Census records are some of the first records genealogy researchers utilize. Are you understanding all of the details and clues in a census year?
Genealogy Research

How To Get The Most Out of Your Census Records Research

Census records are some of the first records genealogy researchers utilize. From 1790-1940 researchers can track their ancestors in time and place every 10 years. But are we getting everything out of the census records we possibly can?  Are we missing vital clues on our ancestors because we do not fully understand all of the details provided?

I have found myself backtracking through previously researched census records simply because I did not take the time to fully understand the census. (I don’t want you to have to do that!) Fully understand what that census is telling you and save yourself time and effort in your research.

Census.gov,  is the US government website on all things census related, and has become the first place I go before diving into a specific census year. Think of Census.gov as your one-stop place for learning all about the US census of any decade! History, census takers instruction and even information on state census records are just a few of the goodies on this site.

How To Get The Most Out of Your Census Records Research

The Census Taker

Let’s think about the census taker for any given census year.Who were they and what instructions did they receive to collect census data?  From the Census.gov History homepage, click on “Through the Decades” and click on “Census Instructions” on the left side of the page.

Screenshot of the history of the census records page Through the Decades on the US census page.

From this page, click the year you are interested in on the left. Find the instructions that were provided to the census takers.

Screenshot of the census instructions  page on the US census page.

Understanding the questions a census taker was required to ask will help you understand your ancestor’s answers. Pay attention to the definition of the category terms.  What actually constituted a “family”? What did “deaf” actually mean for purposes of the census?

Interestingly, prior to 1830 census takers received few if  any special instructions for obtaining information. In fact 1830 was the first year census takers received a printed schedule.  No wonder early census records had variations!

State Census Records

Find information on state census records at Census.gov as well. Not all states conducted their own censuses. When done, these census records were done more randomly and asked different questions than the traditional federal census.

Often underutilized, the state census records provide a good substitute for missing federal censuses such as the 1890 census. For example, Florida took a state census in 1885 and in 1895.  These census records can act as alternate source of information in the absence of the 1890 census. [Did you know a few remnants of the 1890 census record did survive?]

Find more information on which states took a census and in which year here.

[Insert example of state census record]

Blank Census Forms

One of the best tips for your genealogy research is to print out a blank census year form to have beside you as you research. Many census records online are difficult to read, and those column headings are tiny.  Find free, blank census forms at Ancestry.com. (For these, you do not need a subscription.)

Tip: Print a blank census form for each year and place in a notebook or folder for easy access. You will always have the one you need close by.

The 1870 Census Record

Let’s take a closer look at the 1870 census. You have found your ancestor in the 1870 census. You have extracted the information, but something does not add up. Hmm….. was your ancestor not telling the truth about his or her age? Is someone missing from the household you expected to find?

First, I’ve printed off my blank copy of the 1870 census.

Next, I hop over to Census.gov and take a look at the instructions given to the census taker.

Screenshot of the1870 census instructions page on the US census site.

Particular helpful are the definitions of such categories as “family”.  In 1870, a “family” was one or more individuals living in an abode. A single person could be considered a separate family unit if they lived in a distinct part of the house. Another interesting tidbit found in the 1870 census instructions is how the category of “idiotic” (the census term for that time period) was determined. The fact of idiocy was determined by the common consent of the neighborhood. No medical diagnosis or even any scientific knowledge was used in making this determination.  [I may need to re-think my impression of a few ancestors.]

We are now prepared to dive into the census record itself!

Watch the Video!


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Image of the 1890 OK census with white text on red background reading Census Records Research
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