Census Records

In the United States the census is taken every decade, in the year ending in zeor. U.S. census records fron 1790-1930 are currently available to the researcher; 1940 will be made available in 2012. Almost none of the 1890 census survives and scattered earlier census schedules are also missing.

Some census records are actually on line, some available on CD... and all extant census records are available on good old-fashioned microfilm. But what good does it do you to have them available, if you don't know how to use them to their full advantage?

How-to Guides | Extraction & other Forms |

Soundexed decades 1880-1930 | 1850-1870 | 1790-1840 |

Where to find census records | Mortality Schedules

Non Population Schedules

| State census records | Calculating birthdates | Census Day

Cyndi's List: US Census Records

How-to Guides

On the web...

In addition to the excellent lessons provided in the general how-to guides on line, see these additional sources below.

Bill Dollarhide wrote a clear, concise article, titled "A First Look at Census Records" in the Heritage Quest online newsletter Genealogy Bulletin. This article includes several important links. I also like his article "Census Mistakes."

Joe Beine has created an easy to read page"What's in the U.S. Census Records" that lists what information can be found in each census.

From the GSWC website:

And straight from the horse's mouth is the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) genealogy pages for census records.

And, as always... for more link's see Cyndi's List. She devotes a whole section to Census How-To information.

Several books are available, either for purchase or at your local library.

Mr. Dollarhide is also the author of two books on the census. His Map Guide to the United States Census 1790-1920 is an essential reference tool for anyone working with 19th century U.S. Ancestors, especially if in the earlier half of the century. A newer title "The Census Book" is an interesting and handy reference, but not an essential resource.

Richard Saldana's "Practical Guide to Misteaks Made in Census Indexes" is very helpful, but out of print. You may be able to find it on the used book market.

Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records by Loretta Szucs and Matthew Wright will provide a great deal of information and is quite inexpensive.

Measuring America: The Decennial census from 1790 to 2000 contains thorough coverage of the data to expect to find on a census record; a .pdf is available online.

Lots of audio tapes are available on this subject. Scroll down to "Audio Tapes" on Cyndi's List Census publications...

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Transcription Forms

Ancestry.com provides a free set of census extraction forms. These are very helpful, especially for the pre 1850 census.

Genealogy.com transcription forms are also available (they print out better than they look on screen) .

Cyndi's list "census" page has a whole section on links to printable census forms.

You might be interested in trying one of the products offered at Censustools.com. (I've not tried them and have no opinion as to their value)

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Soundexed census records (1880-1930)

Census records 1880-1930 name everyone in household and specify relation of each person to the head of household. They are incompletely indexed by the "soundex" system. There are few book indexes covering these years. Some commercial sites have also indexed these census records (see "Where to obtain" section on this page) The commercial indexes for some decades index every person; for other decades the index is limited to heads of households and persons in the household with different surnames.

If you are going to use any post 1870 census records--and unless you and all your ancestors died prior to 1880  those records are essential-- there will be a point at which you have to understand how to use the soundex system. Even if you have access to online indexes, indexing is so imprecise that you may have to go back to the soundex to find your ancestor.

Soundex examples: 1920 1920card2 | 1930 | 1880 } 1910 miracode

And even if you do know how to soundex names, you will probably appreciate a handy soundex converter.

For more... Cyndi's List Soundex section

It is possible for a person to get census information from the later censuses (1940+) by using the "Age Search Service"; note this is only if the record applies to one's self or a legal heir or representative. It won't be a full record

1930 History and Questions Asked

The 1930 census was released in 2003; faced with hoards of genealogists panting at the door, NARA devoted a multipage comprehensive guide to the 1930 census.

The German Roots website put up a helpful (and shorter) "What to expect from the 1930 census." 1930 has not been completely soundexed.

The 1920 census was completely soundexed (head of household and non-family individuals only) and contains a wealth of information.
History and Questions Asked

The 1910 census was only partially soundexed (head of household and non-family individuals only) and contains a wealth of information.
History and Questions Asked

1900 was completely soundexed (head of household and non-family individuals only) and contains a wealth of information.
History and Questions Asked

The 1890 census is almost entirely lost; only a tiny portion remains. There is an 1890 census of Civil War Veterans.
History and Questions Asked

1880 is indexed and available through familysearch.org census search. ( Be sure to select 1880 US.) This is a full name index; if you use the microfilm soundex, you need to remember that it only indexes households with children under 10.
History and Questions Asked


These records include names of everyone in household and most, if not all, are indexed (at least by head of family) in book indexes, which are available at libraries with large genealogy collections. Relationships are not specified and one of the pitfalls of genealogy is making relationship inferences from the composition of the household.

1870 includes data for every individual in the household.
History and Questions Asked

1860 includes data for every individual in the household.
History and Questions Asked

1850 was the first census to offer data for every individual in the household.
History and Questions Asked

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The step-children of census records. Incomplete, hard to read and naming only the head of household, these census records are too often overlooked by researchers.

The NARA site has a section devoted to delving into these earlier census records: Clues in Census Records, 1790-1840

The University of Michigan Documents Center has a nice listing of the questions asked at each census enumeration: Historical United States Census Questionnaires (most useful for the 1790-1840)

John Michael Neill presents a 5 part case study of using pre-1850 census records as a basis for research.
Pt. 1 Categorizing Pre 1850 Census Records
Pt 2 Analyzing Pre 1850 Census Records pt.2
pt 3. The Saga of Thomas Chaney pt 3 The Wife
pt.4 Chasing Thomas Chaney in post 1840 Census Records
pt. 5 More Chasing the Ever Changing Chaneys

1840 History and Questions Asked

1840 Census of Pensioners This indexes pensioners named in the census of 1840. See the actual census to view the full record of the household.

1830 was the first census to be taken on uniform published forms.
History and Questions Asked

1820 History and Questions Asked

1810 Records for the states of District of Columbia, Georgia, and New Jersey do not survive.
History and Questions Asked

1800 Records for the states of Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia do not survive.
History and Questions Asked

The 1790 census took 18 months to complete. Records for the states of Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were burned during the War of 1812.
and Questions Asked

The transcribed copy of the 1790 census is available online (.pdf)

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Where to find census records.

There is a lot of sharing amongst genealogists. Rootsweb has a census look-up page that you can use sometimes to get a census record from a volunteer. To find your own...

Film   Digital
Use at local libraries   Access through local libraries **
Borrow through ILL  

Find free access sites on the web; There is a site that tries to keep track of all the census links online-- good luck; material is being added daily.

See also the U.S. GenWeb Census Project

Borrow through LDS   1880 transcribed available from LDS; Access originals from LDS FHC Centers only (Ancestry.com)



Subscribe to commercial sites**

* HeritageQuest sells census records on film and CD.

The following commercial sites are available through subscription; often a public or university library will offer access. Before you subscribe, see if you can get access through a library. These commercial sites have a wealth of information and many problems... indexing problems, access problems, display problems. You name it. But they still provide aceess to an enormous amount of information.

Ancestry.com You can purchase subscriptions to this or get access from your local public library (called Ancestry Plus). Access is also available from Family History Centers.

Genealogy.com You can purchase subscriptions, but as a practical matter material in this collection is mostly available through Ancestry.com or HertiageQuest Onlline.

HeritageQuest Online is available through libraries only, but if your local public library doesn't subscribe, you can get a scholar membership at the Godrey Memorial Library in Middletown, Connecticut ($35 /yr and must mail in the application and check) and get access through them.

Here is the link to the Ann Arbor District Library's List of electronic resources for genealogy. You need your library number and pin to access Heritage Quest Online from home. Ancestry Plus is available in-library only.

The Ancestor Search site has a handy Guide to U.S. Federal Census Online.

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Mortality Schedules 1850-1880

Enumerates those who died in the 12 months preceding census day. Remember: households were as of census day. A person may have died before the enumerator came... but after the official census day. In that case he would be listed on the regular schedules.

Mortality schedules may list any or all of the following: name, age, colore, marital status, cause of death, length of ilnees, when and were the death occurred, occupation, place of birth and in 1880, place of birth of parents. For more information, see George Morgan's "Using Mortality Schedules"

Many mortality schedules are now available on the subscription database, Ancestry.com.

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Non Population Census Records

The NARA site devotes a section to non-population census records.

State Census Records

Ancestry.com Daily News article "Don't Forget the State Census Enumerations"

An essential reference book to have on hand is Ann Lainhart's State Census Records

I'm going to break my rule "never link to an about.com page because of the flurry of popups" and refer you to their page on state census records because it abstracts a list of what is available . Be prepared for pop ups though!

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Calculating birthdates:

Calculating Birth Year Based on Census Information: this is my favorite. Nice layout, easy to use.

1790-1840 Census Year Birthchart -- very handy

Also on this page is the 1850-1920 Census Year Birth Chart I disagree with the birth charts in this respect. I believe that if a person is age 6 in 1850, the birth year should be 1843/1844, not just 1844. We only know that the person was 6 as of the census date. Absent information about the month he was born, we don't know that he will not yet turn 7 in 1850. Thus the birth year for all these should be expressed as the year given or the year prior to that, i.e. 1843 or 1844. Census information is so uncertain anyway, perhaps this is being too picky. Still I think we should eek out every bit of information we can.

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Census Day

Census Day is the "as of" day that was supposed to be used for all census records. It is always helpful to look at the actual enumeration day, when given, since the records could be given with that date in mind, but they were supposed to represent the household as of the official census day.

  • 1790 -1820 First Monday in August
  • 1830 -1880 June 1
  • 1890 First Monday in June (not that it matters--see above)
  • 1900 June 1
  • 1910 April 15
  • 1920 Jan. 1
  • 1930 April 1, 1930 (Oct. 29. 1929 for Alaska)

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