The United States Federal Census record collections are important sources to use when researching family history. The federal census was first instituted by President George Washington in 1790 for the purpose of assessing federal taxes and apportioning House of Representatives members.
So how can you find your ancestors in the census?
It’s actually never been easier.
With sites like Ancestry.com, you can find your ancestors in many census reports in a matter of minutes.
And the best part? You don’t have to be a genealogy guru to search!
Here’s how easy it is:
This article will teach you how to access and search the census, what you will find, and finish with some of our ‘pro tips’.
But first, let’s talk about some history of the census and why it even exists.
A little bit of history
The U.S government has conducted a federal census every ten years since 1790 (commonly referred to as a decennial census), although the reasons for conducting the census have changed over time.
Due to strict privacy laws pertaining to living individuals, the U.S. government releases federal census reports to the public seventy-two years after the enumeration occurred.
This means the last federal census report released to the public was the 1940 U.S. Federal Census, which was released on April 1, 2012.
Although some federal census records have been lost due to fire and water damage (ie 1890 census), the remaining records from 1790 to 1940 are easily accessible online.
This makes the discovery of ancestors in the Census a fairly simple task when compared to the pre-digitalization of important family history documents.
What you can find
The U.S. Federal Census report reveals loads of useful information to those who are researching family history.
Although each census report is different, most census reports provide the name, head of household, street address, approximate age, gender, occupation, and location of birth of all the individuals residing in each home across the nation.
Some federal census reports also include other pertinent information including:
- relationships of household members
- immigration year
- citizenship status
- number of years a person has been married
- whether the individual is single, divorced, or widowed
- number of marriages
- how many children a woman has birthed how many children were still living at the time the census was taken
- an individuals’ mother tongue
- veteran status
- if the residence is on a working farm or not
- whether the property was owned, mortgaged or rented.
- number of months of employment within the census year
- whether the person was salaried, waged, or working on his/her own accord
- if the person attended school within the last year
- mental and physical handicaps
- acute or chronic illnesses
- whether the person was a convict or a prisoner
- whether a person could read, write, or speak English
- parents’ birthplaces
- value of the home and personal belongings
- number of slaves and free white persons
The federal census record also reveals nearby relatives, neighbors, and sometimes even colleagues.
Although each federal census record includes important information and clues for thorough family history research, sometimes the census records list inaccurate information as well as inconsistencies between reports over the years.
How can information not be accurate?
Each census question would have been answered by an informant.
The informant for each census report was typically the person who answered the door on the day the enumerator traveled door-to-door.
The head of household or spouse of the head of household would typically answer the census questions, but if neither of them was home or unavailable at the time, the census questions could also be answered by children of the head of household, or even neighbors, causing frequent errors to occur.
Commons errors include but are not limited to spelling errors, age inconsistencies, incorrect birth locations, and missing household members.
It was common for a family to be omitted from a census report due to relocation, or no one being available to answer the census questions at the time of the enumeration, skipping over the family entirely.
Pro tips for finding your ancestors
When searching for an ancestor in the U.S. Federal Census records, it is important to verify the correct identity of the ancestor by looking at the family as a whole.
This includes: parents, siblings, sons, daughters, in-law’s, grandparents, and sometimes non-immediate family members.
Many families did tend to keep close and stay together, even when migrating.
This was also a common practice with various ethnicities, religious groups, and also occupations.
While looking at the entire family, compare and contrast the information provided in each record to other census records years, as well as any additional information that is already known about the ancestor and the extended family of the ancestor.
This could include family stories, family names, where the ancestor resided, location of birth, approximate year of birth, occupation, the ability to read, write, and speak English.
Also look at the ancestors native tongue, as well as information obtained from other vital records that may have been discovered when researching the family tree.
How to access census records
Digitalized images of the United States Federal Census records are currently available online.
Each record is indexed by name, street, street number, township or city, county, and state, making it much easier to find recorded ancestors.
It is important to view the original census report image due to possible transcription errors made when indexing the record.
The original image also provides far greater information than the transcribed version of the census report.
Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com offer the most comprehensive sets of United States Federal Census records that are available online.
While both memberships are fee-based, they also provide free trials to individuals who are interested in tracing his/her family tree.
Other websites that include limited access to U.S. census records include FindMyPast.com and Archives.com.
In addition to locating Census records online, the records can also be found at local, state, federal, and privately-funded facilities.
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration maintains individual U.S. Federal Census records dating from 1790 to 1940 – not the U.S. Federal Census Bureau, as it may seem.
Many brick and mortar facilities including libraries, genealogical societies, archives, and historical societies also provide access to the federal census records at no cost.
Alternative records for genealogy
Alternative records that provide some of the same information found on census records before the 1850 U.S. Federal Census includes;
- birth records
- citizenship and naturalization records
- death, burial, cemetery records
- wills and probate records
- immigration records, border crossings
- military records
- church records
- newspaper records
- land records
Many of those records have also been digitalized and are easily accessible online as well.
The census is not the be-all and end-all of research, but it can be a go-to resource to accurately pinpoint relatives. And it’s one you’ll return to again and again if you continue your family tracking.