February 20, 2003
Genealogists spend a lot of their time searching the census in the hopes of finding ancestors and getting the clues that will launch them onto the next generation. Unfortunately some genealogists, especially now that the census records are available online are using just this resource as the proof of family connections or jumping from year to year as they work back instead of spending the necessary time in county records to see what else might be available.
The Census Primer
The census in the United States has been taken every ten years since 1790. The last census enumeration taken was the 2000, most of which was a matter of filling out a form that was sent to us in the mail. Among genealogical circles there was much talk as we learned there were in fact two different forms, the short form and the long form. As with every record that genealogists discuss there was some concern as to the usefulness of this record for the generations that come who looking to research their family history. Of course the government is not taking the census to keep genealogists happy, but instead uses it to determine representation at the federal level among other things.
The exact date of the census has changed over the years as have the number of questions and the information collected. Some years have specialized non-population schedules that may also offer additional insight into the life of your ancestor.
While there was a census taken every ten years they have not all survived or are not all available. The most recently released census is the 1930, released April 1, 2002, amid much publicity as genealogists all over the country eagerly awaited access. For some it was a chance to see themselves enumerated and for others it was a chance to find parents of grandparents for the first time. For me, it was a chance to find my maternal grandparents living together as man and wife. The reason for the delay with the release of the census is that there is a 72-year privacy act designed to protect the information on living individuals. Other countries go further, holding back their census records for 100 years, as does the United Kingdom.
You'll find that you'll be unable to access the majority of the 1890 census. It was almost completely destroyed by fire, though you will find that the fragments that did survive are available on Genealogy.com and have been indexed. There is also a veteran's schedule for 1890 that may prove useful as it enumerates those soldiers or widows of soldiers of the Civil War. Unfortunately, this alternative schedule has not been digitized or indexed yet, so you will not find it online, except perhaps in the case of some individual county endeavors
The earliest censuses are often considered useless because they enumerated only the head of household by name and all others were tallied by sex and age. While it does make it more difficult to prove a family connection, they may prove useful when the surname is not too common and you have identified more than one child in the household. This is because it is easier to rule out families if you have multiple ages to compare to the listing. In 1850 the census began to enumerate everyone in the household, but it would not be until 1880 when the relationships of those individuals would be enumerated as well. Of course, this does not stop us from assuming that the individuals enumerated together in the 1850 to 1870 censuses are families and that the woman listed after the head of the household is his wife, and the children listed are his children. In most cases we will find this to be true, but it is important when working in the 1850 to 1870 census to keep an open mind.
In the past, most researchers accessed census records by visiting a library and viewing those records on microfilm. Today most of us use the digitized versions of the census pages and online indexes. In some cases the online indexes are more useful than what was available to us in either books or on microfilm. In other cases, spelling variations particularly, it requires us to be more creative in our searches. Because the computer usually looks only for the one spelling that we have entered, it is possible to miss your ancestor. Remember to be creative with variant spellings when using the online indexes.
History of the Census Questions
As it came closer to the date when the 1930 census would be released in 2002, I found myself digging into 200 Years of US Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790-2000, published by the federal government. I looked at what the questions were for the 1930 and how they differed from the 1920 census. Two columns that caught my attention were the ones devoted to the ownership of a radio and whether or not the individuals were unemployed the day before the official census date, and if so, the number of the unemployment schedule where this individual was list. While I was familiar with farm schedules in other censuses, I was surprised by the unemployment schedule. At first I didn't make the connection but then it dawned on me, the 1930 census was the first federal census taken after the Stock Market crash of 1929. I was reminded how the census offers clues to history.
As mentioned earlier, the official date of the census has changed over the years. In 1910, the date was moved from June 1 to April 15. This change was a result of the Census Bureau, which felt that the enumerators would find more people at home on April 15 than on June 1, since more people seemed to be away during the summer months. In 1920, the change was made to January 1, though actual canvassing was not begun until January 2. This change to the first of January was done at the request of the Department of Agriculture to make the collection of the agricultural census easier the previous years farming had been completed and the 1920 year's farming had not yet begun.
When it comes to the history of the census, an excellent resource can be found in Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000. Available as a PDF file, this 149 page document details the questions asked in each census and gives a lot of background into the instructions given to the marshals and the enumerators for each year's census. There is also information about the many special schedules that the enumerators recorded in addition to the population schedule that genealogists use most frequently and which has now been digitized and made available online.
The various specialized enumerations, when still available, may be found on microfilm. Many of those that do exist are available from the Family History Library. Of those that aren't, you will want to check the state historical society and archives, as well as specialized libraries. For some help with this, the chart in Val D. Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy offers information as to where to find some of the specialized censuses discussed below.
Specialized Censuses and Statistical Enumerations
Over the years since the first federal enumeration, there have been special enumerations or gatherings of statistical information to aid the federal government in an understanding of all aspects of the population along with economy and other issues. Genealogists tend to stick with the population schedules because they list the names of those in the household. From these names, we can often identify the next generation back in our research. The specialized enumerations, though, should not be discounted as they may hold pertinent information to your ancestor's way of life.
In addition to the above special schedules which were often taken during more than one census enumeration year, there were two other special censuses that can prove useful to genealogists. The first, the 1885 Interdecennial Census of States and Territories is often confused and referred to as a state census. While many states may have taken their own censuses in 1885, this was a federal census and was funded, at least 50%, by the federal government. The states and territories that took the federal census in 1885 include the states of Colorado, Florida and Nebraska along with the Dakota and New Mexico territories. The other special schedule is the only alternative to the destroyed 1890 census, the 1890 enumeration of Union veteran's or widows offers what little information has survived for this critical year.
Unfortunately, while any given census year may have had some of the above mentioned special schedules, they have not all survived. Mortality schedules, for instance, exist for the years 1850 to 1880, and the slave schedules are found for the 1850 and 1860 censuses.
There is so much more to the census than the population schedules that we seem so intent on sticking with in our research. I have found the other census records extremely useful. Using these resources often requires a little bit of extra effort on my part, most notably finding out where I can access them.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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