Thursday, February 6, 2014

Using the U.S. Census

Today's post is the second of this year to focus on using specific online resources in our research. One of the sources that can be extremely helpful and is one of the easiest to access online is the U.S. Census.

The census was required in the Constitution. Because the number of representatives that a state has in the House is based on population, provision was made for an accurate population count every ten years. The first census was done in 1790, and has been done every decade since that time.

For the first several census years, the only names recorded were the heads of household, and basic demographics on everyone else was recorded. This was done for census years 1790-1840. For example, you could find a great-grandfather's name in one of these census years, but then it would simply list something like 1 female over the age of 30, 2 males under the age of 10, and 1 female under the age of 5.

In 1850, the names of everyone in a household began to be recorded. Also, in 1850 and 1860, separate slave schedules were included as part of the census. Between 1850 and 1880, mortality schedules were also done, which gave information on life spans and causes of death.

Each census year was slightly different in the type of information that was gathered. Some census years list things like parents' places of birth for each individual. Some list information on manufacturing, fisheries, taxation, churches, immigration, and even crime. There are several places to find what information was included in each census year, but the quickest way I've found is to just get on Wikipedia and look for the census year. It will list everything that was asked in the census.

Census records are released 72 years after a census was taken in order to protect privacy. So, as of right now, we can access the 1790 through 1940 census records. The 1950 census will be released in 2022.

The 1890 census is very sparse and incomplete, as the records were destroyed by a fire in 1921. The 1800 and 1810 census records are also incomplete. For the year 1800, the records of Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were lost. For the year 1810, the records of the District of Columbia, Georgia, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, and most of Tennessee were either lost or destroyed. So, good luck if you have ancestors from the early 19th century in Georgia, New Jersey, or Tennessee.

The U.S. Census records that have been publicly released are available in several different places online. FamilySearch and Ancestry.com both have them available with full indexes, and you can also access them from government and other third-party websites.

There are some things to be cautious about when using the U.S. Census to find genealogical information. The data found in a census should always be double-checked with other records. There are several reasons for this. One, not all families spelled their names uniformly throughout each census. Second, depending on who in the household answered the questions, the data might not be accurate or complete. Third, depending upon the census taker's education and level of accuracy in recording, the census taker might have incorrectly written information down. Finally, the census is only a snapshot of an individual or family every 10 years. So many things can happen in those 10 years that if you rely on census records for the bulk of your sources on a family, you will have a very incomplete picture. Births and deaths, moves, marriages, changes in occupation, etc., can and did change in between census years.

As a general rule of thumb, I use the census early on in my research of U.S. ancestors just to have a jumping off point, and then I look to verify all vital information (birth dates, names, deaths, family relationships) with other record sources. In this way, using the U.S. Census can be extremely helpful for genealogical research.

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