Making Sense of the U.S. Census


The U.S. Census, while not created for the purpose of genealogical research, is nevertheless one of the public records that genealogists find most helpful and tend to use most often. The amount of information that can be found or verified by finding a single family's census record is enormous. But how to harness this powerful tool?

Traditionally, using the census has involved using microfilms of the original handwritten pages, which were originally produced by the U.S. Government to preserve these records from decay. Many copies of the microfilms have been made, and genealogists usually go to either a Family History Center or to a regional office of the National Archives to view them and make photocopies.

Today, many census microfilm images are available online — while this can speed up research considerably, not all censuses are available on microfilm. We'll cover both the traditional and electronic ways of using this great resource for that reason, but first a little history and explanation.

What Is the U.S. Census?

The U.S. Census was first taken in 1790, not long after the 13 colonies became the United States. Since the purpose of the census is to gather statistics for governmental planning, the scope of this decennial survey has gradually increased over the decades. For instance, the 1790 census recorded information in only six categories, and the head of household was the only person listed by name. By contrast, the long form of the 2000 census had 52 questions and was 12 pages long — it asked the name of every person in the home and information about work status, disabilities, and the home itself, among other items.

One thing to keep in mind as you look through the census is that the actual records aren't released until 72 years after a census is taken, for privacy reasons. Right now, the most recent year available for research is 1930, so you will need to be able to trace your family back that far for it to be of use to you.

How Is the Census Helpful to Genealogists?

The main point of genealogy is establishing relationships between family members and providing documentation of those relationships. To varying degrees, the U.S. Census documents individuals and families by placing them in a particular location and listing their relationship to the head of household. The older censuses (pre-1850) are somewhat less useful because they list household members by category (i.e. "Males under 5 years of age") and not by name.

Starting with the 1850 census, however, the census taker was required to list every member of the household by name and record his or her age and birthplace. This level of detail is a genealogical gold mine, because if you have identified a person in the census as your ancestor, you can see a snapshot of the entire family in a specific place at one time. And if you think you've found an ancestor but aren't sure, the information listed about other family members can help you verify that you have the right person. Also, when you think you've found an ancestor at a specific location and time, you can search for other types of records in that location and time, such as birth, death, or marriage records. This will further help you verify whether or not you've located the right family in the census.

The 1900 census was the first to ask for immigration and naturalization information. This means that if your ancestors came to the United States around the turn of the century, you may be able to determine from their records where they came from, if you don't already know. If they resided in a port city at that time, you may want to try looking up passenger and immigration lists from that port to find out more about their journey.

Let's Start — How to Look up an Ancestor

With all of this in mind, how do you actually go about finding your ancestors in the census? There are three main ways, all of which involve some type of index to show you which roll of microfilm has the correct record — Soundex, book indexes, and electronic indexes. We'll take a brief look at each.

Using a Soundex Index
Soundex is a system for classifying names based on the sounds within them rather than strictly on spelling. It assigns a number to each consonant in the alphabet, and then gives each name a code based on the first letter and the numbers of the first 3 consonants in the name (see how it works). The end result is that names that are pronounced similarly are grouped together, like Smith and Smythe.

Soundex indexes exist for the 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses — they are grouped by state, sorted by the Soundex code, and then alphabetically by surname and first name. Some are only partial however. From the sample card below, you can see that it not only provides the very basic census information, but also gives you the volume, sheet, enumeration district (E.D.), and line where you can find the full record. You can use this information to select the right microfilm roll.

Soundex card

Using a Book Index
Book indexes are also easy to use. They are available for more censuses than the Soundex, and are usually set up with one state to a book. Find the volume for the year and state you want to search, and then look your ancestor up alphabetically by surname. The index will then tell you the same information as the Soundex, so you can find the correct roll of microfilm.

Using an Electronic Index
Search boxElectronic indexes for the U.S. Censuses are available on CD-ROM and online — we will use an online index for this example, but the process is similar for both. All you normally have to do is enter the name of your ancestor in a search box like the one at right, and the Web site you're on will return a list of matches — in this case, a list of Jacob Gunbys in the 1900 census on this Web site. Doing this search points out a significant advantage of online indexes — if scanned images are available, the links in the search results usually take you directly to a scan of the census page. Jacob is found with his wife Rosey on lines 41 and 42.

Jacob Gunby's record

What all three of these methods have in common is that they lead you to a primary source, one that can be referenced with confidence to back up your research. Once you have the microfilm image, you can either download or print it (if it's electronic), or make a photocopy (if you're using a microfilm reader).

What the Census Can Tell You About Your Family

As mentioned above, the main thing most censuses tell you is where a specific individual or family was living in that year, and what each person's relationship was to the head of household. Beyond that, the type of information available varies greatly from year to year. Still, there are several features of most censuses that are directly relevant to genealogy. First, all U.S. Censuses since 1850 list the name of each family member, his or her age, gender, and "color," and place of birth. All of these details can provide important clues to finding other records, such as birth certificates.

Second, one often overlooked advantage to the census is that the records are taken based on geography. The census taker went door-to-door down your ancestor's street, interviewing one family at a time. This means that you can often find other relatives nearby, since it used to be more common to have extended families living quite close together. Be sure to do a quick check of the rest of the page and maybe a few pages on either side to see if you recognize any of the names.

The post-1850 years can offer up some interesting tidbits, depending on what you already know. For example, by 1920, the census had expanded the occupation list to not only ask the trade, but the type of business the person worked for and whether he was the employer, a salaried employer, or a wage worker. Compare this to a pre-1850 census, for example the 1840 census, that had only added one column to list the occupations of employed family members in four broad categories. Various later censuses have attempted to determine how many members of a family were blind, deaf, "insane," or currently attending school, among other things. While some of this information may just be interesting detail, it can provide a richness to your family history, especially if you don't have many items like heirlooms or diaries that might give you a full sense of your ancestor's life.

Find Them Faster Online

The U.S. Census is an excellent tool for genealogy — aside from the Social Security Death Index, it is the most broad-based collection of public records available. That means there is an incredible amount of information to sift through, especially if you're researching branches of your family over several states and a few decades. The amount of work involved in finding the correct roll of microfilm, taking it to the reader, finding the record, making a copy, and putting the film back can be frustrating, especially when working within a library's schedule.

Searching an online index with connected images speeds up the process quite a bit for the years that are available, and can be done from your home computer at any time. To see the process in more detail, check out our lesson in the University. Try a free search to see if your ancestor's record is already online — you may already have a head start!

About the Author
This article was written by staff.

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