The Census and Genealogy

Researching census data from the past is a great way to recover genealogical information.
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The Census and Genealogy

Genie Jargon

A census is an official population count that often includes related information used for government planning.

Why are the censuses so important to your quest for information on your ancestors, and why are they among the first records to search? Widely available, they place your ancestors in a specific place at a specific time, and the related information on them leads you to other locations and records.

The objective of the census is to account for every individual living in the United States on a designated day. The chances are good that your ancestors were enumerated if they resided in the United States on the day the census was taken.

Lineage Lessons

Even if the enumerator did not visit every residence in his area on the date deemed census day, he was to collect the information as if he were there on that day. Let's say the census date is 1 June, and the enumerator doesn't get to a household until 13 June. The baby born 2 June should not be listed on the census because he or she was not in the household on the census date. Similarly, if an individual died 2 June, the person should be listed on the census because he or she was alive on 1 June, the designated date.

What can you learn from the census? At various times the census questions pertain to military service, citizenship, marital status, and other topics. Some responses will surprise you. Thinking the family 100 percent Southern, you may be flabbergasted to find that Great-Grandpa was a Union vet from the Civil War. If family tradition says that your third great-grandfather was born in Ireland, but the census information says he and his father were both born in Virginia, then you have a discrepancy to check.

The census may be the first place you find your ancestors in their family groupings. Maybe Grandma is older than you thought, or your mother has an older brother no one mentions.

Preparation Saves Frustration

Before you go to your computer or head out to a repository to search the census records for your family, do your homework. Make a list of the likely heads of households (person in charge of the family unit, such as husband/father, grown son, or widow) for whom you have gathered some information from talking to your relatives and going through all the material you found at home. Be sure to include any variant spellings of the surnames.

For each individual on your list, add a time period (the estimated dates of their life spans based on what you already know) and a probable state and county of residence.

For example, take a look at the following sample of a census search:

Abraham Gant 1930 Morgan Co., KY
  1920 Morgan Co., KY
  1910 Estill Co., KY
  1900 Estill Co., KY
  1880 Orange Co., VA
Joseph Jaspers 1930 Monroe Co., NY
  1920 Monroe Co., NY
  1910 Monroe or Erie Co., NY
  1900 Erie Co., NY
  1880 too young
Lineage Lessons

In the pursuit of your family history you will do a great deal of census research. The pending research lists you prepare and the transcripts of your census work are best managed on printed or electronic forms. Using electronic forms is most efficient because the data can be sorted and manipulated in many ways.

The approximate birth dates of the individuals on your list will indicate a starting point for the census search. (The 1890 census is omitted from the list because it is virtually nonexistent.) Which ones would likely be on the 1930 census? Which on the 1910 census? If your parents were children in 1920 or 1930, they will be enumerated with whomever they were living with at that time: parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, orphanages, or other.

Unless you suspect otherwise when you begin, assume that ancestors under ages 18 to 21 were living with their parents, and start your research with those parents. Group your list of individuals by the areas where you expect they were living.