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Hidden Treasures of the Early U.S. Census

The questions asked on 1790-1880 census records can be invaluable clues in identifying your ancestors and tracking them through the years.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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As genealogists, we attack the census records with zealousness unequaled by an ant in a pile of crumbs! All those names and ages—birth places and locations—just set our hearts a flitter with excitement! Indeed, it is often the result of a long and arduous search when we locate our ancestors and find their siblings, parents, or other identifiable relatives in the census. But, did you remember to check the hidden treasures?

For reasons ranging from determining a military force to calculating our food supplies—anticipating a tax base to educating our children, the government had reasons beyond identifying the populace when they created the first census. The early censuses concentrated on the number males in order to calculate the nation's ability to raise an army. Concerns regarding the health and financial dependency of its citizens prompted additional questions over the next forty years.

The 1850 census indicated the occupation of male, whether an individual was married within the year, attended school, or could read and write. Additional health questions noted anyone in the household who was insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict. Although the terms are not "politically correct," you must remember that a cripple was once considered idiotic, and insanity included persons with such afflictions as epilepsy.

An important change in 1850 was the instruction for the census taker to list household members in a particular order. First, the head of the household, followed by the spouse, children listed in order of age—oldest child first—and parents or in-laws of the head of household, then the spouse. If the household had servants or boarders, they were listed after the relatives.

The Golden Fleece of 19th Century census records is the 1880 census! The relationship to the head of household was listed for each person in the residence, and adults listed whether they were single, married, widowed or divorced. The census taker not only listed the birth place of each individual, but the birthplace of their parents. Many of the same questions from previous censuses remained, with clarifications and some additions. One addition worth mentioning is the health question of whether a person was maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled.

Each of these questions is a treasure—a puzzle piece in locating and identifying your ancestors. The additional information on each census can help you verify your ancestors as you track them through the years. Sons often carried on their father's occupation, and remained on the family land. An ancestor whose parents were foreign born is easier to identify when you know the country of their origin. It may not eliminate all of your choices, but it will certainly narrow them. Locating a widowed ancestor in one census, only to lose them in the next, may indicate that she has remarried. Clues such as these are limitless, so attack those census records with an eye on those hidden treasures! Happy Hunting!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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

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