Federal Census Questions at a Glance

Federal Census Questions at a Glance

Census records are crucial documents for genealogists, and often their first stop. But each census collected slightly different information. This quick list of census questions compares what data was collected in each.
Federal census questions changed each enumeration.
Bates County, Missouri, census from 1880, courtesy FamilySearch.org

Ask a genealogist about her most used genealogy record, and nine times out of ten she’ll bring up census records. Federal censuses, taken every ten years since 1790, stand apart from other documents thanks to their consistency and coverage. In theory, they surveyed every home in the United States, and census questions provide data on nearly every individual. They’re available (often for free) on most genealogy websites, and indexes make them easy to search. And they play a unique role in genealogy research, allowing researchers to place an ancestor in a specific place and time, trace whole families and leap-frog back in time.

This table displays questions that have been asked during the census throughout time. An X indicates the corresponding census asked a question related to that subject.

CategoryQuestion/Subject17901800181018201830184018501860187018801890 (mostly destroyed)19001910192019301940
NamesHead of household's name onlyxxxxxx
All household members' names (except slaves)xxxxxxxxxx
Birth informationAge ranges of free white malesxxxxxx
Age ranges of free white femalesxxxxxx
Ages of all household membersxxxxxxxxxx
Birthplacexxxxxxxxxx
Month and year of birthx
ParentsForeign-born parentsx
Parents' birthplacesxxxxxxx
Mother tonguexxxx
Parents' mother tonguesxx
MarriageMarried in the census yearxxxxx
Marital statusxxxxxxx
Years marriedxx
Age at first marriagex
Immigration and citizenshipNumber of aliens/non-naturalized residentsxxx
Year of immigrationxxxx
Years in the United Statesxx
Naturalization statusxxxxxx
Education/OccupationOccupationxxxxxxxxxxx
Attended school in past yearxxxxxxxxxxx
Can read or writexxxxxxxxxx
Incomex
OtherNumber of free coloredxxx
Relationship to head of householdxxxxxxx
Veteran statusxxx
Number of children mothered (total and living)xxx
Able to speak Englishxxxx

As you look through the table, you’ll notice a few trends. First, the variety of questions greatly increased after 1850. In fact, many consider 1850 the first census useful to genealogists; earlier censuses only asked questions about the head of household. In general, censuses have asked more questions throughout, making more-recent censuses more useful for genealogists. Note also that fire and flood destroyed most 1890 census records, making that year’s census useless for modern researchers. In addition, genealogists only have access to census records up to 1940. (For privacy reasons, the US government won’t release the 1950 census until 2022.)

If you need specific information about your ancestor, simply look at the above chart to determine which census might provide the answers you need. We have several articles on census records that can help you locate your ancestors in the census, plus overcome difficulties in finding them.

A version of this chart appears in the Family Tree Factbook. This portable, durable book contains hundreds of quick-reference genealogy strategies and statistics that will save time in your research. In addition to helpful charts like this one, you’ll find a roundup of the best genealogy websites, tips for researching documents like federal censuses, details about how to use DNA test results and more.

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