Monday, December 08, 2014

The Census Taker is Your Friend

Plowing through various census records to help me locate ever more relatives, I am reminded once again of how useful they can be.

But reading the column designations at the top of the page, even on a large computer screen, can be difficult, and it is easy to forget that certain questions were asked at different times.

The 1850 census stands out, of course, because it was the first one to list the name of every person in the household. It gives age, sex, color, birthplace, occupation, and more.  It does NOT, however, show relationships, so we cannot simply assume the oldest male and female were husband and wife.

In fact it was not until the 1880 census that relationships were listed, so always look there for confirmation. This census also showed, for the first time, the birthplaces of everyone’s parents (as reported by someone in the household).

As a beginner, I didn’t pay much attention to the other questions that were asked at various times. But when I got stuck trying to find descendants of a particular cousin, I realized the 1900 and 1910 census listed how many children the married females had, and how many were still living at the time.  

Both these years had other nuggets of information as well. In 1900, the exact month and year of birth was asked for each person. If married, the number of years married was listed. In 1910 and again in 1930 and 1930, the males were asked whether they were veterans. Also in 1930, age at first marriage is recorded, rather than number of years married. Be sure to get that right!

Immigration year and naturalization are noted from 1900 to 1930.

Everyone was pretty excited when the 1940 census came out, and it does have a lot of information, such as each individual’s residence in 1935.  But, with the exception of the two persons singled out on each page to provide more detail, birthplaces of parents are omitted.

And don’t give up on the pre-1850 censuses just because they offer so much less information.  Heads of household are listed by name, with age ranges and gender given for others.  From the broadest categories in 1790 (two ages ranges for males, none for females), to the decade-specific ranges for both sexes in 1840, there are clues to be derived. Also, in 1840, there is a separate listing for Revolutionary War pensioners.

The subject of census records for genealogists could fill a book, and in fact it has. The one I use is The Census Book : a Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules and Indexes, written by William Dollarhide. Published by Heritage Quest in 1999, It does not, of course, have a rundown on the 1940 census, which was just released for public use in 2012,  but there are plenty of online sources for that data.

For a complete rundown on the contents of each census year’s questionnaire, go to and enter “US census” in the search box.  Look on Cyndi’s List ( for downloadable forms.

A whole lot of clues here, but we have to remember, the veracity of the answers depends on both the skill (and penmanship!) of the census taker and the knowledge/truthfulness of the informant (marked with an x in 1940, but not indicated in earlier records).

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