Finding and Reading U.S. Census Records

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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.


Missing Censuses

According to most authorities, the 1790 census schedules for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were burned during the War of 1812. Some records, such as the 1790 records for Virginia, have been reconstructed from state enumerations and tax lists. In later enumerations, city blocks, neighborhoods, townships and sections of townships, and even entire counties are known to be missing from the census schedules, simply because no census was taken in the particular area in a given year or because they were lost before they reached Washington, D.C.

Probably the most noted loss of the federal enumerations is that of the 1890 census. Most of the 1890 schedules were destroyed in a fire in the Commerce Department in 1921. (See description of 1890 census for more info.)

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.”8

Missing Persons

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 [], 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 Suggestions for Microfilm Searches


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.”9

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. 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 <>. Microfilm Copies 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.”10 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-240.11 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 1. 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 appendix G, “The National Archives and Its Regions”), 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. 2. Starting Information 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. 3. 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. 4. Indexes 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 page 185 for an in-depth discussion of Census Indexes and Finding Aids. 5. Catalogs 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. Following is a summary of what to expect in each census schedule, along with research tips. Also, see the chart titled “Comparison of Census Information, 1790–1930” for a summary of questions asked in each census.

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