Genealogy for Geeks, Part 2: Census Records

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Seal of the United States Census Bureau. The b...Seal of the United States Census Bureau. The b...

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Possibly one of the most basic, simplest, and best places to start your family research are the Census records. Tracing back as far as you can, ten years at a time, will tell you much. You can read between the lines of what information is in the records, and get a glimpse into your family’s way of life. The later Census records haven’t been made public, and the earlier ones don’t give much information. But from the 1850 census to the 1930 census, these records reveal a lot of detail.

A new set of Census records becomes public every ten years, following the 72 Year Privacy Law. The law says that no personally identifying information will be given out until 72 years after it is collected for the decennial census. This means that the 1940 Census information will be released to the public on April 1, 2012!

A page from the 1810 U.S. Census. (Public Domain)

Part 2 of my Genealogy for Geeks series covers the topic of Census records. While these records (from 1790 to 1930) are in the public domain, you really need access to a transcribed database of the information, unless you want to spend a long time sifting through the documents. Ancestry.com has such a database with detailed searches and viewing options. As with all of their resources, you can attach the records to individuals, and automatically take some of the information from the records and fill into your ancestor profiles. The Census records were originally hand written, so while everything has been transcribed for searching purposes, you can still view scans of the original documents. Most Census takers had magnificent handwriting, but you’ll find some with very sloppy writing, making transcription errors rampant, perhaps preventing us from finding our ancestors. Fortunately, Ancestry.com also has the option to submit transcription error corrections, if you notice any.

When did the United States start the Census? Though censuses were taken before the U.S. Constitution was written, the United States Census as we know it is as old as our country. The U.S. Constitution has language that requires the counting of the populace, mostly for the purposes of taxation and representation, every ten years. The first official U.S. Census was taken in 1790 and has been taken every ten years since then.

A page from the 1850 U.S. Census including Abraham Lincoln. (Public Domain)

Early Census records (before 1850) told you the name of the head of household and the number of other people living in their household, within certain categories and age ranges. These records aren’t terribly helpful, since they give few clues to tie a name to a family line. Later, the forms got much more detailed, telling for each household everyone’s name, age, gender, marital status, whether they could read, what they spent their time doing (a profession, in school, keeping home, or nothing), where they were born, where their parents were born, and more. This kind of detailed information helps you trace your history back a generation at a time, since children’s names were listed as well, and parents’ birth locations give an extra clue. These Census records also showed who else lived nearby, since the records were recorded door to door. Perhaps many people in the neighborhood were children of immigrants from Ireland. Or everyone had servants. Or no one did. Also, for the 1850 and 1860 Census records, there were separate schedules for those in slavery.

Even without any special training or genealogy education, I’ve been able to learn much about my family’s past 160 years. For example, I didn’t know that my grandmother and her father moved back in with his parents after my grandmother’s mother died in 1918. But sure enough, in 1920 they were living there. It explains a lot about the photographs I’ve seen from my great-grandfather’s collection.

A page from the 1880 U.S. Census including Thomas Edison. (Public Domain)

From the Census records, I also learned about what kind of households my ancestors had and what kind work they did. I already knew that many male ancestors were farmers or ministers, but I also learned that many were merchants or salesmen, and there was also a blacksmith here and a doctor there. It was also enlightening to find the great-great-grandmother of mine who was also a physician and supported her family for 35 years. My great-great-grandfather did odd jobs and other work, but despite his wife being the breadwinner of the family, he was, of course, listed as the head of household. A few of the family groups had farm laborers or servants living with them, though most were on their own. Many also had other family members living with them from time to time, like mothers, and sisters.

If you dig into your past and wonder, as I did, why you can’t find anything for the 1890 Census, that is because most of those records were lost in a fire in 1921. Only about 0.01% of the records were saved. But sometimes we can fill in the holes by looking at the 1880 and 1900 Census records. With all of the Census records scanned in and preserved with places such as Ancestry.com, fortunately this kind of thing shouldn’t ever happen again.

To learn more about genealogy, visit Part 1 of my Genealogy for Geeks series, which includes an introduction to genealogy and useful Ancestry.com services, and some of what I have found out about my own family so far. I hope this series inspires you to dig into your own family roots, and to share what you find with your children and extended family.

Note: Ancestry.com provided me access to their records for the purposes of these reviews.

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