Start your own roots rush with our guide to finding family history gold in California, Oregon and Washington.
Route to the census
California was first enumerated in the federal census in 1850, followed by Oregon in 1860 and Washington in 1890 (that census was destroyed by fire, however, so 1900 is the earliest surviving federal census of Washington). Although the "oldest" West Coast censuses are far newer than those used to research the East, they cover the most genealogically productive years. The 1850 count was the first one to enumerate the complete household, and is one of the most valuable for research based on family relationships. The 1850 and later censuses list every person's birthplace, too. If you aren't sure where your family originated before arriving in the West, the census is a good jumping-off place.
You can access the federal census on microfilm through the Family History Library's (FHL) branch Family History Centers (FHCs) www.familysearch.org and various state archives and libraries, on CD-ROMs and on subscription Web sites such as Genealogy.com (www.genealogy.com, 1850 and 1900) and Ancestry.com (, 1790 to 1930). You can also check USGenWeb (www.usgenweb.org, www.us-census.org/inventory/inventory.htm) to see if a volunteer has transcribed the census you need. For more on using the census, see the February 2002 Family Tree Magazine and the new book Your Guide to the Federal Census by Kathleen W. Hinckley (Betterway Books, $19.99).
Territorial census data is also available for 1850 for the Oregon Territory (which included Washington) and 1860, 1870 and 1880 for Washington Territory through FHCs and Ancestry.com's subscription site. State and territorial censuses exist for a few counties from 1857 to 1892 in Washington and 1842 to 1905 in Oregon, but generally include only the head of household's name.
Early California census records (called padrons) were kept of Spanish, Mexican and Indian residents and have been published in The Quarterly, a publication of the Historical Society of Southern California . The FHL has microfilm of the Los Angeles padrons of 1790, 1836 and 1844, as well as the 1852 state census, which provided data on the entire household.
To search the FHL catalog online, go to www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp and click Place Search. Next, type in the name of a state. From the next page of options, click the state, then Census. Scroll down through the list to see what's available at the library in Salt Lake City or through its worldwide network of FHCs.
Contributing editor Nancy Hendrickson wrote the August 2002 cover story on the 101 best family history Web sites (page 20). She lives in San Diego.