Sunday, July 08, 2007

1880 and all that

Back to the census records, or more precisely, the U.S. Federal Population Census records. Now that we can bring up the filmed images on our computers so easily, it helps to take a fresh look and be sure we know what we can expect to glean from them.

In previous blog entries I have written about the censuses taken from 1790 through 1870. Now it's time to take a look at the best-known one, compiled in 1880. According to William Dollarhide, in The Census Book, the US population that year was over 50 million, in 38 states and 10 territories – a far cry from the earliest census year, when just under 4 million residents lived in 14 states (the original colonies plus newborn Vermont).

Administrative changes improved the quantity and quality of information gathered in 1880, for which we genealogists may be truly thankful. For the first time, the relationship to the head of household was given for each person in that household. It does save a lot of guessing! An individual with a different surname may be listed as an in-law, thus providing the probable birth name of the wife. Older children with a different surname may be from the mother's previous marriage, even if they are listed as children rather than stepchildren of the head. Birthplaces of each person's parents are also listed – a useful clue (though occasionally incorrect). For the first time the street name and number are supposed to be recorded for each household in cities and towns, which adds a bit of history.

An aside: has long had a very user-friendly every-name index to the 1880 census, with much detail. It is tempting to look at that, perhaps print it out, and consider the job done. But it is always useful to study the actual image of the page – there may be additional gems of information lurking!

After the wealth of detail found in the 1880 census, we come to a black hole. More than 99 percent of the 1890 census was destroyed as a result of fire in 1921. All that remains are tiny fragments of the original and a portion of a special schedule of Union veterans and their widows.. Unless you are very lucky, your census searches will be blocked between 1880 and 1900, quite long enough for young women to have been born and married, thus changing their surnames. does have the fragments of the population schedule, but not the special listing of the Union veterans and widows (last time I looked).

Three states and two territories did take censuses in 1885, with federal assistance: Colorado, Dakota Territory, Florida, Nebraska and New Mexico Territory. has these, and they can help fill in some gaps.

Another special set of records which may be use are the "mortality schedules," taken at the same time as the population census for 1850 through 1880. They list the names of persons who died within twelve months before the official census day. All list the name, age, marital status, and cause of death, and some list the page and family numbers from the population schedules, which enables the researcher to trace the deceased back to his/her family.

Again, I am only touching on the highlights of all these extremely useful records, but, even so, will have to defer discussion of the post-1880 population schedules for another time. Happy hunting!

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