Census Records – Genealogy Tips – Getting the Most from Censuses

As I mentioned in the previous genealogy post, once you’ve finished entering what you know and what you acquire from your interviews, the records to start with are census records. Even if you obtained birth, death and marriage dates from an interview or a family Bible, it doesn’t hurt to search for the family in all the census that they should be in before ordering any hard copies of vital records. But you can also order the vital records and do the census searching while waiting for the documents to arrive.

word-cloud-3269304_640Census records are about the best way to do a rough document of a family in totality, and to “see” their neighborhood and neighbors every ten years. You should always look at the actual census and not a transcription or index of the census. Federal censuses are done every ten years, beginning in 1790. Currently, the 1940 census is the last one available. They are released 72 years after they were done so the 1950 census will be released in 2022. In addition to Federal censuses, there are also state censuses that can be very helpful. These were generally done halfway between the Federal censuses but since they were state censuses they were not done every ten years. In Florida, we have the 1845 state census, the 1885 state census, and the 1945 state census. They are mostly names, ages and locations and the names are often just initials and last name but they are still useful to review. In addition, the 1885 census also included an agriculture schedule that is still available for Florida and contains a wealth of information on the farms that were producing for the market and of a particular size.

Between 1790 and 1840 the census only provides the name of the head of household and tick marks under age ranges. This is also how the enslaved persons in a household were recorded. In addition, the 1840 census indicates whether there is someone in the household who served in the Revolutionary War. In Florida, our Federal census records start in 1830 but we do have two additional partial census recordations that may be helpful. The Pensacola census of 1820 and the Alabama census for 1820. Sometimes in censuses, the use of “free persons of color” or “mulatto” tends to create the impression among people who believe they are researching white families to assume that can’t be their families. Both of these terms were used for more than Blacks who were free persons or of mixed heritage. It also was used for Native Americans. So if your family is one of those who has a family story about Native Americans back in your lineage, you should not overlook these possibilities.

Starting in 1850, the Federal census started recording everyone who was in the household. For 1850 through 1870 you will generally find the head-of-household first, then the spouse, then children, then any other family members. However, there is no relationship indicated to the head-of-household so even if the children have the same last name, they may or may not be natural children of the two adults listed. They could be nieces or nephews who are orphaned, they could be the man’s children by a previous wife, they may be step-children but were adopted, or the census taker could have assumed the last name because he was given the first names and no one said, “oh, by the way, these three are my …..”. Sometimes you will see a couple of children in descending age order and then a few more that are older than the last of the first set. This may indicate a slightly different relationship, such as the step-children of one of the parents. Don’t assume but make a note of that so when you get to other records on these children you are prepared for them to have a different relationship than a parent to child.

In terms of creating a citation of these early censuses, you should record everything you can to identify the census, the location, and the family. Be sure to note all of the information at the top of the form that applies to everyone listed below. This applies to all census records.  It is needed for citations but also may be helpful in locating your ancestor on a map. Use some of the references listed below to get the citation as accurate as possible. Record the name as it is written on the census, even if it is mangled. Names and how they were spelled changed over time and sometimes the census taker heard the name phonetically and didn’t know how to spell it. Having these “alternative” names will help in future researches because creativity in name spelling was a fact of life, and still is in some cases.

Starting with the 1880 census, the census really began to be useful for future genealogists. If you have trouble reading the very small print at the tops of the columns, download the blank forms available from Ancestry (see resources below). You can enlarge them so you know the data being recorded in each column. While the following data should be on each census, it may not always be. New information on the 1880 census includes: name of street and house number, if born within the year the month is given, the relationship of each person in the household to the head-of-household, whether married within census year, number of months unemployed, some health questions, and whether person attended school within the year. The 1900 census adds a bit more detail. Included new data is: month and year of birth, age at last birthday, number of years of present marriage, mother of how many children, number of children living, year of immigration, number of years in the U.S., year of naturalization, whether the home was owned or rented, whether it was a farm or a house, and the number of this farm (if one) on the farm schedule. The 1910 and 1920 censuses are very similar to the 1900 census so you may have multiple shots to find some of this information if your ancestor is missing from one of them. The information is somewhat re-arranged on each so pay attention to the column labels.

The 1930 census added some interesting information to what they collected. New items included: value of home or monthly rental, whether the family had a radio, age at first marriage, if immigrant mother language spoken, whether they are naturalized or an alien, whether they speak English, the industry they worked in, whether they were a veteran (this was asked in an earlier census as well), and the farm schedule number if a farm. The 1940 census added: highest grade of school attended, the residence questions asked where the person lived as of 1 April 1935, whether they have a social security number and whether deductions were being made from their salaries, a variety of occupational questions including income for 1939, and for women whether they have been married more than once, age at first marriage and number of children ever born.

So you can see that if you search diligently for census records for every member of each of your lines and record the information, you can begin to put a wealth of information together that tells you more than their names, dates, and places lived every ten years. Study them carefully and you may find clues to a different approach for a brick wall.  But a word of caution, they can be filled with errors.  The census taker could have misunderstood or the person giving the information may have been guessing.  This is one source but should never be used by itself.

See you next week.


3 thoughts on “Census Records – Genealogy Tips – Getting the Most from Censuses

  1. Pingback: “Family” Research – Genealogy Tips – Ancestors & Their Families | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

  2. Pingback: Wrapping Up the Year – Genealogy Tips | Northwest Florida History & Genealogy

Leave a Reply to Bob Bryan Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s