There are other countries that conducted census research prior to 1790, but the
United States was the first nation to mandate a census in the Constitution. Article
One, Section Two states that at least every ten years an “actual Enumeration”
needs to be taken of the population. Now the single most sought after document by
genealogists, the census has provided valuable information about ancestors to help
countless researchers complete their
In 1790, Federal Marshals had the job of visiting every house and recording their
findings. The first census only contained six questions: name of the head of house,
number of persons in the household, number of free white males over the age of sixteen,
numbers of free white males under the age of sixteen, and the sexes and colors of
everyone in the household. Since then every decade had produced another census.
Each census has improved with more information making it easier to trace your heritage
Over the years, the census has changed according to what issues were important
to our ancestors at the time. By 1820, the census did take into account women and
“free colored persons” to show how our economy was expanding. By 1850,
the census record contained “social statistics;” which gives us insight
to schooling that people had obtained, crime in that time period, and taxes. Later
“Enumerations” reflect the “melting pot” that America was
becoming with the increasing number of immigrants. The 1900 census asks if foreign
born, year of immigration and whether they have the ability to speak English or
not. In 1920 the year of naturalization was polled. To find out what questions were
asked for each census record download blank census forms.
When tracing your ancestors, The United States census can help you discover facts
about your ancestors and fill in missing event information, helping to build your family tree
. Among the information you can discover: birth dates, birth places, place of residence,
occupations, income, immigration years, naturalization status, and more. Another
benefit of using the census record is finding family members, giving the genealogist
the ability to add missing ancestors, such as children and grandparents.
Understanding Population Schedules for Genealogy Research
Census records are available as Population Schedules. There are also Special Census
Schedules that included: slave schedules, state records, agricultural schedules,
mortality schedules, manufactures, social statistics, defective classes, and others
are available. The state and mortality census records just might help you with tracing
your ancestors. Mortality schedules were recorded 1860, 1870, and 1880. Census takers
were directed to secure additional information for persons dying with the 12 months
preceding the census taking. For each person, the following information is listed:
name, age, sex, marital status if married or widowed, state or country of birth,
month of death, occupation, cause of death, and the length of the final illness.
These schedules may be the only record of death for some individuals, as many states
did not require recording of deaths until the late nineteenth century. In addition,
gravestones or cemetery records may be nonexistent.
Tips for Locating Ancestors in Census Records
Census records can help you to pinpoint when someone was born by noting the date
of the census and the person’s age. When you find them in more than one census,
you might find that their age changed from one census record to the next, giving
a clue as to when they were born within a couple of months. You can then update
your information for that ancestor and use a tighter time frame for their birth.
Rather than an approximate year, it might now be an approximate time frame within
a couple of months. This information may give you clues to help trace your ancestors
When tracing information about your ancestor, remember to look for them using
different spellings. Many Census takers often wrote the name the best they could
with the way it sounded. And people, who have indexed online databases, have erroneously
made mistakes in recording names and information too. The mistakes can be either
by transcribing the common handwritten letter or by mistyping the record. If you
can’t find what you are looking for, search using abbreviations, variations,
phonetic spellings, nicknames, initials, or substitute letters that are commonly
mistaken for other letters.
If you are looking at copies of microfilms, don’t overlook the other people
on the same page or the page before or after your ancestor. Many times, relatives
lived in the same household, or within houses from each other.
If you are looking at an index, remember not all indexes are the same. Your ancestors
can be traced, but some indexes only list the head of household, so if you are looking
for another adult, such as a sister, brother, father, or mother, knowing how the
index was put together is important so your searches are successful.
The 1890 census records are almost completely destroyed and others have been lost.
The best place to find what is available for each county is through Family Search.
We have compiled a list of all the state census records by decade to help you with your
Avoid Common Family History Research Mistakes
When tracing your ancestors, remember there could be several families with the
same name, living in the same area. Verify the information belongs to your ancestor
before you record the source and its details. Using several documents will help
you to verify the information you have is correct. Using our Progress Rating Chart
can help you with what information you should research to help build your family tree.
Consider all reasonable matches when performing searches. Don’t assume the
first “close” match is the right person or family. Before 1850, people
were not listed by name.Don't assume the oldest male in a census record is necessarily
the head of household or that everyone is a family member. The family could have
raised children other than theirown. Listing more children than expected in a household
could also indicate a prior marriage. Missing family members, or a family structure
vastly different from what you expected, could be a clue you found the wrong household.
Make clear notes in your records as to why you think the information you found fits
or does not seem to be your ancestors. Keeping good records will help you stay focused
and on track for future searches.
The 1940 census will be made available to the public on April 1, 2012 by the National
Archives and Records Administration.