Census records are familiar to all of us and we sometimes feel burdened
with having to fill them out every ten years. Census returns are
beyond doubt the most informative source of genealogical information for
the period of 1790 through 1920 (and beyond). We are able to look
at these old census records on microfilms at many genealogical societies,
major libraries, and branches of the National Archives. There are
also companies that will rent or sell you copies of the films so you may
view them on any microfilm machine. It cannot be over emphasized
that every census that was taken during the lifetime of your ancestor must
be researched and compared in order to get a full picture of his family
structure. The Orange County Genealogical Society has many local census
records on film.
We are giving this subject a lot of extra space because of it's importance
and extreme value in the hunt for ancestors. Census research can
also be fun. I recall looking at the 1920 Census of Chester where
I grew up. I saw families that I knew in the 1950's and beyond --
I saw their families, occupations, where they lived, and other revealing
details. It was like taking a look back in time.
FEDERAL CENSUS RETURNS 1790 - 1920 (and
The first Federal Census was taken in 1790 as a method of proportioning
representatives in the government as well as a means distributing the tax
burden according to the spread of the population. A count of able
bodied men for military purposes cannot be overlooked either. An
excellent genealogical research tool is merely a great byproduct of this
The 1790 census enumeration was limited in that its purpose was to count
the population. It did so by listing the number of males under 16,
males 16 & over, and females (all ages listed together). There
was also a column for slaves and another for "other free persons".
Fortunately, the names of heads of households were listed, but unfortunately
the names of other family members were not. In 1908, the 1790 census
was printed in book form for each state and nicely indexed. It is
of course advisable to look at the original (the primary source on microfilm),
especially if you cannot find the family where they should have been.
These statewide indexes are a great aid in locating families when you are
not sure where they lived within
The federal census records from 1800 through 1840 are also very limited
in information. They also listed just the name of the head of household
and a breakdown of household members by sex and age. The age increments,
as we shall see, became smaller with each succeeding census allowing us
to get a closer idea to the ages of each child. As earlier stated,
only by comparing all available census years for a family and all persons
of your surname in the area of your interest, can you get them most out
of these early enumerations. The information, when combined and studied,
can easily lead you to other sources such as deeds, wills, church or other
The censuses of 1800 and 1810 listed five age categories for white males
and 5 for white females, but otherwise contained no more information than
the 1790 census.
The census of 1820 added one more age category for white males in addition
to giving age categories for other free male and female persons.
It asked how many "foreign and not naturalized" and whether engaged in
agriculture, commerce, or manufacturing.
The census of 1830 listed 13 age categories for white males and 13 for
white females, 6 each for other free persons and 6 each for slaves.
The family picture begins to get much clearer at this point but we must
remember that all persons listed were not necessarily family members.
Questions about the blind, deaf and dumb were asked for the first time.
The census of 1840 had the same age and sex breakdowns but counted persons
engaged in mining, agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, ocean navigation,
canal or lake or river navigation, and learned professors and engineers.
The often overlooked bonus of the 1840 census was the listing of names
and ages of revolutionary war pensioners.
Beginning with the censuses of 1850 and 1860, a clearer picture of the
households can now be seen. Besides the head of household, other
persons living in the house are listed showing their sex, age, color, profession,
value of real estate, place of birth, whether or not married within the
year, in school within the year, able to read & write, and whether
or not deaf & dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict.
There are also slave schedules listing the owner of the slaves and other
information by age and sex.
The information that you have assembled from the earlier 1790 – 1840 census
schedules will probably start to take better shape. You should
record information from all families in the area that have persons of the
surname you are researching. A household with just one person with
your surname might later turn out to be important relatives that will lead
you to more information.
The census of 1870 adds information about value of personal property, whether
not the parents are foreign born, and the month of birth or marriages if
the event occurred within the year. It was asked whether or not the
males were eligible to vote.
The census of 1880 is in a class of its own due to the fact that relationships
to the head of household (but not to each other) are now added
and no longer have to be guessed at. Do not assume the relationship
is as stated -- perhaps the niece is really just a wife of a nephew.
Marital status, health questions, and unemployment questions are asked.
Alleged states or countries of birth are listed for each person's father
and mother (these are often incorrect). A partial Soundex index (households
with children under the age of ten) was done for each state and will be
discussed later under indexes.
The census of 1890 was mostly destroyed by fire in 1921. Very little
exists at all but the Veterans (or widow of a veteran) special census also
taken that year has survived.
The census of 1900 added the questions of "month and year" of birth
of each individual, "number of years married", and the "mother of how many
children". Important questions of "year of immigration" and "number
of years in the US" along with occupational, educational, and financial
information make this a gold mine of information.
The census of 1910 asked how many children still living, what language
spoken, and if a Civil War Veteran in addition to the same questions as
the 1900 census except birth date was omitted.
The census of 1920 was similar to the 1910 but also asked the "mother tongue
of the parents of each individual.
A sneak preview of the census of 1930 shows that they asked if a radio
was owned, age at first marriage, and if a veteran of any war. This
will probably be released to the public in the year 2002.
STATE CENSUS RECORDS
In addition to the census records taken by the federal government, many
states have taken their own census enumerations and they are readily available
through filming by the Mormon Church at government centers. For the
most part they are not indexed and availability varies with locality. The
book State Census Records by Ann Lainhart will give you a listing state
by state of which censuses are available.
New York State conducted census enumerations
for 1825, 1835, and 1845 that were similar to the federal returns for that
period in that they only listed the head of household and grouped the rest
of the household by age and sex. Census records taken in 1855, 1865,
and 1875 took the format of the 1850 Federal census with the major difference
being that relationship to head of household was given. The 1865
and 1875 NY State censuses also contained deaths and marriages for the
period of 1 year prior to the census date of June 1 -- a great source
of untapped vital records for the most part. The 1865 NYS census
also listed persons who had died in or of injuries from the Civil War since
Probably the most important NY State census enumeration is the 1892 which
was kind of the halfway mark between the 1875 and 1905 that nicely
fills the gap left by the destruction by fire of the 1890 Federal Census.
Unfortunately many have been lost including Orange County but they do exist
for some other areas. 1905, 1915, & 1925 have been a great help
in recent years because of the delayed release dates of the Federal 1910,
1920 and the anticipated release of the 1930. State censuses are
not indexed unless done locally. Again - check all censuses and all families
with your surname of interest in the locality you are researching.
INDEXES FOR 1790 THROUGH 1870 FEDERAL CENSUSES
There are now indexes for the 1800 through 1860 (and some 1870) in book
form by state. Remember the printed 1790 had its self contained index.
Never assume the surname is was spelled as you know it now. These indexes
can be very helpful but bear in mind there are certainly a multitude of
mistakes contained within them and they are certainly not complete. Names
were misread and occasionally skipped, and some of the basic index rules
were not followed to the letter. Naturally 1800 - 1840 indexes contain
only the head of household while the 1850 and later indexes also list a
person who lived in a household with a different surname and sometimes
the person at the top of the next page even if they have the same surname.
This can be very helpful when trying to locate all family members as many
times older children were hired out and living with friends, neighbors,
and often relatives.
SOUNDEX FOR 1880, 1900, 1910, & 1920
To find an individual name among the millions listed in the 1880,
1900, 1910 (Only 21 States were indexed in 1910, New York not included)
or 1920 Census records you must use an indexing and filing system known
as Soundex. The Soundex is a coded surname index based on the way
a name sounds rather than the way it is spelled. In this way Smith,
Smyth, Smithe, and Smit will be filed together allowing you to easily find
a surname recorded under various spellings. These indexes were made
on special cards, put in alpha-numeric order by Soundex Code, then alphabetized
by given name (first name). They were then put onto rolls of microfilm
which can be found at many libraries and archives.
Unfortunately, the 1880 Soundex was limited
and only indexed families that contained children under the age of ten.
If the child was not a child of head of house hold, he and the family were
indexed on separate cards.
To search for a surname, you must work out
the Soundex Code, which will consist of the first letter of the surname
followed by 3 numbers. These numbers are figured according to the
Soundex coding guide listed below.
SOUNDEX CODING GUIDE
The number Represents the letters
1 B P F V
2 C S K G J QX Z
3 D T
5 M N
Disregard the letters A E I
O U W Y H
With the workspace below, most names can be
coded using the following 4 steps. Note in the sample using my name below
that the "u", the second "r", the "o", and the "w" were disregarded when
making the code. A zero was added on the end in order to give the
code one letter and 3 numbers. See the three special easy rules
below that apply for surnames with double letters, letters side by side
that have the same number on the Soundex Coding Guide, or surnames that
Line 1: B U R
R O W S
Line 2: B 6
Line 1: __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Line 2: __ __ __ __
Line 1: __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Line 2: __ __ __ __
Step 1. On line 1, write the surname you are
coding, placing one letter on each line.
Step 2. On line 2, write the first letter of
the surname on the first line.
Step 3. On line 1, disregard the first letter
and slash through the remaining letters A, E, I, O, U, Y, and
Step 4. On line 2, write the numbers found
on the Soundex Coding Guide for the first three remaining un-slashed letters.
Add zeros to any empty lines.
Note: Since there must be three numbers, use
only the first three code numbers in long names. Names that have
less than 3 code numbers, simply add "Zeros" to the end to obtain your
If your surname has double letters, they should
be treated as one letter. Slash out the second "r" in the name "Burrows"
and the second "l" in Lloyd. If your surname has letters side by side that
happen to have the same number from the Soundex Coding Guide, keep only
the first letter and slash out the remaining side by side letters that
have the same code.. Slash out the "K" and the "S" in the name "Jackson"
It does not matter where the side by side letters are located. Even
if the first two letters of the name such as "Pfister", the f would be
slashed out. If your surname has a prefix such as Van, Von, De, Di,
or Le the Soundex Code should be figured both with and without the prefix
because it might be listed under either code. (Mc and Mac are not considered
GETTING MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE OUT OF CENSUS
Now that we have discussed what can obviously be found in the various census
returns, let us move on to the not so obvious.
In the census returns that show the birthplace of an individual and the
birth place of the individual's parents, much circumstantial evidence is
present as to the family structure. If it shows the mother of the
household's place of birth as New York but the place of birth of some or
all of the children's mother as Massachusetts, one can start making other
assumptions as to how many wives the husband had and which children if
not all might be from another marriage.
The presence of an elderly person in the household
of the same surname might indicate a parent, aunt or uncle of the husband.
If the surname is different, it might be a mother or father in law and
watch out for remarriages of this newly found grandma before jumping
to the conclusions that you have discovered a maiden name for the wife.
Always take note of the families nearby (census
takers usually took the houses in order that they were situated) and also
take note of any families that are housing one person of your surname of
interest. The data you transcribe in doing this will very often reap
rewards of family connections later down the line.
II. Take note of the places of birth of your
family and the other families in the area with the same origins whether
it be the same state or the same country. You will often find that
people moved in groups or invited friends and relatives from their former
home to join them.
Taking note of the places of birth of all the
children can tell a story of family movement and judging from the length
of time they lived in a particular area (perhaps 3 children were born in
Vermont over a 10 year period) one can determine whether or not a search
for a deed or other documents in that area would be worthwhile.
The education of a family can be determined
from the number in a family who can read and write and if the children
did or did not attend school.
The value of property and other monetary facts
might give you a clue as to whether a will or other estate papers might
be found. It could also help you determine whether they might be
mentioned in a local history.
Beginning with the 1850 Federal Census and ending with the 1880, Congress
authorized a listing of persons who died within the census year to be entered
into a separate schedule. These 4 sets of records were turned over
to the States in 1918-19 and those few states that
did not want them had theirs sent to the National
DAR Library who in 1980 turned them back over to the National Archives.
These are not on the same roll of film as the regular census records and
must be consulted on either microfilm or in the location at the state level
where they were deposited. NYS Mortality Schedules are at the State Library.
The type of information typically found in Mortality Schedules is the name
of the person, his age, sex, state of birth, month of death and cause of
death. The 1880 schedules also included the state of birth of each
parent of the deceased, but not their names.
LIMITATIONS AND PITFALLS OF CENSUS RESEARCH
Now that the good possibilities of census searching have been covered,
it is equally important to look at the limitations and other downsides
of this research tool.
Due to the fact that federal census enumeration was not done until 1790,
a large gap is open in American History and other records must be used
for the colonial period. As before mentioned, earlier census records
give far less information that those taken in 1850 and later.
Many families were missed completely and others
listed twice during enumeration because of the length of time needed to
take a complete census combined with the mobility of American families.
Earlier censuses took 9 months to complete. In 1850 the time was
reduced to 6 months and in 1870 it was further reduced to 1 month.
Many families that lived in multiple dwelling units were missed because
the census taker did not know that a large house had more than one family.
Schedules for certain census years are completely missing for some counties
or even entire states. Incorrect data was given to enumerators by family
members. Anyone who has researched multiple census schedules for
a particular family can tell you of the inconsistencies in ages, places
of birth and other important data. It is often hard to tell whether
the errors were intentional or not and who made the errors. Was dad's
memory slipping? Did the enumerator not care or was he hard of hearing.
Was the information given by a child home alone or did the neighbor supply
the information. Perhaps an enumerator being paid by the number of families
he counted deliberately listed a family twice but changed the data slightly
to make it look good.
Even though the census page you are researching was taken on a certain
date, only the information for the census year was to be included.
If a child was born on Aug. 2nd, the just before the census taker took
the information, he would not be listed in the enumeration if the census
date was June 1st. The census dates for various years are as follows:
1790 - 1820 First Monday in August; 1830 - 1900 June 1st; 1910
April 15th; 1920 January 1st; 1930 - present April 1st.
SOME DO'S AND DON'TS WITH CENSUS RECORDS
Do not stop with Soundex finds -- do look at
the original record.
Do not assume census indexes are correct or
Do not assume spellings are as you think.
Do not assume relationships are exactly as
Do not assume a wife is the mother of all
or any of the listed children.
Do not assume ages listed are correct.
Do take note of all of your surname in the
county and pay close attention to the neighbors of your ancestors.
Do study all possible census years for your
Do copy down all information from all columns
and the top of page also.
Do believe that all census records are important
-- even the earlier ones.
Do make use of the Veteran's column in the
Do use the 1890 Veterans (and widows of Veterans)
Do use the state census records
Do not believe all census data to be true
Do study the enumerator's handwriting so you
can make comparisons.
Do watch for families split onto two pages
with the surname not repeatedat the top of the next page.
Do try to find your ancestors in every census
taken in their life time.
Do check family histories and other sources
of neighbors who might have come from the same state to locate a town of
residence if you can not determine that information on your ancestor.
Do remember that when searching an entire
town for ancestor, the town enumeration may be split and not be kept together
on the film --- cities are often listed separately from the town they are
Do take note of real estate and personal property
values to determine ia deed or will search is appropriate.
Do use maps in conjunction with your census
Do search across state, county, and town lines
if your ancestors lived near a border.
Do go back and look again at census records
to see what you might of missed -- especially if you have learned of new
surnames (maiden names) or other family connections.
Do consider typographical errors when using
indexes -- know the keyboard and what letters could have been punched in