After Vital Records, one of the most common resources used by genealogists is census records. When I began my research, the census records were only available on microfilm and I had to depend on soundex or printed indexes that only listed the head of the family. Today all of the surviving population schedules are available online from multiple sources most with complete indexes and links to connect you to the digital image online. Ancestry.com probably has the most complete set, but HeritageQuestOnline (available through local libraries), Footnote.com and FamilySearch also have some of the censuses and are working toward a complete set.
In the United States, our Constitution specifies that a nationwide enumeration or count of the population be done every 10 years. The first census in the United States was done in 1790, and the most recent is due this on April 1, 2010. Not all of the census records are available to the public…the most recent census available for research is 1930. The United States privacy laws require that the census data be kept confidential for 72 years. I’m going to discuss the “population schedule” here as it is the most widely available, however other schedules were completed and have additional information.
Like all of your research it’s important to start with what you know and work back. You can probably find either your parents or grandparents in the 1930 census (below). This census gives the greatest amount of information about the family unit, i.e., the head of the household, the relationship of everyone in the household to the head, age, marital status, year of immigration, whether naturalized, occupation, place of birth and native language of each individual and their parents, number of years married, age at first marriage, and the first technology question…did they own a radio. Frequently people will tell me they don’t know which of their ancestors was the immigrant. Each of the censuses back to 1880 will give you the place of birth of both the individual and their parents. If an individual was born outside of the United States, their citizenship status will be listed. The notation “Na” means they were naturalized (and will usually have a date); “Pa” means they had submitted their first papers or Declaration of Intent to Become a Citizen; and “Al” indicates they were an alien or had not started the process of naturalization. Make sure you note everyone in the family and their relationship if indicated.
Once you find your family, continue to work back every 10 years (the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by a fire). This will usually allow you to match someone other than the head of the family to make certain you are tracking the correct family. There will be less information as you work back, but until you reach 1850 you will continue to see each individual in the household listed. From 1840 back to 1790, only the head of the household is listed with statistics regarding the age and sex of individuals in the household.
The 1900 Census (above) is one of my favorites. It is the only census that gives the month and year of birth, and also asks the question of women, “how many children have you given birth to and how many are still living.” This question, also asked in 1910, will frequently provides clues to children who have died between censuses.
The 1850 census (above) is the first census to list every individual in the household with their age, occupation, value of their real estate, place of birth and ticks in the column to indicate whether they were married within the last year, attended school or were a person over 20 who could not read. The final column asks whether the person was deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, a pauper or a convict.
The censuses prior to 1850 (1820 above) only listed the head of the household, along with the number of white males, white females, slaves and free colored persons within certain age brackets. Most of the earlier censuses were not taken on preprinted forms so you’ll need to copy the information onto a form with the headers (see below) as the age brackets changed for each census. These forms are free at most of the sites that provide the censuses.
Census records are invaluable in documenting your family history. I’ve listed a number of excellent reference books that provide additional information about census research. You can probably find one of them at your local library. I’ve also provided links to some online articles.
Dollarhide, William, The Census Book, Heritage Quest, Bountiful, Utah, 1999. (See Books - US Research)
Hinckley, Kathleen W., Your Guide to the Federal Census for Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians, Betterway Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2002. (See Books - US Research)
Lainhart, Ann S., State Census Records, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2000. (See Books - US Research)
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Wright, Matthew, Finding Answers in U. S. Census Records, Ancestry, Orem, Utah, 2001. (See Books - US Research)
Genealogy.com, “Making Sense of the U.S. Census.”
Hogan, Roseann Reinemuth, Ph.D., “The Census in Historical Context, Part 1,” Ancestry Magazine, July/August 1994, Vol 12., No. 5. (Note: there are 3 parts to this article)
Moughty, Donna, “Who’s the Head of this Household?” Donna’s Genealogy Blog, September 3, 2007.
Neill, Michael John, “The Census Taker Cometh,” Ancestry Daily News Archive, 21 July 2004.
______, “Clues Found in Census Enumerations,” Ancestry Daily News Archive, 13 July 2005.
_______, “How Do I Know I Have the Right Family,” Ancestry Daily News Archive, 15 Dec 2006.