Census Sensibilities

By Emily Anne Croom Premium

What’s the first thing many of us do when we discover new ancestors (after shrieking excitedly and taking a victory lap around the microfilm reader)? We rush to look up our kin in the census and give ourselves a sense that they were real people. While there’s no set pattern to follow when tracing your pedigree, the federal census is a favorite starting point for many researchers — and for good reason. Census records can yield a wealth of clues about your ancestral families, and if you delve into these public records first, chances are you’ll amass enough information to move on to other sources, such as county and state records.

The US census — a list of families and individuals living in each state and territory — has been a government staple for keeping track of the population since 1790. It’s been taken every 10 years in order to apportion representation in the House of Representatives in Congress. Over the years, the government has asked more and more questions to learn demographic and economic information about the populace, making the census an integral tool for genealogical research. Many of the records provide ages, relationships, birthplaces and even occupations; they also can give you a good sense of the time and place in which your ancestors lived. All of these useful details are packed into a capsule format that’s easy to read — if you know how to do it.


Before you embark on your own census research, you’ll need to know some background about the history and contents of the census. Keep these facts in mind:

1. Census records are kept confidential for 72 years before the public can use them for research.

2. Congress designated one day in each census year as census day. The enumeration began that day, and its report was to be correct as of that day. Each household was told to include everyone residing there on that day, regardless of when the census taker actually visited. People who died after census day but before the census taker came were to be included because they were still alive on census day. Babies bom after census day were to be omitted.

3. Some people are missing from each census. This happened for many reasons, including language barriers, transcription errors or even a simple case of the family not being home when the census taker knocked on the door.

4. On the flip side, some people are listed twice. You also may find your ancestors listed under different names, or names with unfamiliar or alternate spellings, such as Garner instead of Gardner.

5. Unfortunately, some census records no longer exist. They may be missing for a neighborhood, a county or an entire state.

6. The censuses varied from decade to decade, so you could find different kinds of information about a family over the years.

From 1790 through 1840, censuses named only the head of each household; others in the household — slave and free — were grouped by age and sex. Beginning in 1850, census schedules named each individual in free households, with age, sex, race, occupation, birthplace (state or country), ability to read or write, schooling during the year and infirmities such as blindness or deafness. In 1880, censuses began asking about relationships and the birthplaces of each person’s parents — facts that will help you in your search for the preceding generations. Finding someone’s age in the census, of course, helps you estimate a birth date. Comparing birthplaces within the family helps you study your ancestors’ migration patterns and suggests where to look for further information.

Normally, the census listed the head of household and spouse first, then the rest of the nuclear family in descending age order, followed by others residing in the household — stepchildren, foster children, in-laws, servants, employees and boarders, for example. Extra people in households — those not belonging to the nuclear family — were often relatives, but the census does not always report them as such. Instead, they were sometimes listed as boarders, orphans or “no relation.”

Slave census schedules for 1850 and 1860 are separate from the general population schedules. Many research libraries have them, or you can rent them from the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City through its branch Family History Centers (FHCs). These records contain the slave owner’s name and the age and sex of each slave. The slaves were rarely listed by name.

Fire destroyed almost all of the 1890 census, but fragments exist for Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and the District of Columbia. An index of these fragments is on microfilm. Fortunately for some researchers, censuses taken between 1880 and 1900 help bridge the gap created by the missing 1890 census and are available on microfilm. These include the first territorial census for Oklahoma (taken in 1890), censuses taken by some states between 1880 and 1890, and the 1885 federal censuses for Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico Territory and Dakota Territory. Part of the 1890 special census of Union Army veterans and widows also exists; states alphabetically from Louisiana through Wyoming, Oklahoma and Indian Territory have extant records, as do naval stations and vessels. Fragments of the 1890 veterans census remain for California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky and the District of Columbia. is building an 1890 database <> from many sources, especially city directories, to help make up for the loss of the crucial 1890 population census. Substitutes can’t replace all the lost individual information. but they can help locate people alive in a given place at a given rime.

The 1900 census was the only one to include each person’s month and year of birth. Many of these birth dates are approximate, however — some are off by several years, so use them with caution.

The 1900 and 1910 censuses asked for the number of children born to the mother, the number of her children will living and the length of time each couple had been married. This information can help genealogists fill out family group sheets and estimate marriage dates. In addition, the 1900 through 1930 censuses asked questions about immigration and naturalization. The 1930 census even reported the age at which a person first married and which individuals owned radios.

Because the 1930 census is not fully Soundexed — that is, indexed with a special phonetic system used in the 1880 and later censuses (sec box. page 28) — genealogists are lucky to have good finding aids. If you know your ancestors street address or neighborhood identification, the aids can help narrow your search from an entire state to one enumeration district (ED), The finding aids include enumeration district descriptions and maps, as well as an index to selected city streets. A variation of the microfilmed HD descriptions is on the National Archives Web site at <>. A privately produced and easy-to-use index to streets in numerous cities is online at <>. The Genealogist’s Companion and Sourcebook, 2nd edition (Betterway Books),explains these took in depth.


Besides its wealth of genealogical data, another reason the census is such a good starting point is that it’s so accessible. Censuses are available to researchers on microfilm, CD-ROM and the Internet. Subscription based Web sites such as < > and <> now offer digital images of census records, most of which are searchable. Ask whether a Library near you subscripts to HeritageQuest Online. If so, you can access the census records at the library or from home using your library card.

Other collections of abstracts, transcriptions and some digital images are available for tree at sites such as USGen Web <>. Searchable abstracts of the 1880 census are online at <> (click the Search tab. then Census).

Though abstracts and transcriptions for individual counties are also available in books, it’s always better to use microfilm or digital images of the original records whenever possible. Many censuses are indexed.

You can find census microfilm in many research and academic Libraries, and many libraries arc adding the CD-ROMs to their collections. as well. You can rent the microfilm from the National Archives Microfilm Rental Program (a private company, < rent microfilm.html>) and the FHL. through FHCs.

The National Archives has catalogs of its census microfilm, which give a state-by-state listing of counties and the toll numbers for each census year. The 1790 through 1920 catalogs are online at <www.archives.gow/publications/genealogy microfilm_catalogshtml#census>; you also can find hard copies of the catalogs in research libraries and through genealogy booksellers.

Whether you’re viewing the census on microfilm, CD-ROM or the Web, it helps to know how the records are organized: They’re arranged first by state, then by county, then by communities, townships, precincts, wards. districts or other subdivisions. Each roll or disc may contain several counties. In some cases, a large county or city may be split and appear on two or more rolls or discs. A list of the contents is often on the outside of the microfilm box and on the first frames of film. Seeing this list will help you know bow far to scroll to find your county of interest, For the censuses of 1850 and after, the county name usually appears at the top of each page, and divider cards sometimes mark the beginning of each county on the film.


Now it’s time to dig into the records and find details about your family. Start by determining the state where your focus family lived in each census year, beginning with the most recently released and working back in time.

Next. you’ll use indexes to help you place your family in a county or city. Published indexes are available by state in many-research libraries for censuses of 1790 to 1870 and some for 1880 and 1910. Some indexes appear in periodicals and on CD-ROM. You also can take advantage of the Soundex — this can help you find your kin even if you don’t know exactly where they lived when the census taker came calling (see box, above).

Check indexes for your focus ancestor and other people by the same surname in the same county or in surrounding counties, especially if the surname is not a common one. (Remember, however, that people with the same surname in the same county may or may not be related.) Also look in the indexes for variant spellings of your research surnames, You should expect ages and name spellings to vary from one census to the next. It was not unusual for one person to be listed over five censuses as age 5,14,26,35 and 47. A person could be listed as Susie, Susan, Susanna, S.E. and Sue in five censuses, as well. The ages of young children were usually expressed in the number of months or days of age: “5/12” for 5 months or “21/30” for 21 days. Occasionally, the ages of older children were also given this way, for example, “10 3/12” for 10 years, 3 months.

Keep in mind that county boundaries sometimes changed between censuses. A family listed in two censuses in two different counties may not have moved; the county boundary may have been changed. Historical atlases of counties or states can help you determine boundary changes. For example, Gale Group publishes the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries for about half the states. You’ll also find information on the creation of new counties in Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources edited by Alice Eichholz (Ancestry), The Handybook for Genealogists (Everton Publishers) and Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

If you do not have access to an index or if the family name does not appear in an index, you may need to read the entire county family by family. The process is sometimes long, but can be rewarding and entertaining. Families in the census were sometimes missed in the indexing process or were indexed under a variation you would never imagine, such as the name Allen indexed as Allne.

Unscrambling Soundex

The 1880, 1900, and 1920 federal censuses and parts of the 1910 and 1930 censuses are indexed by state using a code based on the sounds in surnames. This indexing system — Soundex — is especially useful when you do not know specifically where the family was living in the census year. It will tell you their county and community and where you can find them on the census. It is most often available as microfilm of the cards on which basic census information was written. (Note that the 1880 Soundex includes only households with children ages 10 and under.)

The system works like this; Letters with similar sounds have the same code (see the key at left). The code begins with the first letter of the surname. Of the remaining letters, crass out all vowels (a, e, i, o and u) plus w, h and y. With the consonants, form a three-digit code. For Carpenter, the code begins with C. Cross out a, e. e; code r as 6, p as 1, n as 5; disregard remaining letters. The code is C615.

Code as one digit any double letters, such as tt or rr (Saddler — S346), or consonants with the same code that occur together in a name, such as ck or sc (Scanlon — S545). Names with h or w between same-code letters are coded as if the h or w was not in the name at all (Sachse — S200, not S220), If you run out of key letters before you have the required three digits, simply add one or more zeros (Mott — M300; lee — Looo). Names with the same code appear together in the Soundex.

Because of spelling variations in census entries or indexers misreading enumerators’ handwriting, you should code the usual variations for your family surnames to use in your Soundex search. Be aware that some names and their common variations will have different Soundex codes because of subtle spelling changes, such as Larson (L625) and Lawson (L250), or Mood (M300) misread as Wood (W300).

When you determine the Soundex code(s) for your focus family, you are ready to get the microfilm. You would choose for Gardner, for example, the 1920 Soundex for Kansas for C635 (year, state, code). After you record the information from the Soundex cards — especially county, enumeration district, page and the line number for the family’s listing — you can move to the census schedule.


Once you locate your focus family, you’re ready to move to the actual census schedules. As you read the census entries for your family, take thorough notes or photocopy the original pages. You can use the checklist on page 26 as a guide to the key details you should record. Be sure to include details that can help you jump to other sources or understand the family better; for example:

? information about home or farm ownership or the value of real estate. With this clue, plan to search land records for additional information.

? Information about schooling or the ability to read and write. For example, in one 1860 farm family, neither parent could read or write. Thus, it wasn’t surprising that five of the family’s seven school-age children were not in school. The two who had attended school that year were teenage girls.

? Information about birthplace of parents in censuses of 1880 forward.

? Information about immigration, naturalization or citizenship. This data could help you research immigrant ancestors.

Note when any key information, such as birthplace, occupation, relationship or value of real estate, is missing. And watch for unexpected details, such as one man’s occupation listed as “jack-of-all-trades and good at any.” Be alert for census takers who gave more information than the forms asked for: marriage dates for couples, middle names for everyone in the household, relationships even when none were called for, or counties of birth instead of just state names.

Add to your notes the Latin word sic (meaning thus) in brackets beside misinformation or misspellings from the census to indicate that you copied exactly what was in the original. These problems can occur in any column. Finding factual errors or information that conflicts with your previous research isn’t uncommon. After all, we cannot know who gave the information to the census taker in any given year. It could have been a child, one of the parents, a visiting grandmother or even a boarder or neighbor. Further research can help you determine which information is accurate.

The easiest way to record and organize your census notes is to use census extraction forms. These worksheets contain the same columns for information as the actual census pages, so you can duplicate everything from the original records. Each census year has a different form, as the information collected changed over time. You can download free census forms at <www.familytreemagazine, com/forms/download.html>. They’re also available in Unpuzzling Your Past, 4th edition (Betterway Books).

To use the census effectively in your research, you need to read every available census for your focus ancestor and family. If you skip a census, you may miss valuable information. You also will want to branch out beyond your focus ancestor’s household. Read several pages of the census on each side of your family to look for other families of the same surname or other families whose names you recognize as relatives. Take time to read an entire county or district, especially if a number of your related families lived there. You could find relatives unexpectedly.

Reading the entire county also gets you acquainted with surnames, occupations and other demographic information. Get a feel for where most of the residents were born, from which foreign countries residents came, which given names were most popular and which occupations were prevalent. Learn who was in jail, who the ministers and teachers were, what unusual occupations some people had and who had really interesting names. Seeing your ancestors in the context of their community will help you understand who they were and what their lives must have been like — or, in other words, make them real people.

Supplemental Schedules

In addition to the standard census schedules, four types of supplemental schedules were created between 1850 and 1880. Many of these records still exist. The agriculture, manufacturing and social statistics schedules yield few genealogical clues but reveal interesting history. The mortality schedules, however, are genealogical in nature. They report the names and ages of people who died within the calendar year prior to the census, with the month and cause of death. Omissions occurred because the schedules include only people whose families or doctors reported their deaths to the census takers. Many of the mortality schedules have been published or microfilmed.

The supplemental schedules are available in a variety of places, primarily major research libraries and the state library, archives or historical society. You can rent some of them on microfilm from Family History Centers. The Genealogist’s Companion and Sourcebook, 2nd edition (Betterway Books, $19.99), provides a comprehensive listing of known schedules.

From Family Tree Magazine‘s November 2003 Trace Your Family History.