Genealogy 101: Census Records

1930 Census Milwaukee - National Archives.png

Once you start using digital tools to look for historical information on your family, one of the first resources you'll likely come across will be census records. These records can be extremely useful for identifying where family members lived, who they lived with, what they did for work, when they were born/married, and narrowing down when they might have died—just to name a few details!

Background

The word census comes from the Latin censere, which means “to assess” (Merriam-Webster.com). In the U.S., the federal census is collected decennially, or every ten years, as dictated by Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Census records from 1790 to 1940 are currently available to the public, but be aware that the 1890 Census was largely destroyed in a fire. 

Accessing the Census

Presently, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) doesn't provide online access to the census records, but you can visit its headquarters in Washington, D.C. to view them in person. If a trip to D.C. isn’t possible anytime soon, you can view records online through paid platforms like Ancestry.com or free sites like FamilySearch.org. Be aware that some public libraries offer free subscriptions to Ancestry, too.

To protect the privacy of individuals, the government releases census records to the public following the “72-Year Rule,” or 72 years after the census was taken. At the time this post was written, the next census record scheduled to be released is the 1950 Census, which will be publicly accessible in April 2022—I’m not sure about you, but I can’t wait!

Prior to public release, individuals can access specific records that pertain to themselves (for instance, I can request an official transcript of my details on the 2010 Census) or if they are someone’s heir or legal representative.

What to Look For

Once you’ve found the particular census record you’re looking for, keep your eyes out for the following information, available on many censuses:

  • Name, Age/Year of Birth, Sex, Race

  • Occupation

  • Property Ownership

  • Place of Birth, Parents’ Place of Birth, Immigration Status

Census records from 1790 to 1840 only list the name of the head of household, along with numbers of how many people of each sex and age group were living in the house. Beginning in 1850, the records start listing the names and other details about each member of the household.

Keep in mind that census records can contain many errors, from misspellings of names to outright lies about marital status or birth year. Inaccuracies occur from both human error and efforts to protect family "secrets" such as a child born out of wedlock. 

Tips and Tricks

  • Even if you’ve already found your family’s residence on a record, I recommend scanning the rest of the names on the page. Families were often neighbors and I have found aunts, uncles, and in-laws listed a few rows down from my immediate relatives. Keep your eyes peeled!

  • I always like to check the pages immediately before and after the record I’ve found. If your family members are listed at the top or bottom of the page, it’s possible that there could be a continuation onto a page that isn’t indicated in the index.

  • If you’re looking at the 1940 Census, check out the bottom of the record page, where census collectors include additional information (responses to “supplementary questions”) on select individuals on a page. This doesn’t happen often, but I have had one or two census records in my research that have highlighted one of my family members and provided extra details on them.

Happy hunting! What is the most interesting piece of family history you've ever gotten from a census record?