02 May 2017

How to Squeeze Everything Out of the Census

You may be overlooking critical, helpful census information.

If you're not wringing every last drop of data out of your ancestor's census sheet, you may be missing important pieces of your genealogy puzzle.

The U.S. has had a nationwide census every ten years since 1790. Very little survives of the 1890 census due to a fire, and the newest publicly available census is from 1940. There are also some states (like my own New York) with their own census in years ending in a five.

Focusing on the national censuses, the form and the information gathered changed each year. It's helpful to download blank census forms to more clearly see the column headings.

Are you grabbing every piece of information?

The census format changes every time. Don't miss any important facts.
The census format changes every time. Don't miss any important facts.

Take a look at how the format varies over the years:
  • 1790 recorded only the head of family's name. Family members were tallied in columns of free white men 16 and up or under 16, free white women of any age, and slaves.
  • 1800 and 1810 also named only the head of family. Other members of the household were tallied and broken down into males and females in five age groups. And slaves.
  • 1820 added a few more columns to capture foreigners not naturalized, manufacturers, free colored people and slaves.
  • 1830 added even more age ranges.
  • 1840 added columns for people working in seven different professions, for military pensioners, for those labelled deaf and dumb, blind and insane (white and colored persons separately), and for those attending different types of schools.
  • 1850 Behold! We finally get to see the name of every person in the household, their color (white, black or mulatto), profession, place of birth, and if they were married or attended school within the year. The form also captured those over 20 who could not read and write, as well as those who were "deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict." Oh boy.
  • 1860 no longer cared about the deaf, dumb and blind, but did care who was illiterate.
  • 1870 More good news! This year added each person's birthplace, whether they had a foreign-born mother or father, and if they were eligible to vote.
  • 1880 added "Relationship to head of household" and the place of birth of everyone's parents.
  • 1890 was almost entirely lost, and it's heartbreaking to see all that was added. In denoting a person's race/color, it asked for two races I never heard of. It asked for marital status and whether you were married in the previous year, how many children a woman has had and how many were alive. It asked if you were born in the U.S., were naturalized or had declared your intention to become a citizen. It asked separately if you could read and if you could write, and which language you spoke. It asked about disease, afflictions, and whether you were a "prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper." Homeless child? They enumerated homeless children?
  • 1900 added the street name and house number, number of years married, years of immigration and how long in the U.S., number of months unemployed, and if you owned or rented your home.
  • 1910 included a column for Veteran of Civil War.
  • 1920 got a bit intrusive. If you own your home, do you have a mortgage? And what is the mother tongue of your mother and father?
  • 1930 was when the government got pushier. What is the value of your home or how much do you pay in rent? Do you own a radio? What was your age at first marriage? The form went into lots of occupation detail, asking your industry, whether you were unemployed or a veteran and of which war.
  • 1940 added the highest grade of school completed, where you lived in 1935, whether you worked or were seeking work, and how much you earned.

Have you been documenting all of those facts, or was this an eye-opener for you?

Why not revisit some of those census forms to see what else you can discover?

Finally, take the time to look at a page or two before and after the one containing your ancestor. You may very well find other relatives living nearby.

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