Overview of the U.S. Census
When the Founding Fathers of the United States convened the Constitutional Convention in 1787, they had no idea that they would, in the course of their deliberations, create incredible opportunities for generations of American family history researchers. While Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution does not directly mention the preservation of vital personal information for future generations, it does instruct the government to conduct a decennial census in an effort to fairly apportion the number of federal representatives from each state, as well as to decide on the amount of direct taxes to be levied. That effort to take stock of the U.S. population every ten years has produced, as a natural by-product, the greatest source of genealogical information available to U.S. researchers.
Because they contain such important information about individuals, families, and communities, U.S. census records are the most frequently used records created by the federal government. Recognizing their value to researchers, the National Archives began to microfilm federal census records in 1941, and with microfilming came the ability to make duplicate copies, then to digitize them. Because of technological developments, federal census records can now be researched via the Internet from a home computer or at the nearest archives or library.
Beyond the records resulting from the population head counts conducted by the federal government, there are a number of other census records that should not be overlooked by researchers. Agricultural, industry and manufacturing, mortality, slave, and other special census schedules created by the federal government are also worth exploring, as are state and local censuses. Special censuses reveal a great deal about American territories, and some provide hard-to-find details about Native Americans. While the latter vary greatly in content and availability, information not available elsewhere can often be found in them.
- 1 Uses of the Census
- 2 Historical Background
- 3 The Census Bureau
- 4 Strengths and Limitations of Census Records
- 5 Census Taking
- 6 References
- 7 External Links
Uses of the Census
Census records contain the basic documentation for the study of U.S. history, biography, demography, immigration, migration, ethnicity, occupations, economics, social anthropology, medical history, local history, and family history. Social historians, journalists, the media, and government agencies have come to rely on the census as a reliable source for valuable and fascinating pieces of information.
Certain research topics have lent themselves well to the use of the U.S. federal census. Occupational data and property values noted in some census years have been the basis for economic studies, and inquiries regarding Revolutionary War pensioners (1840), Civil War veterans (1890 and 1910), and participants in other expeditions or wars (1930) can aid military research. Reconstruction of historic sites in Philadelphia; an examination of foreign-born farmers, women, and blacks in nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts; and regional studies, such as that of Dickinson County, Kansas, have sought support from a combination of records—but notably the census. The 1860 census provided particulars on the domestics in their place of employment, while making possible the reconstitution of their families of origin residing on surrounding farmlands. More recent census records have been used by medical researchers to track families and to study hereditary and communicable disease patterns.
The most popular use of the census, however, is to trace family history. No other source matches the census record’s ability to place people in a certain place at a certain time or to provide such a detailed picture of lives and lifestyles at given intervals. The promise of that picture, and of seeing it clearly, keeps researchers going against all odds.
This article will provide a brief history of the U.S. federal population censuses from 1790 to 1940, including a section describing the general strengths and limitations of census records. Suggestions in that section will be useful not only for searching federal schedules, but also for searching special and state censuses.
The actual records of civilization’s first population counts have apparently not survived, but there are indications that in early Babylonia, Egypt, and China, inhabitants were counted on a regular basis. There are ancient written accounts of Greek and Romans censuses, but those tallies, too, have been lost over the centuries. On the North American continent, the Spaniards led the way in census-taking, counting heads in 1577 in what was then Mexico.
Since 1790, the U.S. government has taken a nationwide population count every ten years. Though never intended for genealogical purposes, the federal censuses are among the most frequently used records for those looking for links with the past. Unique in scope and often surprisingly detailed, the census population schedules created from 1790 to 1930 are among the most used federally created records. Over the course of two centuries, the United States has changed significantly, and so has the census. From the six basic questions asked in the 1790 census, the scope and categories of information have changed and expanded dramatically.
Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution required that an enumeration of the people be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress. In March 1790, after President Washington signed the first census act, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sent a copy of the law to each of the seventeen U.S. marshals and instructed them to appoint as many assistants as they needed to take the census.
From 1790 to 1880, census districts were aligned with existing civil divisions. The district marshals were authorized to subdivide each district into reasonable geographical segments to facilitate supervision of the enumeration. Enumeration districts were limited in size to 10,000 individuals by the Census Act of 1850, but final tallies show that the number was usually less than 6,000. In 1880, the Census Office appointed supervisors to further subdivide the districts. In that year, the average population of each of the 28,000 enumeration districts was less than 2,000.
Early censuses were essentially an enumeration of inhabitants, but as the nation grew, so did the need for statistics that would reflect the characteristics of the people and the conditions under which they were living. The logical means for obtaining a clearer picture of the American populace was to solicit more information about individuals. In 1850, the focus of the census was radically broadened. Going far beyond the vague questions previously asked of heads of households, the 1850 census enumerators were instructed to ask various questions about every individual in the household, including their age, sex, color, occupation, and birthplace, along with several other questions. Succeeding enumerations solicited more information; by 1930, census enumerators asked more than thirty questions of every head of household and almost as many questions of everyone else in the residence. As W. S. Rossiter, chief clerk of the Bureau of the Census around the first part of the twentieth century, stated, “The modern census is thus the result of evolution.”
The Census Bureau
Although the Constitution called for a census every ten years, there was no special government agency to conduct and tabulate the results of this massive survey. Until 1840, federal marshals managed the process as best they could. In 1850, the first Census Office was opened in Washington, D.C. However, it was disbanded after the 1850 census and only reestablished in time to take the census and tally the results in 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, and 1900.
It was not until 1902 that the Bureau of the Census was established as a permanent bureau in the Department of the Interior. In 1903 the bureau was transferred to the Department of Commerce. The Bureau of the Census is responsible for providing statistics about the population and economy of the nation and for collecting, tabulating, and publishing a wide variety of statistical data for government and private users.
Strengths and Limitations of Census Records
Few, if any, records reveal as many details about individuals and families as do the U.S. federal censuses. The population schedules are successive “snapshots” of Americans that depict where and how they were living at particular periods in the past. Census records since 1850 suggest dates and places of birth, relationships, family origins, changes in residence, schooling, occupations, economic and citizenship status, and more.
Once home sources have been exhausted, the census is often the next best starting point for U.S. genealogical research. The availability of statewide indexes for almost every census year makes them logical tools to locate individuals whose precise residence is unknown. While some inaccuracies are to be expected in census records, they still provide some of the most fascinating and useful pieces of personal history to be found in any source. If nothing else, census records are important sources for placing individuals in specific places at specific times. Additionally, information found in the census will often point to other sources critical to completing research, such as court, land, military, immigration, naturalization, and vital records.
The importance of census records does not diminish over time in any given research project. It is always wise to return to these records as discoveries are made in other sources because, as new evidence about individuals is found, some data that seemed unrelated or unimportant in a first look at the census may take on new importance.
When family, vital, or religious records are missing, census records may be the only means of documenting the events of a person’s life. Vital registration did not begin until around 1920 in many areas of the United States, and fires, floods, and other disasters have destroyed some official government records. When other documentation is missing, census records are frequently used by individuals who must prove their age or citizenship status (or that of their parents) for Social Security benefits, insurance, passports, and other important reasons.
Problems Created at the Time the Census Was Taken
When evaluating any source, it is always wise to consider how, when, and under what conditions the record was made. By understanding some of the difficulties encountered by enumerators, it becomes easier to understand why some individuals cannot be found in the census schedules or their indexes.
From the first enumeration in 1790 to the most recent in 2000, the government has experienced difficulties in gathering precise information for a number of reasons. At least one of the problems experienced in extracting information from individuals for the first census continues to vex officials today: there were and still are many people who simply do not trust the government’s motives. Many citizens have worried that their answers to census questions might be used against them, particularly in regards to taxation, military service, and immigration. Some have simply refused to answer enumerators’ questions; others have lied.
In the days before regular mail service, government representatives conducted door-to-door canvasses of their appointed districts. Supervisors subdivided districts using existing local boundaries. The town, township, military district, ward, and precinct most often constituted one or more enumeration districts. Boundaries of towns and other minor civil divisions, and in some cases counties, were ill defined, so enumerators were frequently uncertain whether a family resided in their district or in an adjoining district. For this reason, it is not unusual to find individuals and families listed twice in the census and others missed entirely. Robert C. Anderson, et al., provide excellent examples and an analysis of this rather common problem in “Duplicate Census Enumerations.”
Over the years, state, county, township, and city ward boundaries have changed. Any census search can be thrown off by these changes and inconsistencies. For a thorough discussion of boundaries with detailed maps, see William Thorndale’s and William Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790–1920. The introduction to this useful work includes a discussion of duplication in census records.
For a better sense of how census takers carried out their duties in a given year, it is useful to imagine the landscape and the modes of travel available in the specific time period. In the earliest census years, travel was obviously more difficult and sometimes very dangerous—conditions that did not improve for decades in the more rural states and territories of the “Wild West.”
To complicate the situation further, a large portion of the young nation’s population lived in small villages and isolated farms that were dispersed over a large area. It was not uncommon for a census enumerator to make a long trip to a remote farm, only to find no one at home. In these instances, he was left to make a decision—whether to try again on another day, or question farm or household help, neighbors, or even young children. The latter appears to have been an option taken by many. In some situations, enumerators probably found it easier to just guess.
Problems with Accuracy
But obtaining answers directly from the head of household or an adult in the house was no guarantee of accuracy either. For a number of reasons, ages are always suspect in census records. Many people tend to be secretive about their age; women may have been particularly sensitive about revealing the truth. One woman tracked in the census taken in New York from 1850 to 1880 claimed to have aged only twelve years in the thirty-year period. According to the 1850 and 1860 censuses of Springfield, Illinois, Mary, wife of Abraham Lincoln, aged only seven years in the ten-year period (see the accompanying image). She, or someone reporting for her, claimed that she was twenty-eight in 1850 and only thirty-five in 1860. Dozens of cases have been similarly noted; undoubtedly, some honestly could not remember how old they were. If a person’s age was not exactly known, it was frequently rounded off to the closest decade, making ages reported as thirty, forty, fifty, and so on somewhat suspect. Therefore, unless an age reported in the census can be corroborated with another source, it should not be considered totally reliable.
When questions were answered by someone other than the subject of the inquiry, the likelihood of error increased. A husband or wife might not always know the birthplaces of a spouse’s parents. A child being quizzed might easily be unsure of the birthplaces of his or her parents. Census schedules do not tell us who answered the enumerator’s questions.
An important point to remember is that enumerators simply wrote down the responses given to them. They were not authorized to request any kind of proof, such as birth, marriage, or property ownership records. However, every individual contacted by a government representative was required by law to answer truthfully. Anyone refusing to answer or willfully providing false information was guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine. As early as 1790, offenders were fined twenty dollars, which was split between the marshals’ assistants and the government. But relatively few individuals were hauled into court for refusing to answer or for not answering truthfully. It would have been an impossible task for the government to follow through and to investigate everyone’s answers.
It was not until 1830 that the census office supplied printed questionnaires or “schedules.” The enumerators of the 1790, 1800, 1810, and 1820 censuses returned the results of their canvassing on whatever paper they had. Each also had to post copies of their censuses in two public places in their assigned areas. Presumably, people who could read would see discrepancies or omissions and call them to the attention of officials. Unfortunately few, if any, of these duplicates have survived.
Competency of Enumerators
Another factor that comes into play in the accuracy of every census record is the competency of the enumerator who recorded the information. Individuals were not necessarily well-educated or qualified for the job, and anyone who has studied census records knows that good penmanship was not a requirement. Census takers were political appointees who were frequently chosen because they were of the correct political affiliation in a particular time and place, or just knew the right people.
Wages were definitely not an incentive for would-be census takers. In 1790, even the highest pay rate, one dollar for fifty persons, barely covered an enumerator’s expenses. In 1920, payment was on a per-capita or per-diem basis—sometimes a combination of the two. An enumerator was paid between one and four cents per person, depending on the urban or rural setting of the district to be counted.
The United States has always been home to a large number of immigrants, and those who did not speak English well presented still another problem for the census taker. Often, enumerators could hardly understand the information given to them by people with foreign accents. Names were frequently misunderstood and misspelled by enumerators, to the extent that many do not even begin with the correct letters, making them hard to find in census schedules and almost impossible to find in indexes. The German name Pfeiffer could easily be heard and committed to paper as Fifer, for example. An Irish census taker in Cleveland recorded the Polish name Menkalski as McKalsky in the 1920 census. Places of birth may have been equally difficult to translate into English.
Whether recording information from a foreign-born or American-born individual, some enumerators took the quickest way to get the job done. Some used initials rather than given names, some used nicknames, and some omitted places of birth, value of real estate, occupations, and other details. In boarding houses, hotels, and clusters of workers’ cottages, enumerators could easily overlook entire families.
Instructions for Enumeration
While enumerators were given basic instructions as early as 1820, it was not until 1850 that the Census Office printed uniform instructions for the enumerators, explaining their responsibilities, procedures, the specifics of completing the schedules, and the intent of each question asked. In 1850, the Census Office also provided enumerators with a large portfolio to accommodate the oversize forms (which measured twelve by eighteen inches), pens, a portable inkstand, ink, and blotting paper. Enumerators were instructed not to fold the pages and not to allow anyone to “meddle with [their] papers.” Pages were numbered consecutively as they were completed. Each page was dated on the day it was begun, even if it was not completed until another day. Every page included room for the enumerator’s signature, the name of the civil division, the county, the state and, after 1870, the local post office.
According to the 1850 census instructions, the enumerator, on completing the entry for each family, farm, or shop, was to read the information back to the person interrogated so that errors could be corrected immediately. But if an informant was unclear or incorrect in giving information in the first place, this procedure did little to correct errors. A significant portion of the American population could not read or write in the nineteenth century, so if an enumerator misspelled the family surname it could easily have stayed that way, whether or not the enumerator repeated it.
As the enumeration of each sub district was completed, the enumerator was to make two copies, which were to be carefully compared to the original for accuracy. Hand copying, of course, frequently produces mistakes. Experience with the various copies of the census shows that most copies were not error free. It was cumbersome and tedious to copy names and endless columns of personal information. Most enumerators probably never thought their copies would be read again once the statistical tabulations were completed, so it is easy to believe that many became careless as the job wore on.
As the process was completed, the enumerator was to sign each page of the census, and at the end of each set of copies, to certify that the census had been taken and copied according to instructions. One set was to be filed with the clerk of the county court, and the other two were to be forwarded to the supervisor. As the supervisor received the completed schedules, it was his or her duty to see that every part of the district had been visited and that the copies were in good order. One set was then sent to the state or territory, and the other was forwarded to the U.S. Census Office for statistical analysis. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to distinguish the original census taken by the enumerator—the one likely to be most accurate—from the copies. While it is usually not possible to know if the original census or a copy was sent, it is relatively easy to recognize the census that was sent to the Census Office. “Researchers can distinguish the latter set from the other two because the Census Office made tabulations directly on the schedules; consequently, the central office copy bears pencil, crayon, and red ink markings on virtually every page.”
In 1880, the procedure of making three sets of returns was abandoned. Enumerators forwarded the originals to the Census Office and did not make copies. In an attempt to correct errors, however, the Census Act of 1880 called for “public exhibition of the population returns,” and for this purpose it authorized enumerators to make a document listing the name, age, sex, and color of each person enumerated in the district to be filed with the clerk of the county court. If any of these lists have survived, they will be found at the county level.
Labels of Households
In most enumerations, census takers were instructed to number each dwelling consecutively in the order of visit, though it was not always clear how these instructions were changed or interpreted from year to year. It should be emphasized that there was no connection between the household numbers (usually the number listed in the first column to the left of the census page) and the locality or address.
Census instructions defined a dwelling as any structure in which a person was living, including a room above a store, a warehouse, a factory, or a wigwam on the outskirts of a settlement. Institutions, such as hospitals, orphanages, poorhouses, garrisons, asylums, and jails, were counted as single-dwelling houses. It was not until the 1880 census that the character and name of the institution were required to be written in the margin. The 1880 census was also the first to include street addresses in cities.
In most years, census instructions stated that all persons temporarily absent on a journey or visit should be counted with the rest of their family in their usual abode. However, children away at school and living near the school or college should be enumerated with that family or institution. “Seafaring men,” if they were believed to be still alive, were reported at their homes on land, no matter how long their absence. As such, sailors residing in boarding houses were not to be counted at that location. Expressmen, canalmen, railroad employees, and others engaged in transportation were enumerated with their families, if they returned to their homes at regular intervals.
Census instructions were quite specific as to how enumerators were to map out and proceed through their assigned areas so that no one would be missed. The 1920 instructions, for example, stated
"68. Method of canvassing a city block—If your district is in a city or town having a system of house numbers canvass one block or square at a time. Do not go back and forth across the street. Begin each block at one corner, keep to the right, turn the corner, and go in and out of any court, alley, or passageway that may be included in it until the point of starting is reached. Be sure you have gone around and through the entire block before you leave it.
"69. The arrows in the following diagram indicate the manner in which a block containing an interior court or place is to be canvassed:Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States. January 1, 1920: Instructions to Enumerators (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1919)."
- Carmen R. Delle Donne, Federal Census Schedules, 1850–80: Primary Sources for Historical Research (Reference Information Paper 67, 1973) is filled with interesting details on why and how the census was taken, 1850 to 1880.
- U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. A Century of Population Growth from the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth, 1790–1900 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1967). This resource includes much information about the 1790 census and a list of common surnames and their distribution in the states.
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988).
- Delle Donne, Federal Census Schedules.
- Robert C. Anderson, et al., provide excellent examples and an analysis of this rather common problem in “Duplicate Census Enumerations,” American Genealogist 62 (April 1987): 97–105; 62 (July 1987): 173–81; 62 (October 1987): 241–44.
- William Thorndale and William Dollarhide, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790–1920 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987).
- Ibid., xxi.