Introduction to Red Book: Census Records
This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
There are numerous ways to determine the location in which to concentrate research for an ancestor. One of the most popular and productive is the nationwide census. In the United States, the federal census has been taken every ten years since 1790. Federal population schedules through the 1930 census exist and are available to the general public online; and through many libraries and research facilities, such as the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and its Regional Centers, and the Family History Library and its centers. Only fragments of the 1890 population schedules remain since they were badly damaged by fire in 1921. Some states have incomplete or no schedules for other years because of the loss of census records.
Each census offers slightly different information depending on what Congress was interested in enumerating for that decade. The earlier federal census schedules name only the head of household in each locality and number of males and females in different age categories. Except for the earliest censuses that were sometimes alphabetical, the order of households listed is usually the result of door-to-door visits by the census takers. Later census returns include the name of every member of the household, becoming progressively more detailed and including such information as relationship to the head of household, the address (and consequently neighbors), month and year of birth, location of parents’ births, number of years married, date of immigration, occupation, and value of personal and real estate. For a detailed listing of what information was collected for each census, see “Factfinder for the Nation: Availability of Census Records for Individuals,” downloadable from www.census.gov.
Along with the population schedules, supplemental federal schedules were taken with the 1850 through 1880 census returns. Not all schedules exist for each state, but where they are known to exist, they are described in the state’s chapter. These include:
Mortality Schedules. Names, dates, and causes of death for those who died in the twelve-month period preceding the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 census enumerations are listed in this schedule. There is no central location for all of them. NARA has many available on microfilm (see www.archives.gov for its holdings), while others are in state archives (AL, DE, ME, MS, NY, RI, WV), state libraries (AR, CA, CT, IN, MD, NH, OR, VT), or historical societies (ID, MN, MO, NV, WI). Others are available at the DAR library. The FHL has some microfilm copies for some states.
Industry Schedules. Goods and services provided and quantities furnished by listed businesses were added in separate volumes to the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 federal enumerations. The 1880 schedules are labeled “Manufacturers.”
Agriculture Schedules. Acreage farmed with different commodities, and extent and type of animal husbandry listed by farmer’s name, are among those items listed in this separate schedule for 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880.
Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War (hereafter Union Veterans Schedules). Those who qualified, including pensioners, widows, and minors, and who were receiving pensions in 1890, were enumerated in a separate schedule. Returns for Alabama to Kansas appear to have been lost before 1943.
Slave Schedules. While free African Americans are named and slaves are counted (but not named) in federal returns beginning in 1790, separate Slave Schedules were generated for slave-owning states in 1850 and 1860. These tally the number of males and females in specific age groupings listed by slave owner’s name. All are available on NARA microfilm.
Many mortality and Union veterans’ schedules have been indexed and published while other supplemental schedules—slave, industry, and agriculture—have been microfilmed. The census section under each state indicates what federal supplemental schedules have survived and where they can be found.
Census information is to be used as a guide to the facts about a family and is not always accurate. When using census records for research keep the following in mind:
- Census information forwarded to the federal government was hand-copied and consequently subject to human error; microfilm copies reproduce the same errors. Some original copies of specific censuses are extant in some state repositories. If they are known to exist, the discussion in the state’s chapter will so specify.
- Some handwriting is difficult to read. Try to compare the way the writer patterned letters in other names that are easier to read.
- The type of information on each census varies. For example, the 1840 census specified Revolutionary War veterans receiving a pension; the 1870 census, which was taken after African Americans were granted citizenship, is the first one that lists all African Americans by name; and the 1900 census reports the number of children born to a woman and the number still living.
- County lines changed very quickly during the nineteenth century. You will want to refer to William Thorndale and William Dollarhide, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790–1920 (1987; reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003), to determine how the county lines changed between ten-year periods. In some cases, ward maps of municipalities may be necessary to pinpoint a location in metropolitan areas.
An index coding system for surnames, the Soundex was used by the Works Project Administration (WPA) in the preparation of three-by-five-inch index cards. These were eventually microfilmed and used for locating a particular person on the actual census. Available for the 1880, 1900, 1920, and some 1910 and 1930 census records, the Soundex coding system drops all vowels and a few consonants in a surname and produces a number code to be used in locating families with similarly sounding surnames in any given state. Such an index is particularly useful given the wide variations in spelling of many surnames. The Soundex for 1880 was used only for households in which there was a child under age ten. However, more recent indexes make it possible to locate any person, not just by head of household (see discussion below of census records on the Internet).
Census records for a few states in the 1910 census have a different finding aid called Miracode. This system uses the same coding as Soundex, but Miracode cards reference the full census returns with a number given in order of visitation by the census taker instead of the page and line number reference on the Soundex cards.
All of the federal population schedules available for every state are indexed and available online through subscription databases. The most extensive online access can be obtained with a subscription membership to Ancestry.com www.ancestry.com (see Internet Sources). Subscribers can find and view images of census pages using every-name indexes for many census years. HeritageQuest also offers an alternative for some census years through online access to its member libraries (see Internet Sources and www.heritagequest.com). All of the online census records are indexed (either through one site or the other), and in the case of 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1930 every name is indexed at Ancestry.com, not just the head of household. Other every-name indexes are being developed.
The Family History Library developed an every-name index for the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, available online for no charge at www.familysearch.org with direct links to the images of census pages offered to subscribing members of www.ancestry.com. The original thirty-six CD-ROM set of the 1880 Federal Census and National Index from which this online index is drawn may be available in some libraries where Internet access is not available. It offers an easily used state and national index that can be searched using a number of fields. Most FHL centers provide online access to Ancestry.com’s indexes and online images of the census records.
A limited, but growing, number of census records are available for free on the Internet through Access Genealogy www.accessgenealogy.com.
For those without Internet access, full sets of microfilmed federal census records and the published indexes (see below) can be viewed for free at the National Archives and its regional centers as well as the FHL in Salt Lake City. Additionally, through the FHL’s loan program in its centers, it is possible to order microfilm reels of the federal census records to view in centers for a small fee.
Most published indexes to the microfilmed population schedules were originally created by Accelerated Indexing Systems International, Inc. (AISI), or Ancestral Genealogical Endexing Schedules (AGES), now both owned by Genealogical Services, P.O. Box 1227, West Jordan, UT 84084-1227 www.genealogicalservices.com. An online catalog of its printed indexes is available at its website. Microfiche versions of many of these indexes may still be available at the FHL and its centers.
Precision Indexing has also published a wide variety of microform, printed, and loose-leaf-bound indexes, not limited to census records. These, along with the AISI and AGES indexes, are the source for many of the indexed census indexes available through www.ancestry.com; however, Ancestry.com is in the process of re-indexing all the federal census records.
If you do not have Internet access and if the National Archives, one of its regional centers, or the FHL are not near you, you can order films from the FHL to use at local Family History Centers or use the interlibrary loan program at your local library, which makes census microfilms available for your use.
Libraries or individuals (with access to a microfilm machine) can borrow the necessary microfilm reels through interlibrary from the National Archives Census Microfilm Rental Program, P.O. Box 30, 9050 Junction Dr., Annapolis Junction, MD 20701. (See links to this service at www.archives.gov). The program uses the National Archives numbering system to identify the reels of either Soundex or censuses. Guides for ordering films are also available from the above address. A nominal fee is charged for the loan of the reels. Microfilm guides identifying the ordering number for reels are also available on the National Archives website under “Publications” at www.archives.gov.
Most states hold microfilm copies of their own federal census records in various public and university libraries. The narrative in this section indicates places in the state where they are available.
In census research, it is appropriate to start with the most recent census for a geographic area and work backwards in time to develop a census history for a family. Available federal census schedules—population, mortality, agriculture and industry, slave, veterans—are listed first in each state’s Census Records section. If more important printed indexes exist besides the online, AISI, or AGES indexes described above, they are described in the narrative portion of each state’s chapter following the federal listings.
In addition to federal censuses, some states conducted their own enumerations at various times, including territorial or colonial censuses before statehood. These are outlined following federal listings for each state.
For more detailed discussion of census records, see the following:
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis. “Research in Census Records” in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc., 1997.
- Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3d ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000.
- Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka, Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States. 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 2001.
Census records provide a way to determine the presence of an ancestor in a particular location. Tracing a family through the census provides a history of migration and indicates the locations in which research should be centered. Once a family is located in the census records, the next step is to determine everything that locality has to offer in providing clues or direct proof of ancestors.