Federal Census Records

By Lisa South - Certified Genealogist

In 1974, I actually had to travel from Texas to the National Archives in Washington DC to gain access to the 1900 census for family history research. We used to have to search through an entire county - house by house. Now with a few strokes on a keyboard or a quick trip to the library, you are usually able to find the census record you are interested in census research has come a long way and it is a great boon to the genealogist!

Federal Censuses began to be taken in the U.S. in 1790 and were taken every ten years thereafter. The first census just listed the head of the household and some statistical information about the family (how many girls, how many boys etc.) Each census year the statistical information became a little more definitive.

In 1850 the census takers were instructed to list every member of the household with his or her age and birthplace. Each census thereafter became a little more comprehensive. In 1880, the birthplace of each person's parents was listed. Tragically, almost the entire 1890 census was destroyed by fire in 1921 and a few of the very early census records are missing.

By law, census data cannot be made public for 72 years. So far, the government has released all the census records through 1930, and almost all of these have been indexed.

In 1885 due to additional funds available, the government allowed each state to take an additional census if they desired; only Florida, Colorado, Nebraska and the territories of South Dakota and New Mexico availed themselves of this opportunity.

Census extraction forms are available online or at genealogical supply stores and make the work of extraction very easy. Be sure to document everything; the exact date the census was taken, the enumeration district etc.

Be creative as you search for a name; try every possible variant. Evaluate census records carefully. They are a secondary source, since you do not know who gave the information and the records are full of errors. They are, however, a useful resource for putting families together, tracing their migration pattern, finding where an ancestor lived, etc.

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