For beginning genealogists, the two most important types of records are vital records (births, marriages and deaths) and census records. Vital records usually tell you dates and places for birth, marriage and death and often include parents' names. You will want to obtain as many of these as possible for direct ancestors. However, they tend to be expensive because each certificate costs several dollars and only applies to one event and, in addition, they usually have to be issued by a government agency which can take weeks to process.
A census allows you to start putting families together and adding new ancestors, and it is much more readily available at a lower cost. These records can be examined for free at all National Archives Regional Offices. Many libraries also have at least some census records and all censuses can be borrowed through any Family History Center for a small charge. In addition, these records are slowly becoming available online, which is quite convenient.
Getting Started with the Census
Sometimes people hesitate to begin genealogy research because they know so little about their families. They often say, "I don't know anything beyond my grandparents." With the resources at our disposal, this is plenty to get started. Anyone can usually find out from family sources the name and state of probable residence of their grandparents or great grandparents who were living in 1900. With this information, you can begin looking for them in the census of that year. Once you do find them in the census records, you will gain a wide variety of valuable information, plus starting points for discovering more family records. However, before we explore what is in the 1900 census, let's take a look at why it is particularly important.
Arguably, the three most significant censuses are the 1790, the 1850 and the 1900. 1790 is important because it was the very first U.S. census. The 1850 census was the first to name everyone in the household and one of the first to be widely indexed. The 1900 census is extremely important because of indexing and the information it contains. It is also an important landmark because the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by fire. On top of that, the 1880 and 1910 censuses may be of limited value to some researchers for these reasons: The 1880 census is only indexed for households with children under 10. The 1910 census was indexed for only 21 states and the most heavily populated states, such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, were omitted. Thus, in either direction from 1900, you may have a gap of 20 years between helpful census returns.
So what is in the 1900 census? Like all censuses since 1850, the 1900 census lists people by family, indicating who is the head of the household and the relationship of each person to the head. (Very helpful for identifying married sisters living at home and parents-in-law.) In addition to age, it also gives the month and year of birth. It includes the number of years married, which gives you a fairly accurate year to look for the marriage certificate. If the oldest child is still at home, the birth state or country of that child would be a good place to start searching for the marriage certificate. The census also recorded the number of children a woman had and how many are still living. This can tell you if you have identified all of the family's children or if that 6-year gap between two children really means there was one or more in between.
Since so many people immigrated to the U.S. in the 1890s, many researchers find that their ancestors were among this group, and the 1900 census is especially helpful for learning about immigrant families. In addition to the birthplace of each individual, it asks for the birthplace of the parents. Unfortunately, this information is usually only a country (or U.S. state), but it may indicate a more specific foreign region such as Hesse, Bavaria or Galicia. It also gives the year of immigration, which is so important for finding the ships' passengers' records. In addition, it states whether an individual is an alien, naturalized or has applied for citizenship, which helps in locating naturalization papers. (The 1920 census also gives the year of naturalization.) Both passenger records and naturalization papers can help you make the leap back to the home country when you are ready to begin looking for ancestors overseas.
Even the questions about whether they are able to read, write and speak English are useful. They can help you judge the accuracy of the information if it conflicts with other facts you have acquired. For example, if a person did not speak English, he or she might not have understood the question very well and therefor have given a wrong answer. (As in the old joke about the German lady who was asked if she had any children and she said "nein" meaning "no" but the census taker wrote down 9!) Or, if a person could not read or write, he might not know how his name should be spelled -- or the census taker might think he knew more than the illiterate immigrant and took it upon himself to spell the name the "proper" way.
Using the Soundex Index
The index to the 1900 census is the most complete up until that time. It is based on the Soundex system which means you do not have to look under so many spelling variations or be concerned that the census taker Americanized the spelling. Soundex codes all letters that sound alike and ignores vowels so almost all variations of a surname are reduced to one code, whether there is one "n" or two, with or without a final "e" or whatever combination of vowels are used between consonants. At most, you will probably only have to contend with two or three possible Soundex codes. The index does not include every person in the census -- only the head of the household and individuals living at that address, but not part of the immediate family (husband, wife, son or daughter) or family members with a different surname. If the person you are looking for was a child and you don't know the parents' names, you will have to look at all families with that surname until you find the child that is the right age. It helps if you know siblings' names so you can be sure you have the right family.
The index cards themselves give a lot of information. Unfortunately, the index takes up many more reels than the actual census (7,846 index versus 1,854 census) so some institutions elect to purchase the census but not the index. However, using the index is essential for locating people living in cities. The index card gives the name, birth date and place, age, citizenship and residence of the head of the household. It also lists the state, county, enumeration district, sheet and line so you can go to the actual census return. Each person in the household is listed along with relationship to the head, age, month and year of birth, birthplace and citizenship. The index card should give you enough information so you can positively identify your family but you should also examine the actual census schedule. This does give additional information, especially on the parents' birthplaces but also is one step closer to the source in case errors occurred in recording the data for the index.
Once you have found your ancestors in the 1900 census, you will have a pretty good idea of which direction your research is going: a foreign country or following back through U.S. records. If your research stays within the U.S., you can continue using the census for every 10 years from 1880 to 1790. Entire families are enumerated until 1840 when only the head of the household is listed along with the numbers of other family members by category, i.e., "males under 16," etc. The 1920 census contains similar information with a comparable index so you can also verify the 1900 information by looking in this census, or you may have to start there to find enough information to then skip back to the 1900 census.
All-in-all, if you had any ancestors living in the U.S. in 1900, be sure to look for them in this census. It is easy and will give you lots of valuable information in your continuing hunt for family.