The turn of the century found the U.S. entering a period of great advancement...the widespread introduction of such luxuries as electricity, airplanes, and movies was soon to come. Who were your ancestors in 1900 and where were they living as these changes unfolded? The pervasiveness of western migration at that time can make tracing individuals in the early 20th century difficult.
This time period is also critical for many genealogists, particularly novices. Here, families begin stretching beyond the personal frame of reference for most patriarchs and matriarchs, who serve as primary sources for word-of-mouth family histories. Not only will the 1900 U.S. Census empower you to break through such research barriers with primary source records, it can also open doors to conduct 18th and 19th century research. For the first time, you can research the entire census, containing approximately 75 million names, quickly and easily from your home computer using a 25 million name head of household index.
One of the reasons the 1900 census is such a valuable resource is that most of the 1890 census was destroyed by a fire in the Commerce Department building on January 21, 1921. While not all of the forms were destroyed (in fact, portions do exist for Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas), most were so badly damaged that Congress authorized their disposal.
Additionally, the 1900 census provides unique information that was not included in the 1880 census nor in the 1910 census. For this reason, the 1900 census is uniquely able to fill in blanks in your family history.
The 1900 census was the first to employ the practice of noting how long an immigrant has been in the United States and whether that person was naturalized. It was also the first to list the following:
- Whether a farm or home was owned or rented (if owned, whether the property was mortgaged)
- How many years a person had been married
- Whether an individual spoke English
- How many children a mother had and how many of those children were still living
- If a person was a Civil War veteran or widow
This data set is unique because it includes not only a head of household index to the 1900 U.S. Census, but also images of the actual census itself. From the alphabetical name Index you can gather an ancestor's first and last name, county and location where they lived at the time of the census, and the microfilm page number on which their information appears. On a 1900 census image, you can find interesting details about an ancestor's life and clues for additional research. For information on how to use census records in your family history research, please see the chapter of this introduction called "Understanding Census Information."
When using this data, it is important to remember that these are 100 year-old documents. By the time the originals were photographed onto microfilm approximately 40 years after the census, the ink had faded and some of the pages were damaged by water, tape, ink splats, holes, bad folds, or tears. Additionally, the photographic quality often suffered due to exposure, lighting, and obstruction issues. In both of these scenarios, going back to even the original microfilm will not help to retrieve lost information.
In another scenario, due to the scanning process used to transfer the microfilm records and despite best efforts, the center of an image may appear broken up or the edges may be blackened. In this rare case, referring to the original microfilm records will provide the needed information. These records are easy to locate, as the National Archives microfilm series, roll, and page numbers are recorded in both an individual's Index record and on screen above the actual census schedule image.
Information You Will Find in the 1900 United States Census
As you navigate the 1900 census, you will recognize two sources for obtaining information on individuals in this data. Information is available using the index or by viewing the image of the actual census page.
Index to This Data Set
You will find basic information about an individual in the 1900 Census index. In an index record, you will find the following information:
- Name -- The individual's given name, middle name or initial (when available), and surname.
- Lived in -- The specific locale where the individual resided at the time of the census. This field can contain the name of a city, town, ward, or district, plus county and state.
- Series/Microfilm/Book/Page -- The location in the original microfilm where you will find this individual's record.
The Census Schedule Images
This data set is unique because it contains images of the actual 1900 U.S. Census. In general, each successive decennial census has gathered successively more detailed information. These census schedules are the most information-rich currently available. On a 1900 census image, you can find the following information about an individual:
- State, County, Township
- Street and house number (where appropriate)
- Relationship to head-of-household
- Color or race
- Month and year of birth and age at last birthday
- Marital status and number of years married
- For married women, number of children born and number living
- Birthplace (state, territory, or country)
- Father's and Mother's birthplace
- Year of immigration and number of years in the United States
- Citizenship status for aliens or naturalized citizens over age 21
- Occupation (for each person 10+) and number of months not employed
- Information about school attendance
- Ability to read, write, and speak English
- Home ownership status, mortgage status, or farm residence
Understanding Census Information
The information in this section describes the problems with census data that can make it difficult to locate your ancestors. Knowing about these problems can help you with your research.
Over the decades, census enumerators inadvertently created complicated and confusing problems in the census records. Most of these problems are simply due to unintended mistakes. In addition, many original records have unfortunately been subject to decades of unprofessional archival storage and general public misuse.
As you use this data collection, please remember the following: The final burden of proof in determining the correctness or incorrectness of a name in a census index or record lies with you, the researcher. In addition, the best research arises from individuals pursuing independent verification and relying on multiple research sources.
Below, we'll examine the various mistakes found in census materials. At best we can only give you a basic outline of what pitfalls you may expect. If you have trouble finding a name in the index, take some of these pitfalls into account. You may end up finding the name in a place that you did not expect it to be.
The Census Enumerators Each enumerator and census marshall had a different level of education. Therefore, spelling names in various languages may have been difficult for them, so they may have made errors when recording names.
Cultural Spellings It was not unusual at all to have had an Englishman enumerating the German names, Italian names, and Slavic names; you may have a Frenchman enumerating the German names, or a German enumerating the English and French names. Try an experiment with the common name of "Smith." Pronounce it with the accent spoken by a native of a particular cultural background. We come up with the following spellings based on those pronunciations: "Smith," "Smythe," "Schmith," "Schymthe," "Smite," "Smithee" and so forth. All of the above are actually found as various spellings of the English "Smiths."
Phonics Spelling by sound is the most common method of recording names. It is a practice that still takes place today. The way a name appears on a census record depended on how the name was said, how the enumerator heard it, and how he or she interpreted it on paper. Many enumerators were not well-educated and mixed guesswork with phonetic sounds to record what they heard.
Time Periods The contemporary name "Polk" was spelled "Pollok" or "Pollock" several hundred years ago. The name "Fisher" today was more frequently spelled "Pfisher" or "Pfister" in early colonial America. Good researchers will always take into consideration the "zone" or "time period" changes as they research their genealogy or do other historical research. An excellent rule of thumb is this: "Just because it is spelled one way today and has been for a long time, does not mean that it was or has been spelled this way since the origin of the name."
Multiplying Letters As researchers, we all too often look for the usual or ordinary. Quite often we should be thinking of the unusual or out of the ordinary. The name "Booth" is generally spelled with only two "o"s. In actuality it was spelled "Boooth" by some enumerators. The name "Alexander" can and has been spelled "Allexxanndderr." Another example would be the name "Briggs" as "Bbrriggss" or "Brriggss."
Reduction in the Use of Letters While we have the one extreme of adding letters, we also have the other extreme of the reduction of letters. To continue the example of the name of "Briggs," it is often spelled "Brggs" or "Brgs", totally deleting the "i" and the double letter. Here are a few other examples: "Green" as "Gren;" "Hannah" as "Hanna" or "Hana;" "Allen" as "Alen;" "McAllister" as "McAlister;" and "Mitchell" as "Mitcel" or "Mitchal."
Vowel Interchanging The use of various vowels can place a name in an index many pages apart from other names of the same species. Use these examples: "Myers," "Mires," "Meyers," "Maeyers" and "Miers" are all placed in an index, some close together and some many pages apart. "Alexander" and "Elexander" not only would not be found under the same first letter, but would appear in different sections of an index. So the genealogical researcher should in many respects disregard vowels when making name searches. Here are a few examples:
- Jackson = Jacksen = Jacksin
- Aldridge = Eldredge = Aldradge
- Potter = Pottar = Pottaer
- Allen = Allan = Allin
- Cunningham = Cannengham = Cunninghum
Mis-Formed Letters or Look-Alike Letters In one instance, researchers misread the name "Lebello" as "Sebello." The "L" and "S" are quite often written identically, making it difficult for even handwriting experts to tell the difference. The "I" and "J" can also be difficult to distinguish when just written as initials. In addition, an open-topped "a" can be mistaken for a "u," or a close-topped "u" or open-topped "o" can all be confused with each other. The possible combinations are unlimited.
- Hall = Hull = Holl
- Baldwin = Boldwin = Buldwin
- Tally = Tully = Tolly
Single Name FactorUntil the last part of the 19th century, many cultures only used one name for a person. In addition, many religious orders only gave their members one name. These practices make it difficult to index names using the current two-name convention that most cultures use. If only a first name was obtainable from the census, it will not appear in the Index. However, single surnames will appear.
An individual whose name was "Cunningham" could be indexed in any of the following ways:
- ??? Cunningham
Whenever a first name appeared in conjunction with any portion of a surname, such as "John D.," it was included in this data collection. Depending on how the original name appeared, it could be indexed in any of the following ways:
- D, John
- D?, John D
- D???, John
Titles and Other Name Designations The almost endless range of titles includes military rank, occupation, ranking in the family, government stations, religious, and many more. In data collections containing census information, most titles appear in front of the given name, but do not affect name alphabetization. Thus, "Lieutenant John Smith" would appear as "Smith, Lieutenant John." He would be listed next to all of the other individuals named "Smith, John," rather than next to those whose first names started with "L." As a side note, "Doctor" was not only an occupational title, but was sometimes a legal first name in the 19th century.
Titles that normally come after a name, such as "Sr.," "Jr.," "II," or "Esq." appear after the given name. For example, "John Smith, Jr." would appear as "Smith, John, Jr."
Listing of Ethnic Names This broad category of names includes American Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Mexicans, among others. The methods used to index these names can vary greatly. Some examples include the following:
- Intawba, = ???, Intawba = Indian, Intawba
- Chow, = ???, Chow
- Ching-Lee, = ???, Ching-Lee = Chinglee
- Hannamaimai, = ???, Hannamaimai
People Listed in Religious Orders The names of individuals in religious orders can be difficult to find, because the individuals frequently took names other than their legal birth names, or they chose to use only one of their names. Following are examples of how religious order names may have been indexed:
- Rev. James Hanson = Hanson, Rev. James = Rev. Rector Hanson
- Sister Anthony = Sister, Anthony = Anthony, Sister
- Sister Mary = Sister, Mary = Mary, Sister
- Brother John = Brother, John = John, Brother
- Father Johnson = Father, Johnson = Johnson, Father
Nicknames and Variations It is quite common to call an individual by a much shorter name than what they were given at birth. The following examples give the real names and the possible nicknames:
- Elizabeth Thomas = Bess Thomas
- Daniel Jones = Danl Jones
- Benjamin Smith = Benny Smith
- William Brown = Will Brown
- Anastasia Lee = Mousy Lee
However, never assume that all nicknames are short for a longer given name. "Bess," "Liz," "Ben," "Freddy" are all very real given names.
Voluntary and Involuntary Information Several types of mistakes resulted when individuals purposefully or unknowingly gave the census enumerators incorrect information. For example, some Germanic people remembered the compulsory military service requirements of the old country and did not know the laws in America. They often felt that if they divulged their correct names and ages they would be inducted into US military service. To avoid being located, they would often use their middle name(s), delete their first names or surnames, or use only their christening names. Albert Martin Frederick Nass could thus appear in the records under the following variations:
- Albert Nass = Martin Frederick
- Albert Martin = Frederick Nass
- Frederick Martin = Martin Nass
- Albert Frederick =
Since the enumerators were being paid by the number of names they gathered, they did not always take the data from a member of the household they were enumerating. Many enumerators traveled long distances on foot, so when they came to an empty dwelling it was common practice to have a neighbor volunteer the information. This practice compounds the errors made on the original census manuscripts, and perpetuated by indexers or researchers. Here is an example of the actual information given by the individuals themselves, and what the neighbor reported:
Example of information given by the individual:
- Thomas James Baldwin, M, 28-years old, born in Ohio
- Mary Francis Baldwin, F, 26-years old, born in Ohio
- Thomas D. Baldwin, M, 6/12-years old, born in Kansas
- John C. Baldwin, M, 5-years old, born in Kansas
- Bella E. Baldwin, F, 3-years old, born in Kansas
- Rosella A. Baldwin, F, 2-years old, born in Illinois
Example of information given by the individual's neighbor:
- Thomas Baldwin, M, 31-years old, born in Pennsylvania
- Mary Baldwin, F, 33-years old, born in Maryland
- Tom Baldwin Jun., M, 2-years old, born in Kansas
- J. Baldwin, M, 9-years old, born in Ohio
- Bell Baldwin, F, 7-years old, born in Ohio
- Rose Baldwin, F, 3-years old, born in Ohio
As you can see, the information provided by the neighbor was somewhere within the realm of truth, but by no means accurate.
Changing Names Since the colonization of America in the early 1600's it has been a common practice for individuals, and especially immigrants to change their names. However, it was not until the mid-19th century or later that people were required to officially register their changed names in a court of law. (An examination of the Enumeration Returns for the 1890 Census of Veterans and Widows of the Wars reveals that hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women entered the United States Armed Forces under one name, and sometime after their military obligation was up, the census indicated that they had lived under an assumed name or names.) It's not uncommon to find individuals listed under three or four names.
We give the following examples:
- Edward Brown, alias, Ed Benson
- Jonathan Williams, alias, John Wilson
- Benjamin Green, alias, Benjamin Hanks
- Margaret Benson, alias, Sarah Timms
- Fredrick Johnson, alias, Aaron Carter
- James T. Lockhart, alias, Thomas Smith
- Catharine Welsh, alias, Eliza Robinson