A census is a government's main method for measuring its assets: its soldiers and their training and armaments; its farmland and manufactories; the education and wealth of its peoples. Perhaps the most famous census is William the Conqueror's Domesday Book of 1086. My personal favorite is the 1627 "Division of Cattle" in Plymouth. The "first recorded census" title may belong to a Babylonian census of about 3800 B.C., but it's certain that earlier censuses were taken. Because of its importance in determining defense readiness and potential tax revenues, census taking was probably a universal activity for all governments. Although this class focuses on the United States population schedules, keep in mind that census records will be found in all countries throughout their history.
On March 1, 1790, the United States Congress passed an act titled "An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States". This census had an additional purpose. A region's representation in the House of Representatives would be proportional to its population; and that population was determined by the census. The federal census is taken every ten years. Like most records used by genealogists, the amount of information collected by each census grew as questions were added and subtracted to reflect social changes. Census records and their substitutes trace the pattern of family movements and, when viewed in aggregate, paint a very vivid picture of a family's life.
The National Archives has custody of the Federal Population Census Schedules. All are on microfilm, all have been digitized, and multiple indexes exist for each census year, including an every-name index created by Ancestry.com. There are many online sources that give information on the background of the United States census. The Census Bureau publication, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000, gives the history of the census in this country, and includes information on the questions asked on each census and the instructions given to enumerators. Another excellent reference is the United States Historical Census Data Browser. Not only does this source give an excellent view of the history of census-taking, but it provides an excellent statistical database for historical background research.
For privacy purposes, censuses are closed for a period of 72 years, so the most recent census open to the public is the 1940 census. It was opened April 2, 2012, and the National Archives web site gives the user excellent information on using this release. If you cannot wait to see later censuses, the U.S. Census Bureau will search them for you. Check their site for fees and regulations. Note that the 1890 census was almost completely destroyed in a fire in 1921. Note also that the federal census is not the original copy of the census. There were as many as three copies made of each census: the census taker's original copy, usually kept by the county; a copy made for the state; and the copy sent to the federal government. Many of the original censuses no longer exist, but if you question the accuracy of the federal copy, by all means, look for an earlier version. Keep in mind that the digital census images are derivatives of derivatives of derivatives!
The Internet has revolutionized census research. Gone are the days when census research meant a trip to a regional Branch Archives to use their collection, a visit to the local Family History center to order many rolls of microfilm, or a chat with the local librarian about an interlibrary loan. Two online sources now provide the complete series of U.S. census population shcedules: Ancestry.com and Heritage Quest. A third online census source is growing in size: FamilySearch's Record Search Pilot Site. The latter source is free and available from your home computer. Area libraries have subscriptions to both Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest, and your local library may provide home access to HQ if you have a library card. Become familiar with available search tools for all three sources and use them. Keep in mind that all digital images are not created equal. If you can't read the Ancestry image, look for the HQ image. If you can't find your subject in the Ancestry index, experiment with the FamilySearch index. There may be other digital images and indexes available online, also, through the USGenWeb's Online Census Images Project or a state archives' efforts.
The federal population census schedules are the mainstay of census research. Find your ancestor and his or her siblings in every possible census during their lifetime! If your family was in the United States by 1930, personal knowledge and family records should provide you with enough information to find them in the 1930 U.S. census. This is where you should begin your census research.
All indexes must be used with care. First, census indexes in general list only the head of household and any individual whose surname differs from that of the head of household. These indexes are not "every name" indexes. When dealing with the individually produced indexes, you must remember that the people doing the indexing may have been unfamiliar with the handwriting or the local surnames. Various letters were constantly confused: L for S, T for F, M for H. Some capital letters are read as two letters: C becomes Ce, for example. Lower case letters are frequently confused: u, m, n and v or a, o and u. Don't forget about the double ss. It is frequently read as f or p. Commonly misread letters give rise to visual variants.
Spelling seems to be a modern invention. Your ancestor may not have spelled his own name the same way twice, so you can't expect a census taker to always spell the name the way you think it should be spelled. Look for all phonetic spellings of your ancestor's name, and be creative. Add or drop double letters; interchange letters; add silent letters; substitute vowels, especially those at the beginning of a surname.
You found your ancestor in the index but he is not on the right page. What do you do now? There are as many as three page numbers on any one census page. You don't know which page number the indexer was using. One suggestion, when using any index, is a reverse search. Pick the name of any head of household on the page, then find that individual in the index. The indicated page number will tell you which paging system the indexer was using.
A book index may be simpler, but the numerous options available in an online index greatly increase your chance of finding a person in the federal population schedules. Start your census search with Ancestry.com. Its complete coverage and every-name index makes success likely.
The combination of search parameters forms a search filter. Ideally, a successful search filter yields enough results to include the desired family without overwhelming the researcher with irrelevant names. The online exercise will provide some practice in constructing search filters.
This is the most common reason researchers give when they can't find their subject in a given census. In reality, if your ancestor was enumerated in a given census, there's a better than 99.5% chance that he or she is in the index! If you find yourself using this excuse, study the following search checklist.
If the online census indexes fail you, try NARA's Soundex index collection. The complete microfilmed set is available in many locations: large genealogy libraries, the National Archives and its Regional Branches, on interlibrary loan, and through the Family History Center. These indexes to the 1880, and 1900 through 1930 censuses were created during the 1930's under the Works Project Administration. They're phonetic rather than alphabetic and use a code called the Soundex code, developed by Robert Russell and Margaret Odell. The Soundex cards are organized in the following way: first by state, then Soundex code, then alphabetical by given name of head of household, then place of birth of head of household (U.S. before foreign country), then year of birth of head of household. (In most instances, you only see the first three levels of organization. When researching William Johnston or John Smith in New York, you will see the smaller levels.) Note that the 1880 Soundex includes only households with children under ten years of age, the 1910 Soundex (Miracode) includes 21 states, and the 1930 Soundex includes only twelve states.
Click on the illustration to the left to see an example of a Soundex Card. This is only an index entry and you must follow up on the information and examine the original census. When you find your family in the Soundex, copy down the county, Enumeration District, sheet and line. With this information, look in the National Archives' publication The Federal Population Censuses: NARA Microfilm Catalog Collection. Here you will find the appropriate census microfilm roll number. Search for the original census entry on this microfilm roll, or find it in an online census site.
In addition to the census indexes and images at Ancestry.com and Heritage Quest, try the census indexes at FamilySearch. These indexes link to images available in the FamilySearch collection (free) or images at Ancestry.com or Fold3 (subscription). Book and microfiche indexes arranged by state exist for the years 1800 through 1870. Some are available on CD-ROM, a format that allows a variety of search methods. The 1790 censuses were published by the Government Printing Office and contain an index. These 1790 GPO publications are widely available in many local libraries and can be viewed online in PDF format. Don't forget about the USGenWeb Census Project. These transcriptions and indexes were prepared by people familiar with the family names, and are likely to be the most accurate indexes available. With all this help, you no longer have an excuse to shirk your census research.
Because online access via an index is so easy, a "good research" reminder is in order. When you find a family of interest, read the surrounding neighborhood as well. You may find very important evidence in a neighboring household.
A book index can be held in your hand and searched line-by-line. Spelling variations may be easy to discover. This is not true for an online index. Become familiar with the various advanced search options used by an individual web site or search engine. Using only the basic search options is not often a successful strategy. In all aspects of genealogical research, the more you know about an individual's family and associates, the more successful your search will be.
These clues may help you complete your online census assignment.
In addition to federal census schedules, state and local censuses were conducted at varying times beginning as early as 1623 Virginia. Many early colonial censuses have been published. Many states took inter-decennial censuses that sometimes give even more information than the federal schedules. They are usually kept in the corresponding state archives. Many of these have been microfilmed and are available through inter-library loan or through the Family History Center. Ancestry.com has indexes to many state census collections in their database and is now adding the corresponding digital images. Don't forget to check the various state and county GenWeb sites for transcribed state census records. Perhaps the best source for information on content and availability of the many state censuses is Ann S. Lainhart's book State Census Records. The Source, usually available at your local library, also contains a good listing of these state census schedules. Unfortunately, I have not found comparable online listings.
For examples of census citations, click on the icon to the left. (Be sure to close the window before returning to this page.) These examples show census citations for the census years 1880-1930, 1850-1870, and 1790-1840. You may not choose to copy these forms, but you must record all the citation elements in your source documentation.
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Although smaller sites devoted to only one state or county may include state census fragments, Ancestry and FamilySearch currently hold the largest collection of state census images.