their records lost in the earliest censuses, usually the ones between 1790 and 1830. And, of course, there is the infamous case of the entirely vanished 1890 census, which was destroyed in a fire in the 1930s, leaving family historians across the country with a frustrating 20-year gap in their research records. Also, federal law prohibits census records from being released to the public for 72 years after they were taken, to protect individual privacy. So far, all records that exist from 1790 to 1940 have been released. The 1950 census is scheduled to be released to the public on April 1, 2022.

  1. What Makes the Census from 1850 Onward Different from the Earlier Ones?

Beginning with the 1850 census, the names and ages of everyone in a household were recorded. Prior to that, in the 1790 to 1840 census records, only the names of the heads of households were listed, though those censuses included tallies of how many people of each gender in one of several different age groups lived in the house with the head of household. The 1820-1840 censuses also include a tally of the number, gender, and age groups of any slaves owned by the head of household. If you know anything at all about the family you are looking up, you can often turn those tally marks into names. The tally marks may also reveal family members, such as additional children or second or third spouses, who you never knew existed. Therefore, it is important to not discount the early census records just because they only name the head of household. Looking more deeply into them reveals far more.

  1. Do the Census Records Include More Information Than Just Names?

Yes, they do, but it depends on the census. The 1840 census, for example, includes a column that lets you know whether the head of household was a Revolutionary War veteran. This can be helpful for confirming Revolutionary service for lineage society applications. Ages begin to be listed in the 1850 census. Relationships to the head of household, year of immigration to the United States (if applicable), whether naturalized or not, the birthplace of the parents of everyone listed, and whether they own or rent a house or farm are listed on the 1880 census. The 1900 census gives month and day of birth of every person and also lists how many children a woman has had and how many of them are living, as well as listing how long-married people have been married, and what number of marriage it is for them. In the 1940 census, you can find out how much schooling each listed person completed as of the taking of the census. Occupations of each person are generally listed from the 1880 census onward. Other census records include things like whether a person had a physical or mental handicap, whether they could read or write, how many weeks they had worked and been out of work that year, how much their property was worth, and even the name of the street they lived on.

  1. What Do You Do if You Can’t Find Your Ancestor in the Census Records?

While some people were overlooked in certain census records because they were moving and in between residences (such as people migrating west), they weren’t home, the person giving the information forgot to include them (or deliberately did not), or were genuinely trying to hide from census takers, the vast majority of people who seem “lost” in any given census year are actually there. You just may have to employ some creative searching methods to find them. If the person had a hard-to-pronounce or unusual last name, the census taker may have made a “best guess” as to what the name was and how to spell it, especially if the person giving the information couldn’t read or write. The person transcribing census records for indexes may not have been able to read the census taker’s handwriting and mis-transcribed your ancestor. You can often find the person you’re looking for by searching their neighborhood manually. If you are using digital census records, you can search by first name and age only, place of birth only, gender only or do wildcard searches for the last name (where certain letters can be anything). Or, you can use any combination of these methods to find your ancestor.

  1. Where are Searchable Census Records Located?

In the old days of genealogy, you would have to go to a genealogy library, look up a name in a printed index, and then get a roll of microfilm corresponding to that name, and scroll through to find your person (or just browse a whole neighborhood, if no name was in the index). You can still search this way. However, there are many places online with digitized images of the census, many of which have been indexed, and you merely have to type in a person’s name and location to find the image with their name on it. Ancestry.com is the best-known place to do this. Other sites have full or partial U.S. census records for searching online, such as Fold3, U.S. Genweb, AmericanAncestors.org, the websites of local historical societies, and more.