U. S. Census Records Class Handout

From FamilySearch Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

United States Census Records[edit | edit source]

Courtesy of Jill Shoemaker, Revised 24 February 2015, Riverton Family History Library

WHAT IS A U.S. FEDERAL CENSUS?[edit | edit source]

  • Created by the Constitution, the Federal Census is an inventory of everyone living in the United States, taken for the purpose of determining representation in the House of Representatives.
  • The Federal Census has been taken every 10 years from 1790 to the present. The 1790-1840 lists the names of head of the household and other members of the household are listed by age categories.
  • Because of privacy laws, a census is not released until 72 years after it is taken.
  • Every individual contacted by a government representative is required by law to answer truthfully.
  • Census lists are also called schedules.


  • Census records give important information about your family, such as the names and ages of family members and (in more recent censuses) their relationships to one another and give the location where they lived on a specific date.
  • A census record may be the only record available for documenting the events of a person’s life, if other records do not exist.
  • A census can extend your pedigree further back and add missing or additional family members.
  • There is a high probability of finding the person for whom you are searching in a census since about 90% of U.S. citizens are listed in the censuses.
  • Censuses are readily available on the internet at several websites, are indexed, and usually easy to search.


Basic Family Information Found in the U.S.Census by Year
(other smaller details also given but not listed here)
Year of census
Useful Information
  • Name, age, and gender of each family member
  • Occupation
  • Birthplace
  • If married that year
1870 Adds:
  • Whether father and mother are of foreign birth
1880 Adds:
  • Marital status
  • Relationship to head of household
  • Place of birth for father and mother
1900 Adds:
  • Number of years in current marriage
  • Month and year of birth
  • Mother of how many children
  • Number of children living
  • Naturalization status: alien, papers submitted, or naturalized
  • Year of immigration to U.S.
  • How many years lived in U.S.
1910 Drops:
  • Month and year of birth
  • Number of years in U.S.


  • Whether Civil War Veteran
1920 Drops:
  • Number of years married
  • Mother of how many children and number of children living
  • Whether Civil War Veteran


  • Year of naturalization
  • Native language
  • Native language of father and mother
1930 Drops:
  • Native language of father and mother


  • Age at first marriage
  • Military veteran, which war
1940 Drops:
  • Age at first marriage
  • Father's and mother's birthplaces
  • Military veteran, which war
  • Year of immigration
  • Native language


1. FamilySearch.org
2. Ancestry.com
3. Fold3.com
4. MyHeritage.com
5. FindMyPast.com
6. World Vital Records.com (free w/ Salt Lake County library card)
7. Internet Archive – no index but good images)

Blank forms for recording[edit | edit source]


1. Look at the detail page of the person you are researching in your Family Tree. Look at their birth date and death date to determine in which censuses your ancestor should appear. Attach the appropriate censuses that appear in the “record hints.”
2. If any census years are missing for your ancestor, click on “search records.”
3. After clicking “search records,” a list of all records that may have information about your ancestor will appear. Go to “Restrict record by” on the left-hand side of the page.
4. Click on the word “Type” and several options will appear, including “Census, Residence, and Lists.” Check the box for this option and click on “Update.”
5. To narrow the search further, scroll down to “Filter your results by” on the left-hand side, click on “Collections,” and choose “Census & Lists.” Click on the particular census you need to search to find your ancestor.


Hover over the “Search” tab click on “Census & Voter Lists” in the drop-down menu. Click on “U.S. Federal Census Collection” on the right under “Narrow by Category.” At this time you can begin search all the U.S. Federal Census Collections at the same time. To narrow the search further scroll down to the particular census you wish to search under “included data collections” and click on it to start the search for that one census year.


  • Look for your ancestor in every census in which they could appear because the configuration of the family changes over time. Children are born, family members marry, family members die, an older couple may live with adult children, or extended family members may live with the family.
  • Also look through the census in the county where your ancestral family lived for other families with the same surnames who may be related.
  • Look for your ancestor in every census in which they could appear because each census asked for different information and something new will be learned about the ancestor and their family in each census they can be found.
  • Look at all the information on the actual image of the census—not just the information that was indexed. The other information will help you know what other kinds of records to search for your family. These records could be vital, church, cemetery, court, land/deeds/taxes, military, immigration, or naturalization records.
  • Compare “Mother of how many children” and “Number of those children living” in the 1900 and 1910 censuses to make sure you have accounted for all the children. Watch through the census years as children drop out of the family and determine whether that was because of marriage, death or some other reason. This leads to searching marriage, death, and cemetery records.
  • Looking at the birthplace of the parents of the father and mother helps to locate the family in earlier censuses. If the father and mother were born in different states from each other, check the state where the oldest child was born for a marriage record.
  • Number of years married on the 1900 and 1910 censuses gives an approximate marriage date to add to your data on a family. The 1930 census asks for the age at first marriage, which can be subtracted from the age in the census to come up with a marriage year. The 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses ask whether a person had married within the census year.
  • The 1880 through 1930 censuses ask for a marital status If a marital status of "D" for divorce or "W" for widowed is indicated, check for divorce, court, probate, death, and cemetery records.
  • If the census shows your ancestor was born in a different country, check for immigration/ emigration records. The 1820, 1830 and 1840 census asks for foreigners who are not naturalized. The 1870 census has a column for "male citizens of the U.S. of 21 years of age and upwards." If the census showed the person was born in a different country, but this column was checked, this means that he had become naturalized by 1870. The 1900 census asks for the year of immigration and the number of years living in the United States. 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census asks for the year of immigration to the United States and the naturalization status. AL meant they were an alien and had not started the naturalization process. PA meant they had filled out their first papers (declaration of intention). And NA meant they had completed the process.
  • Revolutionary War pensioners were recorded on the reverse of each page of the 1840 population schedules. See the published version at Ancestry.com. Civil War Union veterans and widows (and some Confederates) are recorded on surviving 1890 veterans schedules for the states of Kentucky through Wyoming. The 1910 census had a column for survivors of the Union army or navy or the Confederate army or navy. The 1930 census had a column for veterans of United States military or naval forces, asking for the war in which they had fought. The supplemental questions in the 1940 census asked if the person was a veteran of the U.S. armed forces or the wife, widow, or minor child of a veteran.
  • Be sure to look at the occupation. Occupations sometimes stayed constant in families. If it is a skilled occupation, such as tailoring or shoe-making, know that the individual likely had an apprenticeship where this skill was learned, usually around age 12-14. This may have been learned from a parent or relative, or a close friend. Also use the occupation to determine if you have the correct family when searching for common names. The occupation may also lead to searching non-population schedules such as manufacturing schedules (1820 and 1850-1870) and agricultural censuses (1840-1910).
  • If there is an indication that a farm or house was owned, check the farm schedule and look for land records, probate records, and tax records.Racial indicators and skin color descriptors in the censuses may be useful to locate families of various races.
  • Don’t discount the 1790-1840 censuses. They can be very valuable if studied carefully. At the very least, they give a location for a family so local records can be searched for further information. (See learning video at the end of this document.)

HELPFUL HINTS[edit | edit source]

The information on the census is only as good as how the enumerator recorded the information—there may be errors in the information—especially with ages and spelling of names. The census was enumerated the quickest way possible. The information on the census record is only as good as the information that was provided by the person who was asked the questions. The person answering the questions may have been an older child or a neighbor and may not have known the answers to the questions being asked. There may also have been a lack of communication between the enumerator and immigrants who did not speak English well. Legibility and poor penmanship make census records difficult to read. Some census records are missing. Poor storage, moisture, faded ink, insects, or rodents result in difficult-to-read entries.


Other censuses and schedules include state and territorial censuses, mortality schedules for the years 1850-1880, the 1840 and 1890 veteran’s schedules, agricultural or farm Schedules, manufacturing schedules, dependent/defective/ delinquent classes schedule, the slave schedules, and the Indian censuses.

State and Territorial Censuses[edit | edit source]

Some states took a census when they were a territory, before being admitted to the Union. Many states took their own censuses between the federal census years, usually asking for information similar to the last federal census. Find lists of state censuses on each individual state’s respective Wiki census page at FamilySearch.org. State censuses at the FHL are listed in the Place Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under [STATE] – CENSUS RECORDS. There are some state censuses online at FamilySearch. At FamilySearch.org, hover over “Search,” then click on “Records.” Then click on the “Browse All Published Collections.” In the “Filter by collection name” box, type in the state and the word “census” to see that’s states censuses. Ancestry.com also has state censuses online.

Mortality Schedules [edit | edit source]

Mortality Schedules list those who died between 1 June through 31 May in the year prior to the federal census for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and six states in 1885 (Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota). The schedules for 1900 were destroyed, but a transcript of the 1900 Minnesota Census Mortality Schedule exists. This is the only known surviving 1900 mortality schedule for any state. The Mortality Schedules give the name, marital status, occupation, gender, age, place of birth, color, cause of death, month of death, and number of days ill. The 1850 Mortality Schedule can be found at FamilySearch.org and the 1850-1880 Mortality Schedules are available at Ancestry.com and Mortalityschedules.com (free site-only transcripts).

Veterans Schedules[edit | edit source]

Revolutionary War pensioners were recorded on the reverse side of each page of the 1840 population schedule. An index in book form is online at Ancestry.com. Go to the card catalog and type Revolutionary War Pensioner Census, 1841 in the title box. Civil War Union veterans and widows (and some Confederates) are recorded on surviving 1890 veterans schedules. States from Alabama through Kansas and half of Kentucky were destroyed in a fire, along with the 1890 population schedules. This surviving portion of the collection is online at FamilySearch and Ancestry.

Agricultural/Industry/Manufacturers Censuses[edit | edit source]

Agricultural Schedules were taken 1850 – 1880 and included data on farms and the names of the farmers. Manufacturing Schedules were taken 1810, 1820, 1850-1880 and included data on businesses and industries and provided details of livelihood, income, description of home place, amount of production, and nature of the business. Look for agricultural and manufacturing schedule at Ancestry.com.

1880 Schedules of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes[edit | edit source]

A special schedule was made in 1880 to enumerate the insane, idiots, deaf-mutes, the blind, paupers and indigent persons, homeless children, and prisoners. This schedule can be found at Ancestry.com.

Slave Schedules[edit | edit source]

Special slave schedules were taken in 1850 and 1860. The 1850 schedule can be found at FamilySearch. Both the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules can be found at Ancestry.com.

1885-1940 U.S. Indian Census Rolls[edit | edit source]

The U.S. Indian Census Rolls included name (Indian and/or English), gender, age, birth date, relationship to head of family, marital status, tribe name, and agency and reservation name. These schedules are available at Ancestry.com.


  • Censuses indexes may help you find your ancestor in a matter of minutes. If you can’t find your ancestor quickly in an index, you may falsely assume they have been missed in the census. With more effort, you will probably find your elusive ancestor. Here are some helpful hints for searching census indexes.
  • Only search one census year at a time rather than all the censuses at once.
  • Try spelling the first or last name differently. It may have been indexed incorrectly.
  • Try a wildcard search substituting a question mark (?) for one letter or an asterisk (*) for several letters.
  • If you have an idea of where the ancestor should be, try using just the surname with the county and state. Or if the first name is fairly uncommon, try using just the first name with county and state.
  • Often a person who has both a first and middle name will appear with his first name in one census and his middle name in another census. Try searching both ways.
  • Sometimes the individuals were listed with only the initials of their first and/or middle names, so look for an initial in the index.
  • When searching for a woman, make sure to search for her under her maiden name and under each of her married names.
  • If you can’t find the particular person for whom you are looking, try searching for siblings, children, parents, or other family members who may be living nearby or search for neighbors.
  • If you can’t find your ancestor in one census index, go to a different website and search their census index. Another website may have indexed the census with a different group of people.
  • Be creative in thinking of other ways to find your ancestor!

SUMMARY:[edit | edit source]

All the Federal censuses are online and searchable, as well as many state and other types of censuses and schedules. The census gives us valuable information about our ancestors such as their names, ages, places of birth, and relationships. The information from the census helps us know other types of records to search for our ancestors to find even more details about their lives.