Your forebears answered a surprising number of questions every 10 years. And buried in those census columns may be the key to an ancestral mystery.
When it comes to counting American citizens, we’ve come a long way in the last 220 years. To help enumerate an estimated 310 million residents in the 2010 census (see page 25), the Census Bureau expects nearly 3.8 million applicants—almost equal to the total US population in the first census in 1790—for 1.4 million temporary jobs. Back in 1790, 650 federal marshals did the job over a span of 18 months, traveling house to house, unannounced, at a cost of $44,000. The marshals used sheets of paper or notebooks they designed themselves (the first centrally produced and printed forms wouldn’t be introduced until 1830). That inaugural count of 3.9 million Americans covered 13 states plus the districts of Maine, Vermont, Kentucky and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee).
African-American slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, and American Indians, not subject to taxation, were skipped entirely.
Genealogists have Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution, adopted in 1787, to thank for one of the most valuable tools for tracing American ancestors: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” Given the tardiness with which many states got around to keeping vital statistics, the census is sometimes not only the best but the only official clue for birth dates and places of residence.
Better yet, access to US enumerations has never been easier (see box at right). But the census is far from perfect. Besides the uncountable human errors made in providing and recording personal information, indecipherable handwriting and flawed transcriptions plague all 15 available enumerations. Not until 1850 did enumerators ask the names of others in each family besides the head of household. The 1890 census was largely lost to fire in 1921. Censuses after 1930 remain out of reach for privacy reasons (see page 24). And sometimes your ancestors seem to have been skipped entirely, or to be hiding in places you haven’t thought to look.