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How to Find Census Records |
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State and Local Censuses |
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Ancestors expert Tony Burroughs talks about the importance of census records.
Starting in 1790 and every ten years thereafter, federal government census takers have gone through cities, towns and
the countryside counting and listing residents. The objective, although not completely attained, is to create an accounting
of the entire population. Because of this broadness of scope,
census records are an invaluable resource to virtually
every genealogist. Many people, in fact, start with information gathered from
family records and advance straight to census records.
Even though the census officially is a federal government record, it is a local record in the sense that it identifies the
populace place by place. Many states have name indexes to the federal censuses of their state. A 72-year restriction
on access to censuses means that the 1920 census is the latest one you can easily consult, and that the 1930 census
will be open to research in the year 2002. You should also be aware that, except for some remnants and special portions,
the 1890 census is not available,
as much of this census was destroyed in a fire. Just recently, though, there has been an attempt to create a substitute
for the 1890 census.
The census was taken by individuals, enumerators,
who traveled from residence to residence and personally spoke to people living in every house -- at least, that was the
intent. Census information is only as good as the person who took the information, and sometimes guesses or even false
information were provided. Occasionally, enumerators missed people altogether and failed to list everybody. Therefore,
before accepting all the information found on a census as fact, it's a good idea to be aware of common
The information recorded on the census varies from decade to decade. For example, the early censuses only recorded the
name of the head of household, but from 1850 on, all of the members of the household are listed.
Click this link for a quick overview of census content.
Click this link to learn the precise contents of a particular census.
Despite the gaps and flaws, census records are invaluable. Each one contains precious names, ages, birthplaces, and relationships of our ancestors. Depending on the questions asked by the census taker, you might discover when your ancestors arrived in the U.S., how they made a living, or any of dozens of other clues to your family's past. These records, brief "snapshots" of our loved ones, allow a personal look into their lives that few records provide.
How to Find Census Records
Federal censuses are widely available to genealogical researchers on microfilm. National Archives branches have copies for you to use, as do family history centers, state archives, state and local historical and genealogical societies, and other major libraries or repositories, such as those found in large universities. Census records are now increasingly available through the Internet and on CD-ROM, as well.
All you need to know to begin searching a census is the name of your ancestor and the time and state in which they lived. Of course, additional information, such as ages or township only makes the search easier.
You need to look for an index to the census before going to the census pages themselves. Most, but unfortunately not all,
of the censuses are indexed. Every census from 1790 to 1850 has statewide indexes, as do most of the 1860 and 1870
censuses. If you find you need to search in a time and state that has not been indexed, you might want to surf the
Internet to see if perhaps your township or county of interest has been transcribed and uploaded by volunteers.
Click this link to find some useful starting points.
Indexers of the 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses used a Soundex system,
a phonetic index. That is, it indexes together those surnames that sound the same or quite similar, rather than by the
usual alphabetical order. Thus, Smith, Smythe, and Schmidt are listed together with the same code number and then
arranged in alphabetical order by first name. Once you locate the right head of household, note the volume number,
enumeration district, sheet, and line. With this information, you can easily find the roll of microfilm you need.
Information from the census needs to be recorded carefully. Because of handwriting obstacles, some information may not
be clear. Try slipping a piece of paper onto the viewing surface and tracing the letters from the page using the reader in
a darkened room. It's also a good idea to photocopy any finds on microfilm copiers that allow you to enlarge or reduce
the image, making it even clearer and sharper. Be sure to review the information around your discoveries to see if perhaps
you can detect any relatives living nearby or other clues. Remember also that family units can be split between two pages.
Once you've found an ancestor in one census, continue to search for them in as many censuses as possible. Check
the census before and after the one that has yielded information; often you'll find additional relatives or crucial information
that will allow you to continue your family history search into other areas.
Types of Census Records
State and Local
When people speak of census records, they are usually referring to the general population records generated by the
Federal government every ten years since 1790. It's helpful to know, though, that there are some variations on this
theme and that some states took their own censuses. If you're lucky, you may be able to find some additional census
records pertaining to your ancestors.
Even before the federal census, some American colonies took censuses. U.S. territories seeking statehood occasionally
administered censuses, and some states opted to conduct their own censuses. Some of these early censuses go back as
far as 1623! Among state censuses conducted prior to 1935 are Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota,
Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Wisconsin. While the state censuses don't always contain as much information as
the federal, they can help you close those ten-year gaps between the federal schedules. Consult The Source: A
Guidebook of American Genealogy edited by Arlene Eakle and Johni Cerny for detailed information on these state and
local censuses, including where they can be located. Although the FHL
only has some of these records, you might also want to try searching the Family
History Library Catalog by locality and then narrowing your search by selecting "census" as the subject. Look
especially for censuses conducted in those years not ending with "0."
The information contained on this page comes from a variety of sources, but relies heavily on The Everything Family Tree Book by William G. Hartley (Adams Media,
1998) and Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide to Family History & Genealogy by Jim & Terry Willard with Jane Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).