Erma Schwenk of Allentown, Pa., hid for two days in April 1930 when census enumerators were visiting her neighborhood. She’d lied about her age in the 1920 census and was worried the government would deport her, even though she’d been a naturalized citizen for 20 years. Her paranoia turned into suicide — on April 5 she leaped to her death from the second story of her home.
About the same time, a census enumerator was saving a life in New York City. Morton Kotzen was interviewing tenants of a boarding house on East 110th Street when he smelled gas and traced it to a room occupied by Sam Bianco, a 34-year-old salesman. Kotzen revived the salesman and promptly gathered his personal data to complete the 1930 census form.
Most census stories aren’t such matters of life and death — but for genealogists the real stories are even more fascinating, hidden in the data collected about your ancestors. Census records might prove your Native American ancestry or descent from a Revolutionary War patriot. Or the census might surprise you with tidbits of information about your ancestors, such as an occupation of “chronic loafer” (noted in 1880 Oxford County, Maine), a notation of “drinks bad whiskey” (1880 Baker County, Oregon), or a description of “Does Horizontal work” (applied to a prostitute in 1870 Ellsworth County, Kansas).
The 1930 census that so terrified Erma Schwenk and inspired Morton Kotzen above and beyond the call of duty will be made public on April 1, 2002, upon the expiration of a mandated 72-year privacy period. The release of this decennial bonanza of data will be a red-letter day for anyone interested in family history.
After all, the US federal census is the foundation of genealogical research. It’s usually the first record type you examine when beginning your family history search, and continues to be a touchstone as your research progresses.
Beginning with the first census of 1790 and continuing every 10 years, the government created a snapshot of America on each census day. Uncle Sam not only counted the population, but gathered valuable information for historians and genealogists — names, ages, place of birth, relationships to others, migration patterns, immigration data, citizenship status, ethnic origins, military service and value of real estate or personal property.
What can you learn from looking at the census?
Here’s an example: American painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is listed on line 86 of the 1920 census of New York City, 32 years old and living at 114 E. 59th St.
O’Keeffe’s Manhattan neighborhood is a true melting pot, with immigrants from Germany, Austria, Russia, Poland, Switzerland, Ireland, Scotland, Africa, Sweden, Holland and Greece. Three other artists live near O’Keeffe, including 35-year-old Lillian Fox, who was also born in Wisconsin.
The census entry verifies the accuracy of Susan Wright’s remark in her book Georgia O’Keeffe: An Eternal Spirit (Todtri Productions): “O’Keeffe painted all day, living and working on the top floor of a brownstone on 59th Street.”
Wouldn’t it be interesting to know if descendants of the 14 other individuals living in the brownstone know that their ancestor lived near such a famous artist? Census research gives insight into many such possibilities.
Getting started in the census
You begin census research with yourself — if you were born on or before April 1, 1930. If you were born after April 1, 1930, begin with your parents or grandparents — whoever may have been living in 1930.
Your strategy for all census research should be to begin with the most current census record available for your research subject. For example, if the person you’re studying died in 1902, begin with the 1900 census. It’s tempting to look for the person listed as a child first, but researching backward one census at a time is more logical and successful than leap-frogging.
Each enumeration varied in length and content, so the information you’ll find about your ancestors will vary. With each succeeding census, the government added questions to predict the nation’s needs in education, retirement, housing and health care. Even the 1790 census, with the least amount of information, provided statistics on future military capabilities.
Here’s a quick look at how census content developed over the years:
• From 1790 through 1840, only heads of household were named and all other family members and slaves were listed statistically. Some early Spanish and British colonial censuses do name every member of the household — even slaves.
• Beginning in 1850, each household member was named with accompanying data, except slaves.
• The place of birth (state or country) of each person was first reported in 1850; this continued through 1930.
• The post-Civil War 1870 census is especially important if you’re researching black ancestors. Prior to 1870, only free blacks were named individually; slaves were reported only by age and sex.
• Reporting the birthplace of each enumerated person’s parents began in 1880 and continued through 1930.
• The 1880 census was the first to identify each person’s relationship to the head of the household.
• Only the 1900 and 1920 census schedules have a Soundex (index by sound of surname rather than alphabetical, which helps find names you’d miss because of misspellings; see <www.familytreemagazine.com/soundex.html) for all families in all states.
• The year of immigration to the United States is reported in the 1900 through 1930 census schedules.
1930 Census Soundex
The 1900 and 1920 censuses have a Soundex (index by sound of surname) for all states. The 1930 census, however, is only soundexed for 10 states and portions of two others:
• Kentucky (Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Kenton, Muhlenberg, Perry and Pike counties only)
• North Carolina
• South Carolina
• West Virginia (Fayette, Harrison, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mercer and Raleigh counties only)
For states without a Soundex, you’ll need to know the city or township name to search for your family. Large cities can take hours of research unless you have an exact street address and convert it to an enumeration district using maps and enumeration-district descriptions.
Exploring the 1930 census
So what information do we have to look forward to with the release of the 1930 census? In 1930, the enumerators carried large portfolios with preprinted forms and collected the following data for each person or household:
• street or road name, house number and if a farm
• name, age and sex of each household member
• relationship to the head of household
• whether owns or rents home and if mortgaged
• value of home or monthly payment
• whether owns a radio set
• color or race
• marital status
• age at first marriage
• whether attended school since Sept. 1, 1929
• whether can read and write
• place of birth
• father’s place of birth
• mother’s place of birth
• language spoken in home before coming to the United States
• year of immigration
• whether naturalized or an alien
• whether can speak English
• trade, profession or kind of work
• type of industry or business
• whether worked yesterday
• whether a veteran and, if so, what war The Census Bureau also instructed enumerators to report American Indians’ degree of Indian blood and their tribe’s name. Since the form had no place for this data, the bureau told enumerators to use the columns for father’s and mother’s birthplace.
The public met the new question about radio ownership with great reluctance — they feared the government was going to tax all radios. The Radio Manufacturers’ Association had asked the government to include the radio question to help plan geographic placement of broadcasting stations.
Finding more in non-population schedules
During some census years, additional details appear in non-population schedules for select population segments such as farmers, business owners, prisoners, homeless children, paupers and veterans. The term non-population is misleading because it implies information that’s not personal or genealogically important. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Some non-population schedules have been destroyed or lost, so they’re not available for all areas or time periods. Specific details are provided in my new book Your Guide to the Federal Census (Betterway Books, $18.99). Generally speaking, the following schedules are available:
• Agriculture — 1850-1880, 1885
• Defective, Dependent, Delinquent Classes — 1880
• Industry and Manufacturing Schedules — 1810-1820, 1850-1880, 1885
• Mortality Schedules — 1850-1880, 1885, 1900 (Minnesota only)
• Social Statistics Schedules — 1850-1880
• Veterans — 1890
These special schedules include individuals’ names and information not found in most other records. For example, agriculture schedules report specifics about the farmer’s crop production, and mortality schedules give the cause of death. The enumerator’s extra remarks in the 1870 mortality schedule for Madison County, NY, exemplify the detail you may find about some deaths:
In case No. 2 William Taylor was killed by a lathe bolt. It caught the Buzz saw flew back struck him in the bowels, lived 10 hours. Case 318 [Joseph Button] was injured by being crushed by a canal boat, 15 years ago. Took nearly one ounce of Opium per day. Left it off and died in a short time in great agony.
Discovering the DDD
The Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Census schedules (DDD), officially termed “Supplemental Schedules, 1-7: Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Classes,” were used only in 1880. The DDD’s purpose was to collect statistics that would aid the government in budgeting for construction and maintenance of institutions and prisons, as well as providing financial aid for the disabled. The resulting data can help you compile health histories and study genetic diseases.
These unusually detailed census schedules can provide information about your ancestors that’s not available in the regular returns, nor probably in any other source. For example, the 1880 Wilmington, New Castle County, Del., DDD schedule reveals the following about segments of its population:
Supplemental Schedule 1 — Insane Inhabitants: It names 44 insane persons, aged 20 to 55. Seven required the use of handcuffs, three needed leg irons and four required both.
Supplemental Schedule 2 — Idiots: All but one of the 41 persons had been “idiots” since they were babies. Half had large heads. Ages weren’t reported on this schedule; a comparison with the population schedule would help determine if those people were then adults.
Supplemental Schedule 3 — Deaf-Mutes: No deaf-mutes resided in New Castle County.
Supplemental Schedule 4 — Blind Inhabitants: Of the nine blind persons, four were partly blind. The 25-year-old woman reported the cause of blindness as disease, whereas the 67-year-old attributed his blindness to old age. A 65-year-old woman claimed abuse as the cause, and a 45-year-old reported “blowed up,” suggesting an accident. The others didn’t know the cause.
Supplemental Schedule 5 — Homeless Children (in Institutions): The 25 children’s ages aren’t reported, but would be in the population schedule. All had at least one living parent, although 10 were abandoned by their parents. Half the parents surrendered control of their children. Surprisingly, 15 children were born in the institution, which may explain why 21 were illegitimate. Only five were reported as having respectable origins and one had been prosecuted as a criminal. Four children were also “idiots” with more information reported in the Idiot schedule.
Supplemental Schedule 6 — Inhabitants in Prison: The alleged offenses of 50 prisoners in the New Castle County Jail included murder, assault and battery, manslaughter, rape, larceny, receiving stolen goods and vagrancy. Sentences ranged from three months to life and one rapist condemned to hang.
Supplemental Schedule 7 — Pauper and Indigent Inhabitants: Nearly half of the 21 persons listed as a pauper or indigent residing in institutions, poorhouses or asylums were also insane. Only two were considered able-bodied and none had a relative residing with them.
Waiting for 1930
The 1930 US federal census will be released for public viewing on April 1, 2002, at the National Archives in Washington, DC, and its 13 regional branches. Shipments of the microfilm to other libraries throughout the country will begin the same day; the film will be available for research after those libraries have catalogued it. For more information on the 1930 census, see <www.nara.gov/genealogy/1930cen.html>.
You’ll find complete information about the National Archives’ regional branches, including addresses and hours, at <www.nara.gov/nara/gotonara.html>. Their locations:
• Central Plains Region: Kansas City, Mo.
• Great Lakes Region: Chicago, III.
• Great Lakes Region: Dayton, Ohio
• Mid-Atlantic Region: Philadelphia, Pa.
• Northeast Region: Boston, Mass.
• Northeast Region: Pittsfield, Mass.
• Northeast Region: New York, NY
• Pacific Region: Laguna Niguel, Calif.
• Pacific Region: San Bruno, Calif.
• Pacific Alaska Region: Anchorage, Alaska
• Rocky Mountain Region: Denver, Colo.
• Southeast Region: East Point, Ga.
• Southwest Region: Fort Worth, Texas
Census schedules are kept confidential for 72 years, so the 1940 enumeration will be released in 2012; the 1950 census won’t be public until 2022.
Following the enumerator
Your ancestors didn’t live in a vacuum. Understanding the historical context of their neighborhood is an important element in genealogical research, helping you solve puzzles of the past and creating a more vivid image of the lives of your family. (For more on “cluster genealogy,” see the December 2001 Family Tree Magazine.) The census makes an ideal tool to gather information about your ancestors’ neighbors and community.
For example, let’s look at what we can learn about the neighbors of Molly Brown of Denver, Colo., better known as “the Unsinkable Molly Brown” of Titanic fame. In April 1894, Margaret “Molly” Brown and her husband, James Joseph Brown, purchased a four-year-old, three-story home at 1340 Pennsylvania St. in Denver. (See <www.mollybrown.org> for the history of the Molly Brown House, including photographs of the Brown family.) The 1900 census enumerator recorded their household (the three place names are, respectively, the birthplaces of the person, the person’s father and the person’s mother):
Brown, James J., Head, W/M, Nov 1854, 45, married 14 yrs., Pennsylvania, Ireland, Ireland, mine owner
Brown, Margaret, Wife, W/F, July 1868, 31, married 14 yrs., 2/2, Missouri, Ireland, Ireland
Brown, Lawrence P., Son, W/M, Aug 1887, 12 yrs., Missouri, Pennsylvania, Missouri
Brown, Helen, Daughter, W/F, July 1889, 10 yrs., Missouri, Pennsylvania, Missouri
Tobin, Johanna, M-in-Law, W/F, March 1825, 75, Ireland, Ireland, Ireland
Bondestel, Mary, Ward, W/F, April 1884, 16, California, Germany, France
Becker, Frank A., Nephew, W/M, Jan 1882, 18, Missouri, New York, Missouri
Mulligan, Mary C, Housekeeper, W/F, Oct 1863, 36, Kansas, Ireland, Ireland
Reynolds, Harry, Servant, W/M, Feb 1875, 25, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Canada
Using this census entry as the focus, you can track the enumerator’s route on a real-estate map (above).combining facts from the census, city directories and the map reveals:
• Precinct 5, Ward 10, Denver Enumeration District 82 contained 88 dwellings, spanning 12 pages in the census.
• The enumerator, Florence Wilbur, began her route with her own residence — dwelling 1 on the map. Wilbur was 27 years old, single, a kindergarten teacher, and residing with her widowed mother and 15-year-old brother. Wilbur probably taught kindergarten at Broadway School, next door to her home.
• The government allowed one month for the 1900 census to be taken; Wilbur completed her task in two weeks.
• Wilbur enumerated the Brown household (dwelling 51 on the map) June 4, 1900. According to Kristen Iversen’s Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth (Johnson Books), Molly and J. J. Brown were in Ireland in June 1900, and their children were at school in Paris. Molly’s mother, or perhaps a servant, likely gave the information to the enumerator.
• In 1900, only four houses existed in the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Street: two on the east side and two on the west. There was a stone stable behind Molly Brown’s house.
• Joshua and Victoria Monti, immigrants from Switzerland and France, lived next door to Molly Brown (dwelling 50).
What can the census tell you about your ancestors’ neighborhood?
By merging census data with a map, you can get a clearer picture of the place your ancestor lived. Here, 1900 census data was plotted on a real-estate map to trace the census enumerator’s route through Molly Brown’s Denver neighborhood. The black dots indicate the dwelling numbers listed in the census, and the red lines show how the enumerator moved through the area. Molly Brown’s house is dwelling 57.
• Mrs. Sayer, who lived across the street (dwelling 49), was born in Missouri with parents born in Ireland — just like Molly Brown. Iversen’s book says the two families are related and cites the 1900 census as the source. The 1900 census doesn’t report relationships between neighbors; Iversen may be correct, but proof of relationship needs to be established through other documents before jumping to this conclusion.
• John and Mary Milheim, the remaining neighbors on Pennsylvania Street (dwelling 48), were born in Switzerland. So the four families living in the 1300 block were Irish, Swiss and French.
• The only children living in the 1300 block were Molly Brown’s 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, plus the two teenagers (ward and nephew) residing in their home.
• The five households that shared the back alley of Molly Brown’s house (dwellings 52-56) consisted of a jeweler born in Louisiana, a manager of a music company born in New York, a lawyer born in Maine, a landowner born in Vermont and a stockyards manager born in Missouri. Only one child under age 12 lived in these five residences.
• The First Church of Christ Scientist was within walking distance of the Brown residence, although this was not their church. The Browns were Irish Catholics.
• The Smith family lived in dwelling 71 — a family-owned hotel that’s not named in the census record. The census named 18 employees/servants and 17 boarders. You can discover the hotel’s name (Charline Place) by matching the dwelling’s address on the map with the census enumeration and confirming it in the 1900 Denver city directory. The Smith family had a 17-year-old daughter named “Charline.” Was the hotel named after her?
Many of these observations couldn’t be made without combining information from the census record with the map. You can re-create your ancestors’ neighborhood in a similar fashion and gain new insight into their community and lifestyle. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are an excellent resource for more than 12,000 US cities from 1867 to 1970 <sanborn.umi.com>.
Seeing the census
Now that you have a taste of what you can learn about your ancestors and their lives from the census, how do you get your hands on this treasure trove of information? You’ll find census records at the National Archives <www.nara.gov> and its 13 branches, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and its Family History Centers worldwide <www.familysearch.org>, at hundreds of public and university libraries throughout the United States, on CD-ROM and microfilm, and digitized on the Internet (see box at right). The census can be viewed for free, purchased or borrowed, or accessed via subscription.
Digital images are being posted on the Internet at Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com, and HeritageQuest.com for subscriber fees. The USGenWeb Census Project offers free displays (incomplete) at <www.us-census.org>. See the listing at right for more options.
As you study these records, you’ll find that researching in the census is like going on a treasure hunt without a map. Hidden clues and gems are waiting for you to discover. Each enumeration is a snapshot of your family at a particular time and place, rich in content beyond the obvious names and dates. Be persistent and use census records as a cornerstone of your research. You won’t regret the time and energy required to be successful.