Our Constitution directs that a census be taken in the United States every 10 years for the purpose of determining congressional Representation and taxes. Although these records were never intended for genealogical purposes, they are one of the most important and widely used resources for family history.
We use census records as the foundation for American genealogical research. They provide information concerning family units such as parentage and siblings. They also can lead to other records such as birth and death records, naturalization records, passenger lists, deeds and city directories.
The authors of the Constitution did not specify how the census was to be done. This makes it necessary for Congress to enact a specific law authorizing each census. None of these laws are the same, which results in each census being different.
Census records that are available for research can be divided into three major categories: 1790-1840, 1850-1870, and 1880-1930. These categories can be divided into population schedules and non-population schedules. The information in this article address population schedules only. The 1930 Census is scheduled to be released April 1, 2002. Public Law 95-416 restricts public use of census records for 72 years for privacy reasons. All of these censuses can be found on microfilm from the Nationa
l Archives with the exception of the 1890 census, which was destroyed in a fire. 1790-1840: The first six censuses list only the head of the household by name. The other members of the household are counted by age categories only. Beginning in 1820, some agriculture information is given for each household.
1850-1870: The 1850 census was a dramatic change from the six previous censuses and vitally important to genealogist. It was the first census to name all members of a household, occupations, exact ages and places of birth. Starting in 1850, the census takers collected progressively more personal information. For example, questions on the 1860 and 1870 censuses pertain to personal assets, naturalization status, color, and more.
1880-1930: The 1880 Census was the first to name the street and house number and give the relationship to the head of the household. The information included in each of the successive censuses differs but includes detailed information concerning birth date and place, marriage, parents, language, immigration, education, occupation, personal property and medical information.
Most census records from 1790 to 1880 have been indexed and can be found in either book form, CD, free Internet sites or as a paid subscription on the Internet. Starting with the 1880 Census there is a phonetic index called soundex. This is not an alphabetical index but is based on the way a name sounds, not on the way it is spelled. Thus, your Lentz relative would be soundexed with Lantz and Lendz.
Census records are available at the National Archives, major libraries, and The Family History Library. The records are on microfilm and are catalogued by state, county, and township. The National Archives in Denver has all the films for all years and all states with no charge. The Family History Library has all the films available for order through Family History Centers with a cost of $3.50 per roll. The Denver Public Library has selected states for selected years and there is no charge. Census record images are also available for sale on film, CD and as a paid subscription on the Internet.
Census research starts with the most recent census. If you were born before 1930, then start with yourself. Otherwise, start with your parents or grandparents. Look at every census. Don’t skip around. This is important so that information can be compared and evaluated. It helps to make a chart that starts with the last census before a person’s death and ends with their birth. Make a copy of each census record and write a complete citation on the front of the copy.
The following books and Internet sites provide more information about researching in census records:
Free Census courses can be found at: