Federal Census Records
Lisa South, Certified Genealogist
I actually had to travel from Texas to the
National Archives in Washington DC to gain access
to the 1900 census. 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
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
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
great resource for putting families together,
tracing their migration pattern, finding where an
ancestor lived, etc.