​​​Genealogy Detective


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Sharron Mirikitani

What are Census Records?
Census records give valuable information about your ancestors including: names of family members, residence, year and sometimes month of birth, birthplace (state), and occupation. Some censuses reveal even the parents' birthplace (state). Finding ancestors in all the available censuses during their lifetimes is an important step to building a more complete picture of their lives. It greatly enhances a researchers ability to identify likely sources other kinds of information.

The first U.S. federal census was in 1790, followed by a new census every ten years. The censuses through 1940 are available to the public. These counted the population as of the following dates:

1790-1820: First Monday in August
1830-1900: June 1 (June 2 in 1890)
1910: April 15
1920: January 1
1930: April 1
1940: April 1
1950: Because of the 72-year rule, this census will be available for public inspection on April 1, 2022.
This rule applies to the subsequent census' as well.

For the first six censuses (1790–1840), enumerators recorded only the names of the heads of household and a general demographic accounting of the remaining members of the household. Beginning in 1850, all members of the household were named on the census. The first slave schedules were also completed in 1850, with the second (and last) in 1860. Censuses of the late 19th century also included agricultural and industrial schedules to gauge the productivity of the nation's economy. Mortality schedules (taken between 1850 and 1880) captured a snapshot of life spans and causes of death throughout the country.

Fire and water damage destroyed most of the 1890 census, with few exceptions. Other materials can sometimes be used as a census substitute.

Where to find Census records?

  • The National Archives. The original microfilm of the census can be found at the National Archives in Washington, D. C. If you plan on visiting the National Archives, you can consult their online microfilm catalogs on line.
  • Ancestry.com  is a subscription-based website
  • Heritagequest.com  can be accessed free-of-charge at your local library.
  • Familysearch.org  allows free access to census records.
  • USGenWeb Census Project  provides transcriptions of the census by volunteers

What can the Census tell me?

Census records can provide the building blocks of your research, allowing you to both confirm information, and to learn more.

From 1850 to 1940, details are provided for all individuals in each household, such as:

  • names of family members
  • their ages at a certain point in time
  • their state or country of birth
  • their parent's birthplaces
  • year of immigration
  • street address
  • marriage status and years of marriage
  • occupation(s)
  • value of their home and personal belongings
  • the crops that they grew (in agricultural schedules), etc.

Not all of this kind of information is available in every census. Before the 1850 Census, few of these details were recorded. From 1790-1840, only the head of household is listed and the number of household members in selected age groups.

Where can I find Census forms?
Ancestry.com has sample forms  available online.

Why are names and other information different in each census?
Very often the enumerators used phonetic spellings of the names they were given. The individual giving the information may have been an immigrant and knew very little English and some did not know how to read or write and just orally named the child. Over the years, each numerator may have spelled the same name differently. Other variations included nicknames, a first name used one year and then a middle name used the second year.

The census is a “guideline” and you should use many different resources to determine the correct information. It is recommended that two “primary sources” be used for confirmation. A primary source is one where the record was created by an observer and recorded shortly afterwards.

Examples of primary source documents:

  1. birth certificate
  2. baptismal certificate
  3. marriage application
  4. death certificate
  5. draft registration

What about transcription errors?

Transcription errors are common on all sites. Transcriptions are done by volunteers. Many have not been trained to read the different types of handwriting that was used. BYU has a full course on handwriting alone. Ancestry.com allows you to make suggested corrections for transcription errors.

Tutorial  21 minutes
Beginning Census Research and Record Keeping

The Census Taker

It was the first day of the census, and all through the land
The pollster was ready, a black book in his hand.
He mounted his horse for a long dusty ride
His book and some quills were tucked close by his side.

A long winding ride down a road barely there,
Toward the smell of fresh bread wafting through the air.
The woman was tired, with lines on he face,
And wisps of brown hair she tucked back in place.

She gave him some water as they sat at the table,
And she answered his questions as best as she was able.
He asked of her children.... yes, she had quite a few;
The oldest was twenty, the youngest not two.

She held up a toddler with cheeks round and red.
His sister, she whispered, was napping in bed.
She noted each person who lived there with pride,
As she felt the faint stirrings of the wee one inside.

He noted the sex, the color, and the age...
The marks from the quill soon filled up the page.
At the number of children, she nodded her head,
And he saw her lips quiver for the three that were dead.

The places of birth she “never forgot.”
Was it Kansas, or Utah? Or Oregon? Or not?
They came from Lithuania, of that she was clear,
But she wasn't quite sure just how long they'd been here.

They spoke of employment, of schooling and such.
They could read some, and write some, though really not much.
When the questions were answered, his job there was done,
So he mounted his horse and rode towards the sun.

We can almost imagine his voice loud and clear,
“May God bless you all for another ten years!”
Now Picture a time warp, it's now you and me,
As we search for the people on our family tree.

We squint at the census and scroll down so slow,
As we search for that entry from long, long ago.
Could we only imagine on that long ago day,
That the entries they made would affect us this way?

If they knew, would they wonder at the yearning we feel
And the searching that makes them so increasingly real.
We can hear, if we listen, the words they impart,
Through their blood in our veins and their voice in our heart.

Author Unknown


Choose an ancestor that can be found in numerous census. Study each census carefully. Compare the following:

  1. Spelling of family names and the increase, or decrease in family members over the years.
  2. Compare ages and dates of birth from census to census.
  3. Occupation of ancestor and the occupation of their neighbors. Compare the neighbors over time.
  4. Migration from one state to another if applicable.
  5. Number of marriages, births and deaths
  6. Date of immigration if applicable.

Write a story about your ancestors based on the information found in the census comparison. Share your story at our next lecture.