Census records are some of the first records genealogists go to when beginning their research. It is exciting to trace a family back generations by following them backward through the census records. In our excitement of finding our ancestors, though, we can miss important clues that are important to our current research projects, but also future genealogy research projects.
Census Records – The Basics
Before we begin to look closer at the census records, let’s look at some basic information about census records.
Beginning in 1790, a census record was taken every 10 years. This continues even today. The census records become available for public viewing 72 years after a census was collected. Currently census records are available to the public through 1940.
From 1790-1870 the census takers were the US marshalls. Beginning with the 1880 census record, specially hired and trained census takers were used. Census takers were provided with specific directions and questions to ask. View the instructions to the census takers over the years.
Remember as you search the census records, that census takers were human. Human error occurred in the records. Sloppy handwriting happened. Name spellings were not consistent. People were not home when the census taker arrived. Answers may have been given by a neighbor. Life happened. Keep these things in mind as you research and come across inconsistencies in the records.
Each census record was to be taken within a designated time period For example, the 1900 census record was to be completed by 1 July 1900. Answers to questions about a family/individual should be based on the information true as of 1 June 1900.
A Closer Look – Example from the 1920 Census
The census records provide a wealth of genealogical information. Importantly, these records place our ancestors in a specific time and place within history. The census records also provide clues that lead to other records. This is crucial information as you research and seek to learn more about your ancestors. The specific questions asked on each census year vary, but in the 1900’s you can find information on the following:
- Name, relation to head of household (HOH)
- Town, county, state and specific date for you ancestor.
- Street address – If provided, use google maps to see your ancestor’s location.
- Race – This can vary as based on the visual assessment of the census taker.
- Age/birth date – variations from census to census occur frequently
- Place of birth – Provides a location to look for further ancestral records
- Place of parents’ birth (1900-1930) – Provides a location to look for further ancestral records
- Citizenship – If a person was naturalized, look for these records.
- Ownership of home – If a person owned their land/home, search out the deeds for more information.
- Marriage – Was your ancestor married? Divorced? Widowed? Look for marriage, divorce or death records.
- Previously unknown children
- FAN club – Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors. Make note of who resides around your ancestor in the census records. These individuals are likely to have interacted the most with your ancestors. You may find your ancestors mentioned in their records.
This is the 1920 census of Lee County, North Carolina.
This is the 1920 census entry for Allen S [Suggs] Howard and his family. [He was known as Suggs or Suggy to his family and friends.]
- Name – This particular census taker used his formal name, but not all census takers did that. Just be aware of this as you search for your own ancestors.
- Race/Gender – Suggs was a white male and the head of his household.
- Age – 61 years old. This gives a birth date of ~1859.
- Marital Status – He is married. This information leads the researcher to search for a marriage record.
- Place of Birth – He was born in North Carolina as well as both of his parents. Along with his birth date, this gives a place and time for Suggs and his parents.
- Education – He could read and write.
- Language – If a mother tongue is given other than English, this will provide a clue to origins of the family.
- Occupation – Suggs was a superintendent at a lumber mill.
- Family Members – Wife Emma, Children: Mary A., Pearly J., Rose C., Alberta, and George R.
As you can see, not only does this 1920 census record provide information about Allen S Howard and his family, the information provides clues to where to for other records pertaining to the family.
What if the census record does not exist for your area?
Tax records make a good substitute as well as state and local census records.
Resources to Assist in Your Census Research
- Blank census sheets – These come in very handy for reviewing the categories when studying census records.
- Census Taker Instructions
- The Genealogist’s Census Pocket Reference by the Editors of Family Tree Magazine
- Census Problems and Solutions for Genealogy Live Webinar
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