Imagine someone showing up at your American ancestors’ door every 10 years and taking a group photo of the household. You’d want all of those pictures, wouldn’t you? They’d show a time-lapse biography of your family. You’d study each person’s age progression, how hairstyles and fashions changed, who appeared or disappeared (and when) and how the backdrop changed over time.
Censuses are so data-rich that they’re among the first places you should look for your family history—and you should keep coming back to them. It’s difficult to absorb everything on the first pass. Revisit your ancestors in censuses to find clues you missed, interpret new finds or confirm you’re on the right track. We’ll show you what’s in census records, how to find your ancestors’ records, and how to extract every possible clue.
A national head count
The US Constitution calls for a nationwide population tally every 10 years for congressional representation purposes. The first was in 1790; the most recent was in 2010. Additionally, the federal government picked up part of the tab for an 1885 census of some states and territories, so these count as federal censuses, too.
Census-takers were to visit each household. It might have taken weeks or months to visit everyone, but all information collected was supposed to reflect the household as it was on a specific date. The official census date (see a list of official US census dates) is important when you’re calculating household members’ birth years based on the age in a census, or if someone was born or died around the time a census was taken.
Genealogists might cluster US censuses into three groups: the least informative (1790-1840), fairly informative (1850-1870) and genealogical jackpot (1880-1940). Those early censuses name only heads of household and count others. The 1830 census was the first to use a standard preprinted form. Here’s a breakdown:
• 1790-1810: name the head of household with tallies of other household members by age group, gender, race (white, black or Indian), and free or slave status
• 1820: same as above, plus tallies of aliens and workers in agriculture, commerce and manufacture
MyHeritage.com. http://www.myheritage.com: accessed 15 January 2014.
• 1830: drops the industrial categories and added tallies of the deaf, “dumb” and blind, segregated by race and age• 1840: reintroduces employment tallies for various industries; adds military veterans receiving pensions; and tallies those in school, illiterate white adults, and “insane” and “idiots” cared for at public expense
Beginning in 1850, every free household member was named, and homes and families were numbered in order of visitation.
• 1850: name, age, sex and color of each free person; value of real estate owned; place of birth; whether married or attended school within the year; whether an illiterate adult or “deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict;” and occupation of males over 16
• 1860: adds value of personal property
• 1870: adds more-detailed age, race and literacy descriptors. This census adds indicators for parents of foreign birth; month of birth or marriage if occurring within the year; voter eligibility; and whether a victim of voter discrimination. Names the formerly enslaved for the first time.
Beginning in 1880, the level of family history detail in the census rises to a new high. Home addresses, family relationships and more put these among the richest existing sources for American genealogy.
• 1880: adds street address, relationship of each person to head of household, marital status, everyone’s profession, months unemployed, illness or disability on date of visit, parents’ birthplaces
• 1890: adds more detailed capture of race, household structure, naturalization status and disability/illness; number of children borne/living and years in the United States; months attending school; parents’ birthplaces; whether a homeless child, convict, prisoner or Civil War veteran/widow; native tongue (if not English). Sadly, all but a handful of schedules for this census were ruined after a Census Bureau fire.• 1900: removes native tongue, adds month and year of birth, whether an English speaker, years in present marriage, year of immigration/number of years in the United States, homeownership/renter status.
• 1910: removes birth month and year, adds occupational and unemployment details, Civil War veteran status, and language of non-English speakers. Less detail requested on schooling and disability.
• 1920: removes childbearing data, adds year of naturalization, mother tongue for self and both parents, whether living on a farm
• 1930: adds value of home/rental, radio ownership, age at first marriage, mother tongue of foreign born, English language ability, unemployment, military veterans mobilized (and for which war)• 1940: adds informant to the census taker; highest school grade completed; place of residence on April 1, 1935; and details on employment status, occupation, involvement in public emergency work, income amount and source.
Search all censuses
Original and microfilmed population schedules are at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), but most originals are closed to researchers. It’s easier to find relatives by searching digitized, indexed versions of decennial censuses at major genealogy websites. Online versions of the 1885 population censuses for most or all of Colorado, Florida and Nebraska, and the territories of Dakota and New Mexico, are at Ancestry.com.
Try to locate each relative in every census taken during that person’s life. Begin with the most recent census in which someone should appear and work back through time (then forward, to help verify your death date for the person). You’ll be able to track migrations and note slightly (or widely) different answers to similar questions over the years—even for categories you’d expect to be consistent, such as age. You might discover surprises and detours in relatives’ lives.
Search first by the person’s name. If needed, use the site’s filters to narrow your search to a specific census and location (state, county or town). Restrict your results to see just census records (there’s usually a filter called something like “restrict by record type”). Then broaden the location if you can’t find the person.
Census takers didn’t ask people how to spell their names, so misspellings are common. In addition, indexers may have made errors when transcribing the names to create searchable indexes. To overcome these problems, try spelling variations, nicknames, different combinations of first and middle names and initials, and both maiden and married names for women. If the site allows it, you can leave out the name and search on other variables. Keep track of your searches in the Online Database Search Tracker.
Still can’t find someone? Browse the census in a probable location. You can do this on several genealogy data websites. For example, at Ancestry.com, select the right census from the card catalog and choose Browse This Collection. On FamilySearch.org, go to Search, then scroll to and select Browse All Published Collections, then scroll to United States Census and select the right year. Scroll to the Browse option. In Archives.com, you must find someone in the census first (such as a neighbor from an earlier or later census), then page forward or backward from there.
At times the census missed people. Almost all of 1890 census was destroyed in a fire, and significant portions of the 1790 and 1810 censuses are lost. In such cases, look to census substitutes—records created around the same time with similar information. These include state censuses, tax records, school censuses, voter lists and other local enumerations. Consult state and local genealogical guides for availability.
Compile the data
Check out special censuses
• Agricultural schedules (1840-1940): These list farm owners or managers, acreage, cash value, crops and other products, livestock number and value, and value of homemade goods. Availability is spotty, though: The 1840 data remain only as statistics, schedules for 1890 to 1910 were destroyed, and individual schedules after 1910 are almost entirely unavailable (ask at state archives). But at least one farm schedule for 1850 through 1880 survives for at least 21 states. State repositories and Duke University have many originals. NARA has most on microfilm and Ancestry.com has a good collection in a database called Selected US Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880.
• Frequency: every 10 years, plus 1885 for some areas
• Latest census available: 1940
• Next census available: 1950, scheduled for release April 1, 2022
• Significant missing data in: 1790-1810, 1890
• Location of original records: National Archives and records Administration
• Research online at: Ancestry.com, Archives.com, FamilySearch.org, FindMyPast.com, MyHeritage.com.
• Search terms: US census , federal census records [year]
• Alternate or substitute records: State and local censuses, tax records, voter registrations, city directories, Sanford maps (for neighborhood layout). Ancestry.com has census substitute databases for 1890 and 1950.
US Census Quiz
1. For what years are US censuses available to genealogical researchers?2. What was the first census to name more than just the head of household?3. What special schedule would you consult to learn more about a farm-owning ancestor in 1870? Which website might have this schedule online?
1. What is Thomas’ wife’s name and what is his occupation?2. How old is Chester? What would you guess is his relationship to Thomas?3. Who on that census page would you guess works with Thomas?4. Write a citation for this record.
• Getting around the 1890 census brick wall
• Free census forms
• Where to Find 1880 DDD Supplemental Schedules download
• Using pre-1850 censuses
• Census record resources
• Finding census records online
• Making Sense of Pre-1850 Censuses download
• Smarter Online Census Searching video class
• US State Genealogy Guides