Exploring how to use census records to uncover the hidden stories of your ancestors’ community with these tips and tricks.
U. S. census records are a valuable resource for genealogists and family historians. They provide a snapshot of American society at a particular point in time, offering insights into the lives of our ancestors and the communities in which they lived.
For many of us, diving into a census record was our first introduction into genealogy records.
It was for me.
After all, tracking generations back through the decades was easy and fun. At least initially.
And then, well…. it wasn’t easy anymore. I discovered I was overlooking clues I didn’t even know to look for!
Maybe that was just me, but you get the picture. Those census records we use have a lot of information we can and should be using to find our ancestors.
The Census Overview
The first census of the United States was taken in 1790, and has been conducted every ten years since then. Unfortunately, the 1890 census did not survive and its loss leaves many researchers seeking out alternative records to research.
The most recent census, of course, was taken in 2020. (As a genealogy researcher, I did get a thrill filling it out!) However, the 1950 census is the latest census available to the public.
Genealogy researchers love using census records because of the amount of information they contain. The information recorded varied with each census taking. Early census records (1790 – 1840) contained the head of household names and tick marks for other family members. Later census records (1850 – 1950) included information such as name, age, gender, race, ethnicity, nativity, marital status, occupation, education level, property ownership, and household composition.
How to Use Census Records to Learn About Your Ancestors’ Community
You’ve found you’re ancestor(s) in a census record. You’ve recorded the head of household and the rest of the household either by name (1850 – 1950) or age grouping (1790 – 1840).
Do not be too hasty to move onto the next record. Take the next steps to learn about the community where your ancestor lived. An understanding of your ancestor’s community will help you understand influences on his/her life and why they made the decisions they made.
Identify the communities where your ancestors lived.
The first step to understanding your ancestors’ community is to identify where they lived. Finding them in the census record does just that. Make note of the city/town/township, the county, and the state. Once you know where your ancestors lived, you can research the history of those communities. This will help you to understand the context of their lives and the challenges and opportunities they faced.
For example, if you learn that your ancestors lived in a rural farming community in the early 1900s, you can research the history of agriculture in the region and the challenges that farmers faced during that time period. This will give you a better understanding of your ancestors’ lives and the choices they made.
Compare census data from different years.
By comparing census data from different years, you can see how the community changed over time. This can give you insights into the economic, social, and demographic trends that were shaping the community.
For example, if you compare census data from 1850 and 1900, you may see that the community grew significantly in size during that time period. You may also see that the population became more diverse, with more immigrants and people from different racial and ethnic groups moving to the community. This information can help you to understand the changing dynamics of the community and how your ancestors may have been affected.
Look for patterns in the data.
As you review the census data, look for patterns in the data. For example, are most of the people in your ancestors’ community employed in a particular industry? Are most of the people in the community homeowners? Are most of the people in the community immigrants? Identifying patterns in the data can help you to understand the overall character of the community.
For example, if you see that most of the people in your ancestors’ community were employed in a particular industry, such as manufacturing or mining, you can infer that the community was likely shaped by that industry. You can also research the working conditions and social life of people who worked in that industry to learn more about the daily lives of your ancestors.
Use census data to identify potential sources of additional information.
Census data can be used to identify potential sources of additional information about your ancestors’ community. For example, if you see that many of the people in your ancestors’ community were employed in a particular industry, you can research city directories and business records to learn more about those businesses.
If you see that many of the people in your ancestors’ community were immigrants from a particular country, you can research immigrant organizations and newspapers to learn more about the experiences of immigrants from that country in that community.
Another example would be if you learn that your ancestors lived in a community with a large number of German immigrants, you can research German newspapers and church records to learn more about the lives of your ancestors and the other members of the community. You may also want to research German immigrant organizations in the community to learn more about the challenges and opportunities that German immigrants faced.
By following these tips, you can use census records to learn more about your ancestors’ community and the context of their lives.
The Agricultural Census
The agricultural census is a non-population census taken alongside the population census for the years 1850 – 1880. The agricultural census provides information about the agricultural production of the United States, as well as the people who were involved in agriculture.
The agricultural census can be a valuable resource for genealogists and family historians who are researching ancestors who were farmers or other agricultural workers. The agricultural census can provide information about the size and type of farm, the crops grown, the livestock raised, and the value of the farm products produced.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Census Research
As you explore each census record entry for your ancestors, keep in mind these helpful tips to fully and efficiently find all the clues to your ancestors.
- Be aware of the limitations of census records. Census records are not perfect, and they may contain errors or omissions. For example, people may have misstated their age or occupation, or they may have been omitted from the census altogether. Remember, those census takers were humans! It is important to cross-reference census data with other sources of information, such as family records, city directories, and newspapers.
- Use census data to create a timeline of your ancestors’ lives. By tracking your ancestors’ movements over time, you can learn more about their migration patterns and the communities in which they lived. For example, if you see that your ancestors moved from one state to another in the 1880s, you can research the economic or social conditions that may have led them to move.
- Use census data to identify potential sources of additional information. Keep your research plan by your side while you research. [I keep mine in an open tab on my computer.] As you identify potential clues to follow up on, go ahead and add it to your research plan. Don’t risk losing that thought!
Census records are a valuable resource for genealogists and family historians who want to learn about their ancestors’ communities. By taking the time to not just record your ancestor(s), but also to learn about their communities, you’ll uncover new information about the people with whom your ancestors lived, the challenges and opportunities they faced and the influences on their life decisions.