The USGenWeb Census Project
The USGenWeb Census Project
Intro to Federal Census Research

U.S Federal Census Facts

The United States government has conducted a census of each state and territory every ten years since 1790 and, in some places, other years, for the purpose of apportioning representatives to the lower house of Congress. Census schedules are essential to the family historian and researcher investigating regional and local history, immigration, naturalization, westward expansion, the status of free and slave labor, and other topics.

You can learn specific information about a family from census records but the primary use of census information is to serve as a connector to other records. When you know the place of residence of a family, you then know where to look for other records such as deeds, marriages, births, deaths and wills.

To protect the privacy of the individuals whose names appear in each schedule, population schedules are restricted for seventy-two years after the census is taken and are not available to researchers during that time. Records cannot be released to anyone except the named individuals, their heirs (on proof of death), or their legal representatives.

The original census schedules were hand written and were microfilmed by the Bureau of the Census. The National Archives acquired the master negative microfilm rolls from the Bureau of the Census and could not correct some problems with legibility. Also, some Census Bureau volume pages at the beginning of the schedules may omit or misorder counties, MCDs, or EDs and include other errors that the National Archives did not create but which this catalog reflects. The Soundex, prepared by the Works Progress Administration, and the microfilm produced by the Bureau of the Census may include additional problems. While the National Archives did not have the staff necessary to detect and correct all these problems, researchers who identify any are encouraged to report them to the Publications Branch (NECP), National Archives, Washington, DC 20408.

Population censuses are arranged by state and within each state by county; within each county by township or enumeration district; and within each district households are listed as they were taken by the enumerator as he went door to door.

The 1790 census schedules - those parts available - was published by the government in the early 1900s and has since been privately reprinted. Published census schedules for 1790 are for Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Vermont. The schedules for the remaining states - Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia - were burned during the War of 1812. Substitute schedules, made from names in state censuses or tax lists, have been published for many of the missing states. These printed 1790 schedules are available in most larger libraries.

Federal census records from 1790 through 1840 contain little genealogical information. Only the head of household is given by name; all others in the family are counted only in specific age groups by sex. These records, though, can be helpful, for they tell you the number of children in the family and their approximate ages (remember that not all in the household are necessarily family members). They also can help you find where your family lived and pinpoint your research.

The 1850 census was the first to include the name of each person in a household, including age, sex, color, occupation, and birth place (state, territory or foreign country) and value of real estate and personal property (usually just for the head of the household).

In 1870 the census gave the month of birth if born during the year, the month of marriage if married within the year, and whether the father or mother of each individual was foreign born.

The 1880 census added two valuable pieces of information: the relationship of each person to the head of the household and the birthplace of the father and mother of each person.

The 1890 census was largely destroyed by fire in 1921 and only fragments of it are available for research.

The 1900 and 1910 censuses are the most helpful available. The 1900 census included the month and year of birth of each individual, as well as the number of years married for each couple, the number of children the woman had borne and the number living in 1900. The census indicated whether a family rented or owned its own residence, whether it was a home or a farm and whether it was mortgaged. For foreign born, the year of immigration was given and whether naturalized or first papers filed. The 1910 census has similar information and includes whether it was a first marriage or, if not, what number, language spoken, employment status, and whether served in the Union or Confederate army or navy.

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