Making Sense of the Census
Early census records were often compiled by an odd assortment of ne'er-do-wells for whom accuracy was not a priority. If no one was home, the census taker either omitted the family or obtained the information from a neighbor. Spelling didn't count. Visiting grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends were sometimes erroneously included as household members simply because they happened to be there when the census taker came by.
Nevertheless, federal census records, taken every 10 years since 1790 primarily to apportion representation in the lower house of Congress, are one of our most valuable sources of genealogical information. They can reveal the relationships between those living in one household and whether someone was born in a foreign country. They confirm where a person resided at a specific time, which gives you a clue as to where to look for other documents like deeds, marriage license applications, wills and probate documents and vital records.
Census records become public after 72 years. Thus, the 1930 census is the most recent one to be made available.
Before1850, census data was minimal. Except for the head of household, only the surname, gender and age range were recorded for each family member. For example, the listing for the John Smith family might look like this: one male, age 20-30; one female, age 20-30; two males under age 5; and one female age 5-10. Occupations and whether a person was foreign born were sometimes included.
Starting with the 1850 census, additional data was collected. Each person's given name and age was listed, for example, so the same Smith family would appear on the 1850 census as: John Smith, age 30, farmer; Mary, age 28, housewife; Bobby, age 4; Jimmy, age 3; and Elizabeth, age 9.
Just because you live in Florida doesn't mean you can't research census records from New Jersey thanks to online databases and on-site collections. Most major public libraries subscribe to commercial databases, which patrons may use on-site for free, and offer a partial collection which may be accessed remotely through HeritageQuest. Check out www.usgwcensus.org/ as well.
All records are available on microfilm, except for 1890. (Most of those records were destroyed in a fire). Most large public libraries, university libraries and Mormon Family History Centers (FHC) maintain a respectable collection.
Can't find what you need? The library staff may borrow microfilm from other states through a library loan program. The FHC will order microfilm copies from the main library in Salt Lake City , Utah . The National Archives in Washington , D.C. also loans microfilm. (Log onto www.archives.gov/research_room/genealogy for details.)
Fees are nominal. Usually less than five dollars. You need to allow about three weeks for the microfilm to arrive.
All you need to know to get started is in what state, and preferably which county, your ancestors lived when the census was taken. Keep in mind that county and township boundaries changed often prior to 1900. If you don't find your ancestors where you expect, check records for neighboring areas or consult a census index.
Copyright © 2008. All copy and graphics property of Donna Murray. This site may be freely linked to but not duplicated in any fashion without the author's consent