"How-to" guides to using census records
Several books are available, either for purchase or at your local library and genealogy magazines contain a plethora of articles written on the subject. Below, I've named just a few and offer information to help you find them. [note: my find in a library results are set to show libraries near Ann Arbor. To find libraries near your town, type in your own zip code and flick "go"]
On the web...
And, as always... for more link's see Cyndi's List. She devotes a whole section of her U.S. Census page to links to Census How-To information.
back to top
Extractions and Transcription Forms
Using forms will help you copy the information accurately and completely as well as guide you in interpreting it later.
Indexes and Soundex
For many years researchers worked without indexes to most of the censuses. Slowly, over the years, indexing was completed for the earlier census records. Of course these indexes were published in books, not on any worldwide internet! The government provided a "soundex" index for some of the censuses 1880 and later, which is available on film. Now there are online and CD indexes to the censuses. So the book indexes and soundexes are unnecessary, right? No! the online census indexes are fabulous, but they contain erors and problems. Sometimes the book index or soundex is just what you need to find your ancestor in the census. Sometimes all of them will fail and you will have to go through the census page by page, hoping you can find the family in the area where you think they should be. Book indexes can be found at major genealogy libraries and are quite straighforward to use, although you have to watch for indexing problems. Using the soundex can be trickier, although again technology has come to our rescue and there are online aids. If you are going to use any post 1870 census records--and unless you and all your U.S. 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.
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. Commercial sites have also indexed these census records (see "Where to obtain" section on this page) Some 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. 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
Census records for these thre decades include names of everyone in household. Relationships are not specified and one of the pitfalls of genealogy is making relationship inferences from the composition of the household. Most, if not all, are indexed (at least by head of family) in book indexes, which are available at libraries with large genealogy collections. Online subscription services index all of these censuses, although some may be limited to head of household.
1790-1840 Census Records (outline)
These are step-children of census records. Incomplete, hard to read and naming only the head of household, they are too often overlooked by researchers. Some of the census records 1790-1840 did not survive.
Forms are especially helpful when working with the 1790-1840 census records.
I especially like the 1790-1840 Census Analyzer available from Kindred Keepsakes page of free forms.
CensusMate: A site that has several aids and guides for pre 1850 census records; you'll want to take advantage especially of the ability to get both .pdf and spreadsheet versions of extraction forms specific to he 1790-1840 time span . With the latter, you can enter data right onto the form. (If you download the Excel version, note there are two tabs on the bottom. One is for the instructions, which opens with the file and other is where you find the spreadsheet itself). See also...
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 Know what information you can expect to find, using these guides:
Where to find census records.
There is a lot of sharing amongst genealogists. Rootsweb has a census look-up mailing list that you can use sometimes to get a census record from a volunteer-- or volunteer to look for others. Also there is a U.S. GenWeb Census Project census lookup message board.
To find your own records on the census ... first you will probably want to see what is available on the interent. You may still find that you need to use a film copy.
Available on the Internet:
1) Access to a site through your local library
2) Information available on free Sites
3) $ Personal subscriptions $
1) Use one of the subscription database available through your local public or academc library's electronic resources collections. Right now the two most widely available are Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest Online. Not all libraries have both; if your library doesn't have at least one, submit a suggestion/request that the library make it available.
- Not available by personal subscription; only allows access through a library subscription
- Access through your local public library. (Michigan residents can use Mel)
- Has all the census records and in general, the quality of the scans is better than in Ancestry.com.
- Indexing is not good -- some decades not indexed, some indexes only index by the name of the head of the family.
- How to use Heritage Quest
Ancestry Library Edition
- Must be used in the library. Many libraries can't afford Ancestry.com or refuse to purchase it because it doesn't allow "at home" access by the patrons of the library. You may want to consider a personal subscription (see below.)
- Has the complete indexed census
- Has a sophisticated search engine to make it easier to find families.
2) Find free access sites on the web.
- The published copies of the 1790 (transcriptions) are available in .pdf format.
- 1790-1840 indexed and available on Heritage Quest (through your local library)
- FamilySearch.Org is working to get indexed images of records available online. This data will be constantly expanding, but is not yet complete. You may have to keep checking back.
- mortality schedule 1850 images available
- slave schedule 1850 images available
- 1860 images available through $Footnote$ but can use this to find a census record in Heritage Quest
- 1870 images available
- 1880 index with transcript of each entry and household.
- 1900 images available
- Some sites try to keep track of the ever growing census records available online. Check these sites to see what is available.
3) Subscribe to one of thes commercial sites:
- $ Ancestry.com $ -- remember, you can access this at your local library, although you must use it in the library. Home use is not allowed. Ancestry.com has every index, completely indexed -- although here as everywhere else, there are indexing errors.
- $ Genealogy.com $ (I put this here because it is available, but I do not recommend a subscription. A subscription to Ancestry.com will give you what is here + much much more)
- $Footnote.com$ is putting some census records online, but as of Nov. 2009 it is very incomplete
Find transcriptions, film or digital copy, NOT on the intranet
-- paper, microfilm or CD:
- Use at libraries with large genealogy collections. Most libraries do not hold a full run of census records on film , but have only selected states. The Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana has a full run, as does the Mid Continent Public Library in Independece Missouri. Often a large University library will hold the census for that state; for example, The University of Michigan Library owns the complete census and soundex for Michigan.
- Borrow through the Family History Library, which owns a full run of the U.S. census microfilm. To find census records in the Family History Library catalog, use the locality index to find the state, then check the subject census. Here is an example of the record for the census records of Michigan. (scroll down to find "census") Note that in addition to film copies of the original federal census, you find records for state (mid decade) census records, as well as indexes.
- A published or typescript transcription may serve your purpose, although you must be aware of the possibility of errors or ommissions. (Sometimes, however, the transcriber may see something you missed or transcribed something correctly that you misread!)
- The Family History Library owns many of these.
- You may also find transcriptions in libraries, either large genealogy libraries or a small public library.
- ILL: Ask the librarian at your local public library to get the census you need on interlibrary loan; there may be a few. You will probably have to read it in a library, unless you have a film reader at home.
- Purchase or rent the microfilm from NARA. You will need to use the Census catalog to identify the rolls you want. ((It is possible to order a photocopy of a page, but at $17.50 a copy, it would make no sense to do that.)
- Buy CD versions of the records. Be sure to check whether the CD includes an index or is searchable.
- HeritageQuest sells census records on film and CD. They also offer individualized CD's that will show the location of every family with a specific surname.
- Ancestry sells CD's that contain searchable images of the census records.
- Genealogy.com sells CD's that contain census indexes
- CensusView sells CD images of census records for a single county, but not every county is covered.
- You can buy the 1880 census on CD from FamilySearch.org
back to top
Using Maps and Historical Data
Dollarhide Map Guide to the United States Census 1790-1920 (find in a library) is an essential reference tool for anyone working with 19th century U.S. Ancestors, especially if in the earlier half of the century. It shows the county boundary lines as they were at the time, overlaid with current boundary lines and lists census records no longer extant.
FamilyHistory 101 provides an online maps of the whole U.S. and each state as it was at the time of each census. They also provide a series of county formation maps, so you can visualize the county changes as they were made. It will take you a few minutes to get used to the features on this site. Explore also the Genealogy Atlas, which can provide atlas maps as the area was near the time of the census.
For more information on finding and using maps, see my separate page Atlases, Maps and Gazatteers
Instructions to Enumerators
As with any endeavor... questions arise. Instructions to the enumerators told them exactly how the governmen wanted the data recorded. Surely not every enumerator went back and read the instructions when unsure of what to do... but in general the enumerators seemed to take their job seriously and follow the instructions as best they can. Of course our greatest delight is when they took it upon themselves to add information, but for the most part we can be guided in interpreting the responses by reading the instructions provided for each census.
Census takers often used abbreviations.
Mortality Schedules 1850-1880
Mortality scheudles enumerate 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.
back to top
Non Population Census Records
The NARA site devotes a section to non-population census records, which include information about agriculture, manufacturing, business and social statistics.
State & Territorial Census Records & Census Substitutes
Sometimes you can't get the information you need from one of the decennial censuses.
- The 1890 census was almost completely destroyed
- Many of the earlier census records are no longer extant
- There is no decennial census prior to 1790
- The 1940 and later censuses are not available
- Even if a census exists, you may not be able to find your person enumerated.
- You need information on the family mid decade.
In these instances the researcher must plan other research strategies to find subsitute information. There are two reference books that you will want to use:
State census records are an excellent source of subsitute or supplemental information. They exist for some (not all) states. These were usually taken mid decade and not all that were taken survive today.
back to top
Aids on the web:
Calculating Birth Year Based on Census Information: this is my favorite. Nice layout, easy to use.
1790-1840 Census Year Birthchart -- very handy Here is a handy, printable
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.
back to top
Census Day is the "as of" day that was supposed to be used for all census records. On the top of the form the enumerator specifies the exact date he took the census for a given page. It is always helpful to look at the actual enumeration day, when given, since the information could have been given with that date in mind, but information was supposed to represent the household as it existed on the official census day.
- 1790 -1820 First Monday in August
- 1830 -1880 June 1 1890 First Monday in June
- 1900 June 1
- 1910 April 15
- 1920 Jan. 1
- 1930 April 1, 1930 (Oct. 29. 1929 for Alaska)
back to top
Cyndi's List: US Census Records