Have you ever wondered what kind of information the US census documents contain that might help in a genealogy search?
The answer depends on the particular census you are using. The more recent US census documents contain a goldmine of information for us; the earliest are not quite so useful.
A general principle in genealogy research is to start from the known and work toward the unknown. For census documents, this means working with the most recent census (currently 1930) first, and then finding those family members and their parents in the earlier census documents, in the 1920 census, then the 1910, and so on, until you can no longer locate them.
With the inclusion of birth states or countries of origin for the individual and their parents in the more recent census documents, it is relatively easy to find the right person or family, and to trace backwards in time to the mid-1800s.
The earlier censuses (i.e., prior to 1850) included only the name of the head of the family. All others were listed by age, gender, and race. You may be able to go back farther than 1850, given that you have the name of the head of household from the 1850 or later US census, and his or her age, location, and other details.
Taking the information from that census and working back to the census before that, you may very well be able to find that household, and the now-anonymous spouse and children listed in the appropriate age groups.
Brief History of the US Census
The first official US census was taken in 1790, just 14 years after it gained independence from England. The census takers had a dual purpose for doing so:
for the imposition and collection of taxes, and
for determining representation in the House of Representatives.
Native Americans who were not subject to taxation (i.e., those living on a reservation) were not included in the census.
US censuses exist from 1790 to the present, and have been taken every 10 years at the federal level. Due to a 72-year restriction on public access as a result of privacy concerns, given the inherently private and sensitive nature of some of the information, the most recent US census currently available to the public is that from 1930.
The 1940 US census will be released on April 2, 2012.
The following short video, from the US Census Bureau, talks about how the census has changed over time.
The following table provides the dates as of which the US census data was to be reported, regardless of when the enumerator actually arrived, and the number of states in the Union at the time of each census.
(Although technically not a state, I have included the District of Columbia in the total number of states, where it was enumerated. I have also counted West Virginia and Virginia as one state up until 1870, as both were included in Virginia until 1863).
PR - Puerto Rico; VI - Virgin Islands; AS - American Samoa; PC - Panama Canal. _________________________________________________________
See my pages with respect to the individual censuses for further detail, including a listing of the states which were enumerated in each census.
There are also some state censuses available, and some at the county level, which were taken from time to time.
Some states took them on a regular, scheduled basis; others were more sporadic in their use of the census.
The information included varied from state to state, in contrast to the federal US censuses, which were uniform across the country for the year in which they were done.
General Observations about the US Census
The federal US census documents tend to provide a great deal of information which is relevant to family historians, as some of the more recent questionnaires include questions such as year of immigration, month and year of birth for each family member, state or country they and each of their parents were born in, number of years married, and so on.
The information varied somewhat from decade to decade, but from 1850 and on, there is a wealth of information within each US census document, for white people.
See my pages African Americans and the US Census, and Native Americals and the US Census for information with respect the treatment of these two groups in the US census documents.
Some interesting notes about the various US censuses:
From 1790 - 1840, the census listed only the name of the head of household. All other persons in the household were listed only by age category, although the categories changed with each census.
The 1850 Census marked a return to a much simpler census form, in which all free persons in a household were listed by name, and census information was collected with respect to each one of them. However, their relationship to the head of the household was not identified.
The 1870 US Census is the first which identifies all individuals, regardless of race, including all former slaves.
The 1880 Census was the first in which the relationship to the head of the household was documented.
Interestingly, it also asked whether the person was too ill to perform his/her regular duties (i.e., to go to work) on the day the enumerator came, and if so, with what illness. Hopefully, not too many took the day off to go fishing!
The 1890 Census was largely destroyed in a fire, and for the most part, is not available. Other documentation, however, such as telephone books, city directories, and electoral lists, can provide partial information where that census information has been lost.
The 1900 Census provides some details which are exceptionally interesting to genealogists, including month and year of birth; total number of children born to each woman, and the number of those still living; number of years in present marriage; year of immigration; and citizenship status.
The 1910 Census includes a number of questions asked for the first time, including some with respect to occupation and employment status; whether they own or rent their residence; whether they had a mortgage; and whether they were a survivor of the Union or Confederate army or navy.
The 1930 Census is shown on the following video from Ancestry.com, which provides pointers about searching the US census. Interestingly, one of the questions asked on this census was whether the household owned a radio! Radios were relatively new, and it was the “in thing” to have one. Remember, the Depression had begun the year before, and it would appear that this was intended to gauge the depth of its impact on families.
It therefore is very apparent that the US census documents contain a wealth of information regarding people living in the US, especially from 1850 and on, when they began recording the data for all persons in the household.
While all of the US census schedules for the various years are useful in searching for our ancestors, the 1900 and 1910 census documents seem to be even more helpful than the others.
If you are “fortunate” enough to be looking for ancestors who appear in those two documents, you will have a veritable treasure chest of information, providing you with several additional avenues of research within a relatively narrow time frame, where you can obtain additional documentation about your ancestor’s life!