Introduction to the US Federal Census

by Christine Sievers

After finding the death, marriage, and birth records of your ancestor, it is time to start searching for what I find to be the most interesting of records to research- census records.

In 1790, the United States began to count its citizens. At this time there were two goals. One was for the correct apportioning of members to the House of Representatives; the other was to be able to assess Federal tax. Indians were not included in the early census. These records are what is called the Federal Census. The earliest records only recorded the name of the head of household. Other members of the household were listed by age categories, whether free or slave, whether male or female.

As the decades passed, the census was used for additional governmental needs, and the distribution of services. New categories were added. In 1850, the most helpful addition to genealogists was the name of each person in the household. This included their name, age, sex, color, place of birth, whether they attended school, were married within the year, whether they could read and write if over 20 years old, and real estate value. Genealogists consider this the first modern census, as it enables them to more accurately trace their ancestors.

The National Archives has microfilmed all the available census records. But, there are some missing gaps. Most notably, the 1890 census. In 1921, before the Archives microfilmed the 1890 records, most of them were destroyed by a fire in the Commerce Department. It is a frustrating, but not insurmountable gap, in our genealogical records.

The microfilmed records are available for viewing at the Regional Archives. To protect the privacy of living individuals, records are not published until 72 years after the census is taken. In 2002, genealogists where excited about the 1930 census finally becoming available. In the research of your first dead male ancestor, this is where your census search will begin.

Before diving into the cens us records, there are some important caveats about their accuracy. Try to imagine yourself as a census taker. You will be recording information about households where limited English may be spoken. Heavy accents and broken English may cause you to misspell, and even inaccurately write down information. Then, some people have always been suspicious of the census taker, and may have intentionally given false information. Many times you will be given information by one adult without the input of the others. For instance, when asking where a spouse's parents were born, the information may be unintentionally inaccurate. As a census taker you will be going to crowded ghettos or frontier areas where you may miss an entire family. These are just a few of the reasons why information may be incorrect, or missing on a census record.

Even with all the possible inaccuracies, these records provide important clues to track your ancestors. As a genealogist, you will experience the delight in finding a picture, of s orts, of your ancestor's family. To find the record, you will need to know where he lived. A good way to start is to gather together all the information you have, and track his residencies. If he moved, but you don't know when, you will need to search both locations for the census records. Persistence is important. While some records will be easy to discover; others will require years to dig up. The more detailed your information- for example, having an address- the less time-consuming your search will be.

The National Archives has an extremely informative website at NARA/Genealogy/Census Records. At this site you will find detailed information about each census year, how to search and use indexes, where the closest archive is, and much more. Spend time at this site before you begin your search of census records. When I began my own census research, I found it all rather daunting. But time, and the information at the NARA site clarified many of my questions.

If you are able to travel to a National Archive, you will find delight in the camaraderie of others searching for their family records. It is well worth the trip. But, if you are not able to visit an Archive, the census records have now gone online at a number of genealogical sites. My next article will tell you how to find these records without leaving home.

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