Finding and Reading U.S. Census Records
In order to effectively use census records, one needs to first be able to find the record you need and then to extract the information you need from it. This article describes a variety of issues to consider when looking for census records as well as some potential problems one might encounter in reading a census document.
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- 1 False Census Entries
- 2 Missing Persons
- 3 Legibility
- 4 Interpreting Census Information
- 5 Census Records and the Role of the National Archives
- 6 Restrictions on Access to Post-1930 Census Records
- 7 Federal Population Census Research Procedures
- 8 Researching the Individual Censuses
- 9 Links to Individual Census Pages
- 10 References
- 11 External Links=
False Census Entries
Another confusing situation in census research can arise when names show up in a district where they do not belong—sometimes more than once. According to Arlene Eakle, Ph.D., “padding the totes,” or adjusting the census for political reasons, was not uncommon. “Frontier areas, anxious for statehood, often added bogus names. In 1857, seven counties in Minnesota had wild population totals, complete with fake names on the schedules. Jurisdictions facing increased taxes might also understate their populations to keep overall per capita taxes lower. The 1880 Utah census juggled households to disguise polygamy at a time when federal officials were seeking evidence for the prosecution of those convicted of unlawful cohabitation.”
Bogus entries may have been a frustration in some times and places, but a far greater problem in every census year has been that of undercounting. Whether families or individuals were not counted because they lived in remote areas or because they would not tolerate an enumerator’s personal questions, millions have been missed since official government census-taking began. The Census Bureau has acknowledged, for example, “that the 1990 census, which put the U.S. population at 248.7 million, missed an estimated 5 million people—ranging from 1.7 percent of whites to 5.2 percent of Hispanics” (Chicago Tribune, Tuesday, 17 March 1992, sec. 2, page 4). While no stone should remain unturned in the search for an individual in the census, the unfortunate truth is that a significant portion of the population has been missed entirely.
Probably no other factor causes more frustration for a researcher than finding the general area in which an individual or family should be found in the census and then being unable to read the page or pages of interest. Often, worn and torn pages, faded or smeared ink, and the disintegrating paper of the original census are to blame. Most frequently, however, poor microfilming techniques caused unfocused and blurred sections, overexposed and underexposed pages, and words to be obscured because of tightly bound volumes or mending tape.
Microfilming of federal census records took place in the 1940s, when the technology was in its infancy and techniques had not yet been perfected. Because of the poor quality of the original microfilms, some of the 1850, 1860, and 1870 schedules were microfilmed a second time. The versions can be distinguished because the earlier microfilming included two pages to a frame, while the newer ones have only one census page per frame. Unfortunately, the original census schedules for 1900, 1910, and 1920 were destroyed in 1946 (with the approval of the Archivist of the United States and Congress), and the 1930 originals were destroyed in 1949, so records that are not legible cannot be remicrofilmed.
The quality of microfilms may vary from one copy to another. Generally, the original microfilm is better than later generations of the same. Census microfilms have been duplicated a number of times in order to make the records available to as many researchers as possible. In some cases, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., may have the best copy.
Digitization of microfilmed records offers a second chance to capture these images the right way. A proprietary process used by Ancestry.com, for example, has been used to scan the microfilm in 256 shades of gray (as opposed to black and white) and then to optimize it using software filters. The resultant images are often easier to read than the original.
For more information about searching for census records on microfilm, see Microfilm Search Strategies.
Poor penmanship, archaic handwriting styles, and symbols are other leading causes of researchers’ inability to find or read specific names or information in census records. Many letters can be misinterpreted unless a study is made of the enumerator’s handwriting style. For example, uppercase letters L and S are frequently difficult to distinguish. In one district of the 1850 census, the word “lawyer” looks more like “sawyer.” Likewise, a birthplace of Missouri might look more like “Mifouri” or “Mipouri” to someone unfamiliar with the long “s” character that took the place of a double “s” in some manuscripts.
Despite the many imperfections of the census, it should again be emphasized that census records are one of the first sources used in almost every genealogical project. They are invaluable for placing an individual in a particular time and place and for connecting the individual to other sources. The foregoing descriptions make it fairly easy to see why census records are not perfect or entirely reliable. But, as noted author Val Greenwood suggests, “no research on an American genealogical problem after the beginning of census is complete until all pertinent census schedules have been searched.”
Interpreting Census Information
Professional researchers recommend making photocopies or computer printouts of census pages whenever possible. The advantages of an actual copy over a transcription are several: it eliminates the danger of transcription mistakes; a copy will include neighbors and provide an overview of the population makeup of the area (except in cases where names are listed in alphabetical order instead of in order of visitation); and a copy makes it easy to go back and reevaluate information as new discoveries are made in the research process.
While information in the census may be quite accurate, at times the order in which data has been entered can be misleading. For example, a head of household recorded in 1820, 1830, or 1840 may not be the oldest person in the house. With only age ranges to distinguish, it is impossible to know who may be a grandparent, a younger brother, or a man with both parents still living at home. Individuals listed in early censuses in any age grouping could be servants, visitors, or boarders not related to the family. Even in 1880 and later, the relationships noted apply to heads of household only. Children listed as sons and daughters of the head of household may be unrelated to the wife.
Suggestions for Online Searches
This section was originally written by Juliana Smith.
Since most census records are accessed electronically, below are some tips for searching electronic census indexes.
- ADVANCED SEARCH TOOLS. Most electronic indexes provide users with various options for more effective searching. In cases where you are dealing with common surnames in large cities, it is often helpful to specify more information to narrow down your search. In addition, when an ancestor cannot be located using basic searches, sometimes they can be located by entering different combinations of information, such as first name and township/county/state or other keywords that may be available in the database.
- KEYWORDS. When searching a database, users are typically given the choice of searching by surname, given name, locality, and keyword. If the user begins by using only the surname and state, the resulting matches will likely be too broad. While it is sometimes impossible to include a given name or locality, try narrowing down the search results using keywords. For example, suppose you are searching for an ancestor named John Brown from Mississippi. After putting those details in the search you could also add any other information you know about him in the keyword field, e.g. the township, a country of origin, a language, a date, etc.
- SOMETIMES LESS IS MORE. Keep in mind that databases will only give hits on exact matches. When too much information is included in a search, you run the risk of eliminating a possible hit in cases where names have been abbreviated or misspelled, where variations exist, or when information is missing.
- GIVEN NAMES. If you specify a given name, be sure to also look for variations, misspellings, or abbreviations of that name. Sometimes only an initial or abbreviation is used, such as Chas. for Charles or Thos. for Thomas. Also look for variations and different spellings—Eliza, Beth, Liz, Liza, for Elizabeth; Alex for Alexander; Jim for James; Jon for John. If you are looking for an immigrant ancestor, look for his or her name as spelled in the native language.
- SOUNDEX SEARCHES. Many electronic indexes allow for Soundex searches. This may help you to get positive results, despite possible misspellings. For other databases, you may want to say the name aloud. For example, when searching the surname Dwyer data entries are listed as Ware, Toire, Wire, and Weir. Note the phonetic spellings of names and try using different accents.
- RESEARCH LOG. When you are searching for multiple names, and multiple spellings for multiple years, it can be difficult to keep track of where you have searched, when, and for what. Keeping a log of the places you have searched and combination of search terms used, along with results, can save much duplicated effort. With websites that are constantly being updated, bugs worked out, and/or search features enhanced, you may want to go back occasionally to recheck for missing ancestors. Your log can tell you when you last checked a site. The free research calendar at Ancestry.com can be used to record your searches.
- BEYOND THE INDEX. While indexes are becoming more and more detailed, there is still more to be found on the original documents. For example, the FamilySearch 1880 U.S. Census and National Index contains the following
- marital status
- father’s birthplace
- mother’s birthplace
- but you will not find the any of following information that can be found by looking at a copy of the original enumeration:
- the family’s address
- how many families reside in the dwelling
- month of birth for children born within the year
- whether individuals were married that year
- how many months an individual was unemployed
- school attendance during the year
- whether unable to read if age 10 or older
- whether sick or temporarily disabled on the day of enumeration and the reason therefore
- whether the individual was blind, deaf-mute, idiotic,” insane, or permanently disabled
- In addition, as previously discussed, indexes may contain errors, causing you to miss family members that could be found in browsing the enumerations.
- USING ONLINE SOURCES TO SAVE TIME DURING LIBRARY AND ARCHIVE VISITS. With more and more census information becoming available online, by performing as many of these searches from the comfort of your home, you can free up valuable research time to search other records and resources when the opportunity arises to visit a facility with a large genealogical collection.
- PRINT IT OUT. Each CD-ROM or website is slightly different, but it is always worth the time and toner to print out a hard copy of pertinent census records for further review. This paper copy can be placed in a binder or folder and accessed when you are not at your computer. The paper copy also helps to ensure that you do not introduce any mistakes into your records while transcribing. A paper copy allows you to compare your new findings with offline information more easily and handwriting or reading errors can be corrected on further review or looking back at the printed form.
Census Records and the Role of the National Archives
The National Archives has custody of the federally created census records, including the published 1790 census schedules, negative photostatic copies of the 1800, 1810, 1820, and 1830 census schedules, originals of the 1840, 1850, 1860, and 1870 census schedules, the surviving fragments of the 1890 schedules, and microfilm copies of the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 schedules. Due to their fragile condition, some of the original schedules have been retired and are not available to researchers. The original 1880 census schedules went back to the states and are no longer in the custody of the National Archives. A research book entitled Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2001), provides detailed information on federally-created census records from 1790 to 1910. According to the Guide, “Because copies of the census records are now available at the archives field branches, NARA no longer searches schedules in response to mail requests. The National Archives will furnish photocopies of census pages only when the researcher can cite the state, county, enumeration district (for 1880, 1900 and 1910), volume number, and exact page on which a family is enumerated.” Information about this and other NARA publications is available at the NARA website.
The National Archives has reproduced all of the available federal population census schedules on microfilm. Copies of available 1790 to 1930 censuses for all states and territories can be used in the Microfilm Research Room in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., regional branches of the National Archives, at the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City and in its Family History Centers, and at many other private and public libraries. The added options of borrowing census schedules from microfilm-lending companies or purchasing microfilm copies from the National Archives make the census one of the most readily available record sources.
Limitations of Microfilm Copies
As noted earlier, microfilming of the census schedules, indexes, and other heavily used records in the National Archives took place in the 1940s, when the technology was in its infancy. The microfilms of most of the censuses for most years are quite legible. However, there are thousands of census pages from various states and years that cannot be read because of poor focusing or because of too much or too little lighting. Pages of original census schedules were also inadvertently skipped when microfilming took place—some pages may have stuck together when turned, and some may have been missing when the microfilming began. For example, nine pages were missed during the microfilming of the 1820 Virginia schedule. They were subsequently identified and indexed by Gerald M. Petty in “Virginia 1820 Federal Census: Names Not on the Microfilm Copy.” In another case, more than 1,000 Illinoisans with names beginning with the letter O were somehow missed when the rest of the 1880 Soundex index was microfilmed. The missing section for the letter O was later transcribed from the original cards by Nancy Gubb Frederick in 1880 Illinois Census Index, Soundex Codes O-200 to O-240.
Unfortunately, since the 1900, 1910, and 1920 census originals were destroyed, it will be impossible to remicrofilm any illegible pages or pages missed in the original microfilming of schedules for those census years. As mentioned previously, however, advances in scanning technology have provided a way to improve the legibility of some of the damaged pages.
Restrictions on Access to Post-1930 Census Records
To protect the privacy of living individuals, access to population schedules is restricted for seventy-two years after the census is taken, so they are not available to researchers during that time. The Personal Service Branch, Bureau of the Census, P.O. Box 1545, Jeffersonville, IN 47131, will provide, for a fee, official transcripts of census records from 1940 to 2000. Access is restricted to whomever the information is about, their authorized representatives, or, in the case of deceased persons, their heirs or administrators. Use Form BC-600 to request information. Since the Census Day for 1940 was 1 April 1940, this census is scheduled to be released on 1 April 2012.
Federal Population Census Research Procedures
How to Find Census Records
All available federal census schedules, from 1790 to 1930, have been microfilmed and are available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., at the National Archives’ regional archives (See National Archives and Records Administration), at the LDS Family History Library and Family History Centers throughout North America, at many large libraries, and through microfilm-lending companies. Some state and local agencies may have census schedules only for the state or area served.
In addition to the microfilmed copies of the federal census schedules, digital copies are also increasingly available online and on CD-ROM. These resources can be accessed from personal computers at home or at a library, are generally searchable, and can save researchers a good deal of time and money. Ask your local librarian if your library has access to a U.S. Federal Census collection online or on CD-ROM.
It is usually best to begin a census search in the most recently available census records and to work from what is already known about a family. With any luck, birthplaces and other clues found in these more recent records will point to locations of earlier residency.
Arrangement of Census Records
The microfilm census schedules are arranged by census year and then alphabetically by name of state; then, with a few exceptions, they are organized alphabetically by name of county. To begin researching microfilmed census records, a researcher must know in which state the subject of interest lived during the census year, and may need to know the county and an exact address if the name is common.
In early census years or in sparsely populated areas, one roll of microfilm may contain all the schedules for one county or several small counties. However, in heavily populated areas, there may be many rolls for a single county. The arrangement of surnames on a page of the schedule is usually in the order in which the enumerator visited the households. To search for a particular name in the microfilm schedules may necessitate scanning every page of a district; however, the increasingly numerous indexes to federal censuses and finding aids have dramatically reduced such tedious work. Finding a particular name in most electronic and digital copies of the schedules is much easier with their built-in global search function.
The impact of technology on census research is no more evident than in the area of census indexes. While print indexes are still available and useful, digital indexes have become the quickest and easiest way to zero in on ancestors in the federal censuses. See Census Indexes and Finding Aids for more.
Five catalogs produced by the National Archives Trust Fund Board are especially helpful in conducting research in federal census records. They are available in print and as searchable publications online through the National Archives. They are as follows:
National Archives Trust Fund Board. The 1790–1890 Federal Population Censuses: Catalog of National Archives Microfilm. Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1993. This catalog is arranged chronologically, then by state or territory, and then by county. Given for each microfilm publication is the series number and the total number of microfilm rolls in the enumeration. The catalog further identifies each microfilm roll by number and contents.
———. 1900 Federal Population Census: A Catalog of Microfilm Copies of the Schedules. Washington, D.C., 1978. This catalog lists the 1,854 rolls of microfilm on which the 1900 population census schedules appear. The census schedules are arranged by state or territory and then by county. Numbers for the 7,846 rolls of 1900 Soundex indexes appear in the second half of the book.
———. The 1910 Federal Population Census: A Catalog of Microfilm Copies of the Schedules. Washington, D.C., 1982. This catalog lists the 1,784 rolls of microfilm on which the 1910 population census schedules appear. The census schedules are arranged by state or territory and then by county. Numbers for the 4,642 rolls of 1910 Soundex/Miracode indexes appear in the second half of the catalog.
———. The 1920 Federal Population Census: Catalog of National Archives Microfilm. Washington, D.C., 1991. This catalog lists the 8,585 rolls of 1920 Soundex indexes in the front portion of the book. The catalog lists 2,076 rolls of 1920 census schedules arranged by state or territory and then by county.
———. The 1930 Federal Population Census: Catalog of National Archives Microfilm. Washington, D.C., 2002. Provides roll-by-roll listings of the 1930 census microfilm. Population census schedules are broken down by state, county, and enumeration district, while the beginning and ending codes are provided for each roll of the Soundex. An introduction explains how to use the records, summarizes the instructions to the census enumerators, and tells how to order microfilm copies of schedules, Soundex, and related microfilm.
Researching the Individual Censuses
The information contained in the U.S. Federal Census schedules varies dramatically from the first census in 1790 to the latest available census of 1930. What started in colonial times as a basic headcount evolved into a somewhat lengthy interrogation that yielded tremendous amounts of information useful in genealogical research.
The table below from the third edition of The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy outlines the information available in each census. For more information, visit the pages for each census.
|Personal Info on Census||1790||1800||1810||1820||1830||1840||1850||1860||1870||1880||1900||1910||1920||1930|
|Name of family head only||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Headcount by age, gender, ...||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Standard census form||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Names of all individuals||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Profession or occupation||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Place of birth||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Attended school that year||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Married that year||x||x||x||x||x|
|Read or write||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Deaf, blind, insane, idiotic, ...||x||x||x||x||x|
|Real estate value||x||x||x|
|Personal estate value||x||x|
|Separate slave schedule||x||x|
|Father of foreign birth||x|
|Mother of foreign birth||x|
|Month of birth||x|
|Month of birth that year||x||x|
|Male citizen over 21 years||x|
|Male over 21 denied vote||x|
|Visitation number of dwelling||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Visitation number of family||x||x||x||x||x||x||x||x|
|Street name in city||x||x||x||x||x|
|House number in city||x||x||x||x||x|
|Relationship to family head||x||x||x||x||x|
|Month of marriage that year||x|
|No. of months unemployed||x||x|
|Sickness on census day||x|
|Year of birth||x|
|No. of years present marriage||x||x|
|Mother how many children||x||x|
|Number of children living||x||x|
|Year of immigration to US||x||x||x||x|
|No. of years in US||x|
|Months attended school||x|
Links to Individual Census Pages
- 1790 U.S. Census
- 1800 U.S. Census
- 1810 U.S. Census
- 1820 U.S. Census
- 1830 U.S. Census
- 1840 U.S. Census
- 1850 U.S. Census
- 1860 U.S. Census
- 1870 U.S. Census
- 1880 U.S. Census
- 1890 U.S. Census
- 1900 U.S. Census
- 1910 U.S. Census
- 1920 U.S. Census
- 1930 U.S. Census
- Arlene H. Eakle, “Census Records,” in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1984).
- Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1990).
- Gerald M. Petty, “Virginia 1820 Federal Census: Names Not on the Microfilm Copy,” Virginia Genealogist 18 (1974): 136–39.
- Nancy Gubb Frederick, 1880 Illinois Census Index, Soundex Codes O-200 to O-240 (Evanston, Ill.: the compiler, 1981).