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Revisiting the Census

Just when you think you know it all, there may be something yet to learn about the census.


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Census Background

I was going over my over 50 past articles and discovered I had never delved into the subject of the census. I assumed that "everybody" knows about using the census in genealogical research. But, absolutes are not obtainable and, when I dug a little deeper, by golly, I learned a few things about the census. What do you know.

I suppose genealogical researchers can be thankful of both present and past governments and their desire to tax and draw revenue from the populous. The word "census" is from a Latin word "censor," which was the title of a Roman official in charge of registering and taxing the people. It derives from the Latin "to assess," much in the same way we must assess how much the damages will be after our automobile has been in an accident. The government, and this is no accident, assesses its domains as to how much damage it can do to an individual's pocket book.

Understandably, this function of a census was not mentioned in the public relations campaign concerning the 2010 census. The census in the United States has been conducted every ten years since 1790, which, at the time counted 3.9 million American wallets. Whoops, I mean, people. Did you know the earliest available United Kingdom census was not taken until 1861? To be fair, there were other purposes for the census, like the dividing up of territory to govern, and in earlier years, discovering how many young men were available for war.

Importance to the researcher

From a genealogical standpoint, the census records established an accepted documentation of a 220 year time line of both groups and individuals existing in the United States of America. The last 70 years or so of census records have not been released to the public, due to a concern over the privacy of the living. To a researcher, it is just as important to discover the disappearance of an individual as it is for the existence of an individual in order to solve a mystery. The census, in retrospect, is following everyone who had ever lived in the United States; thus is a true account of history in this nation. Though it may never have been the government's intent, the census has become the treasure trove of information for genealogists. It is the single most important documentation available to join previously unrelated pieces of research together. Any single piece of information is only as valid as it can be confirmed. Just because Aunt Maybell says Uncle Joe lived in Podunk, Idaho does not make it so. Especially, if Maybell's memory is poor. The census can often confirm or lessen the credibility of Aunt Maybell's account.

There are numerous ways that the various pieces of data provided by a particular census can assist the researcher. The set of questions used for data also evolved, giving the historian an insight into not only what was important to people at any given time, but also what society did not deem important, or even what today is consider reprehensible such as slavery. From a wider perspective, it is as important what questions were being asked as it is what citizens answered.


A Soundex is a microfilmed card index. The surnames are coded by the way they sound rather than how they are spelled. The system is made of a code of letters and numbers. There is also a slightly different version known as Miracode. This system does not cover every location or census. A good site which covers the conversion of the code can be found at under the title of "Guide to Tracing Family Trees." Be advised that there are errors and omissions in the Soundex system as well.

Approaching the Census

The first caution a researcher must keep in mind is that there are errors not only in transcription or duplication of the answer to the census taker's question, but the question may be asked of the wrong person. Grandpa may not really know that his oldest was born in Kentucky, not Louisiana. Heck, his wife kept track of all that stuff. Some of the most misleading "guesses" can pop up on the course of a single individual, which includes where they were born.

Inflection of speech and the level of understanding of the English language may also influence the census taker's ability to duplicate and write down accurate data. For example, the twang of the southern drawl can make the surname "Owen" sound like and become written down as "O'win." I have a grandfather by the name of Ewell and the census taker wrote down his name as "U" in the census. Just try to do a search for that! That is why a researcher sometimes must broaden his or her search parameters when searching the census database. Sometimes you have to use the name of the wife, siblings, or known friend names who were living with the targeted individual when a particular census count was taken.

Following up and checking sequential census' taken every ten years can help as well. When your targeted family member disappears from the census, the only thing you can be sure of is that they either died, moved, or for some reason have been overlooked. This is why a second piece of data, like an obituary, military record, or a city directory needs is needed to back up the reason John Doe no longer lived with his mother in 1920.

You have to be a Sherlock Holmes type investigator on the trail of solving mysteries inside larger mysteries. Why do you think old Sherlock had a magnifying glass? Fortunately, a great deal of the original census has been transcribed and entered into a database. Believe me, it is a lot easier on the eyes. However, transcribing chicken scratches which pass as hand writing is not easy to do sometimes, and any copies of a document should be compared to the original copy. Hopefully, you will not run into any of the above difficulties.

Some Tips

Often a census page on a computer screen must be enlarged in order to be seen easily, and this causes one to lose track of which column is which. So I advise researchers to get a blank copy of each census form or worksheet of each year the census was taken. You can download such copies using a search engine with the key phrase such as "census worksheets." The site I explored was entitled: "US Census Records -" You will discover a link on the right side of the page entitled, "Download blank census Forms."

Census records are available at several online sites, libraries and, genealogical societies. A quick search with a search engine will produce a list of places on the Internet; however, some may require paid membership to access their database. Be prepared to have your printer ready to go; hard (printed) copy can be used as documentation, and it seems to me that a printed page is easier to study at length than on a computer screen.

When you first find Uncle Joe, be sure you write down the census year; the microfilm and roll numbers; the state and county; the page number and the house or family number. You don't want to do all that researching again! Even if you find an error, copy the census as is. Take note of the neighbors next to your ancestor, as it may become valuable in later research or in re-locating your relative. Don't worry if the ages are off. The 1790 to 1900 census were all surveyed during the summer months, so if little Johnny was born in the later months of that year, he would always be at least a year older than what the census reported.

You might find the most bizarre combination of names under a household. Children listed may not be the relationship that you think. One time a Pancake among the Smiths actually lead to a very important lead, because he was a grandchild of the head of the household. It can be a real mess when widows remarry and or assume the care of children -- some might not even be related. And finally, people can die right after a census was taken and, of course, this can cause the hunt for documentation for date Uncle Fred died, because you say, "He couldn't of died in 1910, the census has his name!"

Most researchers who are old hats at using the census records can tell you about the advantages and disadvantages of particular census years. For example, 1850 census was the first time all the siblings and household occupants were recorded with their first names. Prior to that the census displayed only the name of the head of the household. Everybody else was placed into a range of ages and what sex they were.

Most researchers know that the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire, and the news of such a tragedy has been met with a collective sigh from thousands of genealogists. The loss of one such census means the loss of twenty years of history. You may discover that a lot can happen in 20 years! However, bits and pieces of this census year are on the database of the Allen County Library.

Yep, the census record is a gift from a government which normally takes. You should feel fortunate of such riches. And with digital copies, you don't have to go blind from looking at a back lit screen behind washed out film frames. The LED versions of the new monitors are so much better.

Good luck with your family mysteries!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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