I love searching census records; they are similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. In each document, I find new puzzle pieces; sometimes, the puzzle pieces don’t fit right away, but in those cases, I set them aside till I find other pieces to the puzzle, and then they fit perfectly. It is exciting to see the puzzle coming together.
Let’s look at a bit of history before we begin to discover the benefits of Federal and State Censuses.
A History Introduction to US Census records
The United States’ first federal population census began in 1790, the same year that President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address and founding Father Benjamin Franklin died. These men were both brilliant and wise.
The US Federal Censuses are a vital tool for the discovery of your ancestors.
The US constitution requires that US representatives to the house are proportional to the number of people who live in each State. Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution states that the number of representatives is based on a national census and conducted every ten years. To keep track of whom they were counting, the government started by collecting names, then adding more information over the years.
The constitution was ratified in 1787, and the first census was conducted in 1790; for the next 50 years, they counted everything but only recorded the names of heads households; everyone else was a tick mark on a line.
In 1850 census enumerators finally started writing down everyone they counted; well, unfortunately, every free person, slaves in 1850 and 1860, recorded in separate slave schedules by ages and who owned them.
1850, 1860, and 1870 census have names and a few other details, but we don’t know how these names were related. The 1880 census record included the relationship to heads of households.
From the 1890 census forward, they not only listed who, how old, and how they were related, and fantastic information about who our ancestors were and how they lived their lives.
The founding fathers set about creating a government that stood for its people, justly. Little did they know they were creating a treasure trove for future family historians like yourself in your quest to research genealogy and census records.
1790 First US Federal Census
As said earlier, the 1790 Census was the first US Federal Census; enumerators counted everyone but only recorded the name of the head of the household; everyone else was a tick mark. These records can look challenging to figure out, but do not get discouraged.
Census takers recorded information in only six columns in 1790.
- The name of the heads of the family (which was not always a man)
- The number of free white males 16 yrs. or older
- The number of free white males under 16 years old
- The number of free white females, no matter their ages
- The number of all other free persons
- The number of slaves
Schedules survived for only eleven states, including only nine of the thirteen original states plus Vermont, which became a State in 1791, and Maine, which was part of Massachusetts. Four of the original thirteen State records were destroyed.
Note: At this point, some schedules for these destroyed records have been re-created using tax lists and other records.
Because a few census takers in 1790 wrote the information on a separate piece of paper, then transferred that information later to the census form. You will often find town citizens in a rough alphabetical order, which is unfortunate; because most census records help us know where our ancestors lived in the community and who their neighbors were. And we know individual families did not live in alphabetical order.
Pre- 1850 US Federal Censuses
Before 1850 the censuses recorded the head of households, tick marks, and numbers to represent the other residence. Through six censuses 1790-1840, identifying the household members is a challenge, but there are some bright spots. Each census changed slightly by the number of columns; for example, in the 1840 census, we find they started to record in a separate column the names of pensioners and military service members in the household. So always check each census between 1790-1840, and even if at first, all you see are tick marks and numbers.
1850 US Federal Census
For the first time in US Census history, the name of each member of a household found recorded. Even though it is great to have names for all household members, finally, remember, you will still need to do some deducted reasoning because you do not know the relationship for each individual in the household.
Answer the following questions to help.
- Do the names match the family members that you expected to find in the household?
- Who is unique and not expected in the 1850 census?
- Who is missing in 1850 compared to the other censuses?
Look at the neighbors in the record; you might find the same last names that could lead to parents, married children, and more.
Also, you will notice recorded:
- the age for each family member
- the birthplace for each member of the household; normally the State only but, depending on the census taker, you might find the county
- you might also find your ancestors profession or occupation
- the value of the land they owned
- Color of each individual in the household
The 1850 census opened a whole new world for us as family historians to find our ancestors. Censuses for 1860 and 1870 differences are very slight.
1880 US Federal Census
The 1880 census is a great resource as it has several changes to the form that is vital to us as family historians. It has several time-savers, so we don’t have to rely heavily on our sleuthing skills.
- In the 1880 Census, we find for the first time a column that lists the relationship of each person to the head of the household. Sometimes we find in census records, for example, an older male or female but are not sure where they fit, now we can narrow the field. It could be a brother, sister, in-law, a parent living with the family, and this now tells us the relationship to the head of the household.
- Also, in the 1880 census, we have columns for each family member’s parents’ birthplace. This census is priceless in the help it provides in our research.
- It also is the first census to supply the household’s street and house number.
- 1880 is also the first census to record the birth month of children born within the last 12 months. Keeping in mind that the 1880 census was on June 1, 1880, let us say the baby was born on June 10, 1880, and the census taker didn’t visit till June 15, 1880; that baby will not be on the census record. [image] But, sometimes, census takers did not always follow the rules, and the child could show as being born before June 1, 1880, so keep that in mind when finding babies.
- This census also included three columns called civil condition or marital status, single, married, widowed, divorced, and married during the census year (the latter gives us a clue to this couple’s marriage year).
This 1880 census was undoubtedly a turning point in census enumeration and vital resource in genealogy research.
1890 Census: Where is it?
Unless you are one of the lucky few, you will not find an 1890 census record with your ancestor listed. Why? You ask, about 5:00 in the afternoon of January 10, 1921, a worker noticed smoke coming up through the Commerce Building’s pipes.
As the firefighters fought to put out the fire, the 1890 census records were damaged; attempts to restore them failed, and in 1935, destroyed.
The 1921 fire led to a new focus in archiving essential documents; thus, in 1933, the government started construction on the new National Archive Building, where many of the nation’s relevant documents are kept today, including census records.
Some 1890 census records did survive:
- District of Columbia (Complete)
- And some County’s with the states of:
- Alabama (1 County)
- Georgia (1 County)
- Illinois (1 County)
- Minnesota (1 County)
- New Jersey (1 County)
- New York (2 Counties)
- North Carolina (2 Counties)
- Ohio (2 Counties)
- South Dakota (1 County)
- Texas (5 Counties)
We can find them under the 1890 United States Federal Census Fragment. So, if you have ancestors living in those states, it would be worth the effort, but be prepared; some of the documents still have water and smoke damage but are considered legible. If you are lucky enough to find your ancestor in those records, you will notice more information not found in other census records. You will find:
- Whether they served in the civil war
- If they married within the year
- Mother of how many children and number of these children living
- Whether naturalized
To name a few of the treasures, you will find in the 1890 census.
To find the information about your ancestor in 1890, check the following 1890 census substitutes:
- City Directories
- State Censuses
- 1890 Veterans Schedule
Search the 1890 Census and look for census substitutes.
1900 US Federal Census
Think about what life was like at the turn of the century; the Civil War was still a recent memory. The Statue of Liberty had been welcoming immigrants to New York Harbor for only 14 years; the population moved from farms to cities; there was a greater interest in science and technology hence increased prosperity and freedom. What was your family doing at the turn of the century? We can discover many of those questions as we search the 1900 census recorded on June 1, 1900.
The uniqueness of the 1900 census is that it is the only census to record the Date of Birth with the Month and Year.
1910 – 1940 US Federal Censuses
The Census records from 1910 through 1940 are like 1900, only a few slight differences.
- 1940- The 1940 census taken at the end of the Great Depression, and the government needed to assess how its citizens had coped; they added a few new questions:
- Employment status, Income
- How much time had they worked the previous year?
- Where they had lived in 1935 and 1940
- A mark is put by the name of the person who answered the census taker’s questions.
By now, you understand what I meant when I said that searching census is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together and realize how census records have evolved over the years.
The amount of information you can derive from one census is endless, let alone looking through several to find the same ancestral family; thus, creating a timeline for the family in question. It is fun, and I love the feeling of joy and satisfaction in learning my ancestor’s story. It truly becomes a passion.
I would love to hear from you and answer any questions you have about census records.
Also, I would enjoy hearing your experience with researching for your ancestors in census records.