There’s so much talk in the media about the 2020 Census being conducted now. From a genealogist’s point of view, census records provide the building blocks of our research.
The first US Federal Census was taken in 1790 and has been taken every ten years since. Because of a seventy-two-year restriction on access to the US Census, the most recent year available today is 1940. The 1950 Census will be released in 2022, and I am counting the days!
Between the years of 1790 and 1840, census takers only recorded the head of household–usually men–and all others in the family were enumerated as a tick-mark or a number broken down into age groups. Beginning in 1850, all members of the household were enumerated and this, my friends, is where the fun begins. Knowing what you’re looking at and looking for, the basics of census research, is essential to finding your ancestors. Here are some tips:
Read the instructions. I encourage you to take a little time and review the census takers instructions to better understand the information recorded. For example, in the “Race” column of later census years, the census taker determined a person’s race based on their visual assessment. In other words, the enumerated individuals were not stating their race for the record. This accounts for variations in race for an individual from one census year to the next.
Work your way back. Start your census research with the last record your ancestor appeared in, then move back in time to the previous record. If you find Aunt Tilly in the 1940 census record, look at the 1930 census, then the 1920 census, and so on. By tracing Aunt Tilly in this way, you move from adult to child, and finding her as a child in a household places her within a family unit, which could extend your family line back one or more generations as grandparents often lived with their children.
Take your time. Don’t just make notes on birth dates and ages, take note of every column, or you could be missing valuable clues about your ancestor as well as other family members. You may find the birthplace of both parents, occupation, and year of immigration, among other clues. Every bit of information is another piece of the puzzle. For example, learning an ancestor owned land indicates you will need to search land records and/or deeds.
Look at Special Schedules. Created to collect additional information, these may contain valuable information on your ancestors and should not be overlooked. The five types of special schedules (also known as non-population schedules) useful to genealogy researchers include: Agriculture, Manufacturing/Industrial, Mortality, and Slave. (Note: The terminology used was the language of that time period.) The Defective, Dependent and Delinquent schedule of 1880 has several sections: Insane, Idiots, Deaf Mutes, Blind, Homeless Children, Prisoners, and Paupers/Indigent.
Check out the neighborhood. We are all part of a community, and these are the people our ancestors worked with, prayed with and often married. It’s not unusual to find family members or (gasp!) in-laws living houses away. Is your ancestor’s family missing in a census? Try searching for the extended family or by the street name. Still hiding? Grab a cup of coffee and settle in for a page-by-page look. This is how I found my father’s missing family. Not only had they moved to a new address, but the enumerator listed their surname as Rus rather than Rossow.
Verify. Lastly, keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that the head of the household was a reliable informant—things could be misremembered, deliberately or not. Also, if the family wasn’t home, the data collected may have been from a neighbor. If the information doesn’t make sense, keep digging, don’t just accept it. A good rule of thumb? Everything found in the census must be verified by other sources such as birth, marriage, or death records.
I’m happy to say that digitized census records can be accessed for free online through FamilySearch.org (when you sign up for a free account). These records are some of the first that I worked with, and I hope I’m still around when my census debut is released in 2042. Stay safe and happy hunting!
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a National Genealogical Society member, Association of Professional Genealogists member, guest lecturer, and freelance writer. She is a Board Member and President of the Niagara County Genealogical Society. Send questions or comments to her at email@example.com.