Thursday, June 07, 2007

Counting noses

The ease of pursuing family history has certainly improved in the last few years. Computers and the Internet are increasing the amount of information we have at our fingertips and the means we have of analyzing and storing it all.

A case in point is that mainstay of American genealogical research, the U.S. Federal Population Census, more often simply referred to as "the census."

It used to be one consulted whatever printed indexes were available, usually at some far-away library, made note of the likely-looking references, then sent for the microfilm and spent hours looking at it, then writing out the findings. I still have pages and pages of these handwritten notes, some as difficult to read as the original images! (And often missing some data because I didn't realize its importance at the time.)

Now, from home, we can go to the local public library's website, enter our library card number, and gain access to full indexes and images of 11 of the censuses, partial index to one (1930), and browse four others – all offered by Heritage Quest through the local library system's subscription. has even more census records, recently made available in-house at local libraries. [Since they were indexed separately, it is wise to consult both sources.]

With this abundance – almost an overabundance – of data at our beck and call, we might do well to revisit the unique features of these decennial records and make sure we squeezing every bit of information out of them. I find myself going back time and again, to check on one more piece of data from a census page, in order to enlarge my picture of an ancestor or relative, or to provide a possible clue for additional research.

A reminder before I continue: census records were done on a county-by-county basis, and over time boundaries changed, new counties (and states) were created and, in some cases, early county designations were abandoned or revised. Be sure you are looking in the right place for that ancestor! I find William Dollarhide's Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 extremely useful for confirming county boundaries at the time of each census enumeration. Another good source is Everton's Handybook, which has current state maps with counties, but also gives dates and details of various jurisdictional changes that have occurred over time.

The Constitution decreed that a count of the population be taken beginning in 1790. There were various means of counting (or excluding) certain residents, which we all remember from our school civic classes (don't we?), but for the most part, free heads of households were named and they and their family members sorted by gender into broad age ranges. The lists up through 1840 are certainly not as fact-filled as later records, but should not be ignored. They give a picture of the family size, the number of males and females, and a general idea of their ages, which can be narrowed down by studying a series of census years. Sometimes the presence of an older relative can be inferred as well.

Because the counts were taken by census takers usually (but not always) proceeding from one dwelling to the next, friends and relatives may be found clustered together. The presence of individuals with differing surnames but in close proximity may indicate a married daughter remaining near her parents' or brother's home.

A quirk which misleads some genealogists at first was the practice, in 1820, of counting free white males in overlapping categories: ages 16-18, and 16-26. It is important to make note of this – if only one person is indicated in each of these boxes, it is the same person. Don't count him twice.

There are numerous other details about these early census records, too many to recount here. For more information, I recommend another book by Dollarhide: The Census Book. He discusses each count in detail, with notes on availability, and gives some intriguing background.

Next time I'll write about the later census years – the ones that record all those helpful extra details, like names of all persons in the household, their ages, place of birth, occupations and relationships.

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