Census Research


The idea for taking a census of the population is not an American innovation. In ancient Babylon, a census of the population was taken to determine how much could be collected in taxes and who was required to pay the taxes.

We read in the New Testament that the Roman emperor, during the reign of Quirinius in Syria, called for a census to be taken from “all the known world.” This census actually took place, but unlike our American census that takes only a few months to enumerate, the Roman censuses would taken about twelve years.

Medieval kings and lords too censuses of their kingdoms and fiefdoms to determine who could serve in their army, who had to pay taxes, and sometimes even to see what the needs of the citizens were.

Censuses have been taken since the beginning of the 19th century in most areas of Europe. Other census records can be found scattered throughout history, particularly in England.

Churches take censuses periodically. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) has taken censuses of its members to see where they live, how large their families are, and what occupations they are employed in. Roman Catholic parishes taken censuses—in the form of head-counts—in their individual parish churches to determine if another priest needs to be assigned to the parish or if a school is necessary in that area.

When you join an organization and they periodically ask for updates to your contact information, they may ask you things like, “do you own a computer”? or “do you have access to the internet”? or “do you own a car”? These questions are mini-censuses and they have been taken for centuries. Finding these organizational censuses can be helpful to obtain some information not covered in government censuses.

The United States Constitution mandates a decennial census be taken of the population of the nation every ten years. The reason for this census is not genealogical or historical in nature, though both genealogists and historians, as well as other disciplines, use the census. The census is taken to determine apportionment according to population for the House of Representatives. Since the 1960s, the House membership has been capped at 425 men and women, so the census now takes on a corollary purpose of determining where these 425 persons are apportioned within the 50 states. State governments use the census to apportion for their own state legislatures.

During Census 2000, many people complained that the questions were intrusive. In some respects this seems to be true. But the Census Bureau runs completely on the sale of statistics garnered from census returns. And, most important for genealogists, a census can never ask too many questions. Think what your descendants will find in 70 years when they read your Census 2000 questionnaire.


But the census has other uses, as well. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses the census figures to determine which communities within which states are eligible for block grants for poverty housing assistance. The federal Department of Education uses the census data to make block grants to schools and to states with high percentages of children or high percentages of at-risk children. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) looks at census returns to find out where veterans are living. If a large group of veterans is living in an area which is not served by a veterans hospital, for example, the VA will seek ways of providing medical service to veterans of that area or building a new VA hospital in that area.

Other government agencies use the census. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) uses census records to determine if more space is needed at one of its regional archival depositories—more people means more governmental records will be created for that area. A hypothetical use of census returns may be when a community is shown to consist of a high number of Spanish-speaking persons, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) may use federal block grant funds to encourage bi-lingual directions on prescription drugs.

Businesses also use the census. If a large number of affluent people have moved into a specific area, real estate developers and realtors may market these people for new homes or office buildings. Lending institutions use census data to find areas with low property values to market home equity loans. Banks use census returns to determine if they need to start a branch bank in a community or to target people who may easily qualify for loans. Businesses can purchase from the Bureau of the Census the records for a specific community to determine where to build a daycare facility or recreational center for minority youth. Bar and nightclub owners have opened businesses in certain areas because of an unusually large number of college-age or young adult-aged persons.

Charities and not-for-profit organizations use census data to determine where to donate needed monies.

The uses for census data are various. But one thing is important to keep in mind—your census answers are kept private and are used for statistical purposes. People buy the statistics not the individual answers.


Most census records (and there are exceptions) will contain a person’s name, their age, and the value of their property. Depending on the census year and the location (nation) of the census, the census takers may have wanted to record more information. Other common census questions are a person’s occupation, education (reading and writing), and place of birth. The place of birth may ask for the general location or for city, state, province, or nation.

United States census records have varied over time. There were only seven questions asked of persons in the 1790 census. The 1800 and 1810 census asked fewer questions, only those persons besides Indians who were taxable. The federal government was only concerned with population for Congressional apportionment and tax purposes.

The 1820 census was the first census that looked at non-naturalized persons, in other words it counted persons who were not citizens of the U.S., foreigners. An increased immigration rate prompted the need to know how many people living in the U.S. were not citizens. The 1830 census asked about blind and deaf persons. The 1840 census asked how many persons counted were veterans (Revolution, Barbary Wars, Indians Wars, and War of 1812). This census also counted students, as educational concerns were becoming important platform planks for politicians and bureaucrats; also, the populace in the North was becoming concerned with education at this time.

The 1790 to 1840 census records only record the name of the head of household, which was almost always a man. If a couple lived in a house, the man was the head of household.

The 1850 census was the first census that asked the name of each person living in the household, including all non-family members. This census also asked, for the first time, the age, sex, color (white, black or mulatto), and occupation of each person in the household. Note: in this census you were white, black, or mulatto. Indians were mulatto, Arabs were mulatto, if you had dark skin you were mulatto. The 1850 census also asked if the person was married within the year, whether they could read and write, whether they were: deaf-mute, blind, insane, an idiot (mentally disabled), a pauper, or a convict. A separate slave schedule was included as a part of the 1850 census. The 1850 census was the first taken in California and shows a very detailed migration to California during the gold rush of 1849. Many lost relatives can be found working the gold streams and gold mines in this census.

The 1860 census is important because it tells about life right before the Civil War. The census was again broken up between population and slave schedules, the latter not containing the name of the slave. The 1860 census questions were the same as that of the 1850 census. A slaves name was not recorded in the slave schedule.

The 1870 census added questions on: the month born if less than 1 year old, month married if married within the census year (1870). This census is important to genealogists because it gives information about persons after the Civil War. Used in conjunction with the 1860 census, the two can tell a researcher a lot about a family. Former slaves were enumerated as free persons in this census. Looking for white families with the same last name as the former slaves in the same geographical area may lead back to the 1850 census slave schedule to find the slave enumerated with their owner(s).

The 1880 census added to the two previous census questions by asking if the person was white, black, mulatto, or Indian or Chinese. This was the time of our nation’s history when Chinese immigrants worked on the railroad and lived in many different states at the time of the census. For genealogists studying their Chinese ancestry, this census be valuable to discover where their ancestor was working and for whom when the census was taken. The 1880 census also asked the person’s name in relation to the head of household, their number of months employed at their occupation, their father’s birthplace, their mother’s birthplace, how many days they had attended school in the past year, and whether they were sick or disabled on the day the census was taken.

The 1890 census was lost in a fire in Washington, D.C. in 1921 and less than one percent of the records survived. They are contained on three rolls of microfilm. If you ancestors lived in Cincinnati at this time, you are one of the lucky ones!

In the 1900 census, each household is a sheet that gives the address of the home if the house was in an incorporated area. This census made age determination easier by asking the month and year of birth and their age at their last birthday, the number of years married and for married women it asked the number of children born and how many were still living. For an immigrant, the census asked the year of immigration to the U.S., the number of years in the U.S., whether they were still an alien or not (i.e., not naturalized), whether the residence was a farm or not, and whether the occupant was a homeowner.

The 1910 census was much like the 1900, but some questions were added: If the person was born in another country, there was a question asking for their “mother tongue.” The census takers asked if the person could speak English, whether their home was mortgage free, and whether anyone in the household was a survivor of the Union or Confederate army or navy.

The 1920 census asked the same questions as the 1910, but it also asked the father’s “mother tongue” and the mother’s “mother tongue.”

The 1930 census was taken at the beginning of the Great Depression is a good social gauge of a household at this time. New questions asked included what the value of the family home was if owned or what the monthly rental payment was and whether the family owned a radio. Race was enumerated as white (W), Negro (N), Mexican (M), Indian (In), Chinese (Ch), Japanese (Jp), Filipino (Fil), Hindu (Hin), Korean (Kor), or other race spelled out in full. Also asked in regard to race/nationality was whether the person was full- or mixed-blood and, if applicable, what tribe they belonged to. Also asked were veteran’s status and what war—World War I (WW), Spanish-American War (Sp), Civil War (CW), Philippine Insurrection (Phil), Boxer Rebellion (Box), or the Mexican border conflict of 1916-17 (Mex).


Make sure you record:

The year of the census.

Microfilm number and roll number or CD or url of the website.

State and county.

Page number (both the census taker’s page and the stamped number)

House number and the family number Enumeration District (ED) for the 1880 census onward.

Recording the above information for EVERY census you look at will help you if you need to look back at the information. If you know there is an error in the data, record it as you find it. Sometimes the errors are more revealing than the actual information. Make sure to list every person enumerated in the household—children in the household are almost always related to the head of household in some way, maybe not discoverable until later.

REMEMBER!!! Children in a household are almost always related to the head of household.

Don’t be concerned about age discrepancies. Sometimes the person giving the information was a neighbor or, more than likely, a teenager, who may not have exactly known the birth date or age. These things will even out as you look at more census records for these persons. Record the neighbors enumerated before and after the family you are looking at. There is a good chance, especially in rural areas, that the families were related. This can also help you locate them in future census records, as groups of families often migrated. Examples of this are the great Old Northwest migration in the 1790-1820 era and the migration to California after the gold rush of 1849. Copy all of the information in every column on the census page. Some fields may seem to be useless now, but as your study of this family increases, these can give you a clue about the family and help you find other records.


Census enumerators were often the only person in the county who could read and write. They were “drafted” for duty, paid very little money and oftentimes no expenses, and sometimes did not like their jobs. They cut corners when necessary and may have filled in information instead of asking all of the questions.

Women died in childbirth often in the nineteenth century. The wife listed in the family may not be the mother of all of the children.

Not all persons in the censuses of 1790 to 1840 are related. Farmhands are often enumerated with a family. If a person was listed in a census, that means he/she was alive on the census date. Oftentimes, the enumerator did not visit a family until months later.

If a person was alive on the census date, he/she may not have been on the date the enumerator visited.

If a person was over age 50, they often moved in with one of their children. Don’t assume that such a person is dead until you check all the childrens’ households and any “old folks homes” in the area.

For common last names, the person you find may not be the one you are looking for. If you are looking for a “William Hall” in Cocke County, Tennessee, for instance, in any census from 1810 through 1920, you will find no less than three men having that same name who were heads of households, not including their sons and grandsons who were also named “William Hall.” Not all of these men are related, by the way.

Nicknames are often given to persons that have no association with their given name. Most men nicknamed “Billy” are named “William.” However, the nickname could refer to a middle name, a baptismal name, or have no association at all.

If a person is found in the 1850 census and you find a person with the same first and last name as a head of household in the 1840 census in the same county, do not assume they are the same person.

Don’t assume that all the children are listed for a family. Remember, only children born before the census date were enumerated. Also, many children died in infancy, so they would not be listed either.

Don’t believe the property value listed on the census. Census takers often rounded up or down to the nearest one hundred dollars.

People lie, especially about their worth.


The 1900 and 1920 censuses have been index by a method called SOUNDEX. The 1910 census has been indexed for 28 states. These are microfilmed by NARA.

The SOUNDEX can be useful when finding a family with a name that could have been misspelled. Also, some names are so similar in spelling that a census taker’s mistake could have spelled the name wrong. For instance, a person with the last name of “Jameson” may have been enumerated as “Jamison” or “Jamesson” or “James.” All of these names can be found in the federal SOUNDEX as J520. To find your SOUNDEX code, use the following method:

Use he first letter of your last name and write it down.

Find the next consonant of your last name in the table below and write that down.

Find the next consonant in the table and write that down.

Find the next consonant and write that down.

If you don’t have enough consonants, then use zeros.

If an H or W is the consonant, ignore them.













Find the SOUNDEX codes for the following names.










Translate the following line 18 and 19 for this census record. What census record is this record from?

Census Forms can be downloaded from: http://www.freegenealogylookups.com/census_rolls.htm