After Vital Records, one of the most common resources used by genealogists is census records. 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 was done in 2000. 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.
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. 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.
Once you find your family, continue to work back every 10 years (remember that 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. I’ve given you some links below to sites that have blank transcription forms for the various years. Since the headings change each year, these are helpful documents.
When I began my research, the census records were on microfilm, some with book indexes and others with a soundex (a system that groups names that sound alike together). Today all of the extant U.S. Population Schedules are available online. Ancestry.com has the most complete version, and has an every name index. This is important because sometimes, if there is an unusual given name, it’s easier to find someone other than the head of the household. Ancestry.com is a subscription database and in addition to census records has a lot of other information. If you don’t want to begin by subscribing, check your local library to see if they have a subscription available. If not, check other libraries or genealogical societies in the area. You will have to go to the library to use this database.
The first every name index was completed for the 1880 Census by the LDS (Mormons) and is posted to their website, FamilySearch. This is a free site, but only contains the index for 1880 (U.S.) Census. They also have available the 1881 Census for Canada, England and Wales.
The second major commercial index is HeritageQuest. This database tends to be available at more locations and can also be used from home by logging on with your library card. I love the way information is presented in this database, but unfortunately, not all years are available and the index is only for the head of the household. Still, if the year and location of interest is available it’s a great resource.
Don’t neglect to try local resources. Through the USGenWeb, many societies have transcribed census records for their area. Remember, if you are looking at a transcription, you still want to obtain a copy of the original schedule to confirm the information and see if other information is listed.
Remember to read the names of other families on the page, and even a few pages forward and back. Frequently you’ll find other family members. Years after finding my great great grandparents in the 1870 census, I discovered her widowed mother and brother were living in the house next to them!
Before you begin, it good to have some idea where they were living, especially if it is a common name. It’s also helpful to have the name(s) of other family members so you can confirm you have the correct family. That’s why working every year backwards from 1930 can help establish the correct family.
Besides the Population Schedules we usually think of as “the census” there were other types of censuses done. Some, such as the Mortality Schedules (those that died in the twelve months prior to the census) and the Non-Population Schedules (such as Agriculture and Manufacturing) were done at the same time as the Population Schedules and contain additional information. There were also some state and territorial censuses done which survive. If you had someone that served in the Civil War, don’t forget to check the 1890 Veteran’s Schedule (which survive for the states from Kentucky to Wyoming). Check out some of the books listed below for additional census information.
Remember, the more information you have when you begin, the more successful you’ll be.
Dollarhide, William, The Census Book, Heritage Quest, Bountiful, Utah, 1999.
Hinckley, Kathleen W., Your Guide to the Federal Census for Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians, Betterway Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2002.
Lainhart, Ann S., State Census Records, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2000.
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Wright, Matthew, Finding Answers in U. S. Census Records, Ancestry, Orem, Utah, 2001.
Thorndale, William and Dollarhide, William, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920,” Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, 1987.
Ancestry.com http://www.Ancestry.com (Available at some libraries)
Cyndi’s List http://www.cyndislist.com/census2.htm
HeritageQuest (Available through many public libraries.)
National Archives http://www.archives.gov/genealogy/census/index.html
U.S. GenWeb http://www.usgenweb.com
“A Beginner’s Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses” hosted by USGenNet
Genealogy.com, “Making Sense of the U.S. Census”
Morgan, George G., “Using U.S. Census Mortality Schedules,” Along Those Lines, Ancestry Archive, 27 May 2005.
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.
Census Transcription Forms can be found in many “how to” books or on the Internet.