Your Guide To Census Records & Genealogy Work

Finding Information on historical census data

What Is A Census?

A census is a process of methodically computing, accumulating, and documenting data on the constituents of a given population. Census records assist you in charting the evolution of your family over time and provide details about your ancestry that you can’t get anywhere else.

How Often Is The Census?

Since 1790, the United States has conducted a population census on a specific day every ten years, as stated under the Constitution’s Article I, Section 2. 

US census data is not made available until 72 years after it was collected because of privacy regulations. In 2022, the general public has access to the 1940 and 1950 census reports.

How To Use Census Records For Family History

Federal census data should be one of the first sources you review when looking for information on relatives who resided in the United States. Here’s how to create a family tree using data from the US census.

1. Know Your Timelines

Make sure you’re organized offline before starting any census searches. Set up timelines and categorize the information you already have as well as the information you want to acquire from the census records. It’s crucial to have your timelines in front of you to avoid unintentionally searching for the incorrect census.

For instance, if you are aware that your great-grandfather was born in 1900, it’s possible that he would be listed in the 1940 census as he would have been approximately 40 years old at the time. However, suppose your ancestor was born in 1945. In that case, they won’t probably be found in the 1940 census.

2. Work Your Way Backwards

The most efficient way to trace your ancestors is to go backward. This prevents you from researching the wrong ancestors and accidentally moving up the wrong family tree. 

In light of this, you might want to start with the 1950 census, then go a bit farther back. Once you’re better acquainted with your closest ancestors, trace your family back through earlier censuses.

3. Check Every Census

Finding and examining each census record where a specific person was included is essential since different census records for the same individual may provide different information.

4. Discover Name Entry Variations

When you explore census records, you can identify relatives who were known by different first or middle names, nicknames, or initials at various times. Most archival records have multiple transcript errors, and some of the handwriting can be hard to read – this results in misspellings in different entries.

Search engines and genealogy websites may have records under these name variations, broadening your search.

5. Follow Up On Leads

When you find dates and locations of birth, marriage, and death in census data, locate copies of the matching county or state records for extra information. 

If the census shows a N/A in the nationality column, it means the individual was likely naturalized. You can use this information to look for naturalization documents and citizenship credentials.

If the census reveals an immigration year or military service, check traveler lists and compilations of service and pension files, respectively.

6. Search Neighborhood Entries

If you’re struggling to find your ancestors, browse census records for their neighbors’ families and the general neighborhood. This can help you learn more about your ancestors’ residences, jobs, and businesses. You might also discover neighboring relatives or kin whose names are listed on birth, marriage, and death (BMD) certificates.

What Can Be Found In A Census?

A census of the population collects information on essential population characteristics, including:

  • First and last names
  • Sex
  • Marital status
  • Occupation
  • Nationality
  • Household composition
  • Family characteristics
  • Household size
  • Disability

What Are Special Census Records?

Special census records are data used to identify and quantify different assets, resources, and needs. Below are some of the most useful in genealogy work.

1. Agricultural Schedules (1840-1940)

The agricultural schedules provide the names of the farmers as well as information about their operations, such as 

  • Farm location
  • Land valuation
  • Animal inventory
  • Cost of farming equipment

This information is vital if your ancestors were farmers back then.

2. Industry Schedules (1850-1880)

Manufacturing schedules from 1820, 1850, and 1860 include the following details for each industry farm:

  • Brand of the product
  • Business or product type
  • Quantities, types, and values of the raw materials utilized
  • Quantities and values of the products produced each year

If your family owns a large-scale business, this information can help you trace your roots more easily.

3. Mortality Schedules (1850-1885)

Mortality schedules provide a list of every person who passed away before the 1850 and 1880 federal censuses. If you discover that your ancestors died before this period, it would be a great place to start your search.

What Are The Advantages Of Using Census Records?

Census records are a valuable resource for genealogy research for many reasons, including the following:

  • Census data can provide all the details about your family, including family members’ names and ages, affiliations, and the area where they resided on a specific date.
  • If no other records are available, a census record may be the only evidence of a person’s life.
  • A census could help you discover missing or new family members, deepening your ancestry.
  • 90% of Americans are included in census records, so there is a good chance you will find the person you’re looking for there.
  • Censuses are easily accessible, indexed, and typically easy to search through. Several different websites provide access to census data.

What Are The Drawbacks Of Using Census Records?

Even though census data helps you to find your family roots, there are some disadvantages and challenges that come with working with it:

  • Census records are prone to misinformation due to incorrect reporting, typos, and other human errors.
  • Misspelled or miscategorized information can mislead you in your search.
  • Census data can be inaccurate because of how it was gathered. For example, if some family members were absent on census night, the enumerator could have marked them absent or counted them twice if they were at another location.
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