Federal Census Records
by Lisa South, Certified Genealogist
The following article was written in the July
7, 2005 OneGreatFamily newsletter. Since Lisa is no
longer writing for us, we are featuring some of our
favorite articles written by her.
In 1974, I actually had to travel from Texas to the
National Archives in Washington, D.C. 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 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
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
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.