Most everyone reading this has probably heard of the 1990s PBS program Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? The series taught its youthful audience about world geography and history as Acme Detective Agency gumshoes chased Carmen, a beautiful criminal, around the world. My daughters and I used to watch this show together. What grown-up family historian would not be captivated by a show about geography, history, and discovery — even if it is marketed to preteens? Well maybe I am just a geek . . . oh yeah, I almost forgot, I am! To think, I was “hip” for about two minutes in time : – )
Whenever I explore a census to help build a family tree, I think of Carmen and the detectives searching the world for clues as to her whereabouts. This is because the census may just hold more clues to your genealogy than any other type of official document you will find; however, unlike the detectives pursuing Carmen, a census search doesn’t happen at breakneck speed. It is important for you to take time to contemplate, understand, and be amazed by the information available in the U.S. census, so that you can reap all the benefits of this resource. Having a census is like holding a genealogical gift right in the palm of your hand. It is the closet you can get with just a single document to understanding the life experiences of your ancestors. Reading a census can at times be a moving experience as you learn more about your ancestors’ lives.
There’s a lot more to a census than just names and places. Just glancing at the census, you can see a family’s composition; the age and race of its members; their places of birth; where they were living, including the specific address of the family in the year the census was taken. Additionally, depending on the census, you might discover occupations, educational status, how long a couple was married, how many children a woman gave birth to, immigration year, value of real estate, value of the estate, and how people in the household were related to one other – that’s just to name some of the significant genealogy research information that may be found in the census. If you want to know what detail is enumerated on each census, see About.com‘s coverage of this topic.
Background of the United States Census
Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates that a federal census be taken at least every 10 years. Our Founding Fathers saw this as a way to represent each state in federal government equitably and to collect taxes impartially. The first census in the United States was conducted in 1790 and has occurred every 10 years since then. After a census is taken, individual names on the census are not released for 72 years for privacy reasons. How census are designed and what questions are asked reflect the current interest of the nation. Though reasons for taking the census have broadened, the same founding principles remain the same — to maintain the equitable representation and division of resources.
Suggestions for Using the Census for Family Research
These tips should help you use the census to your best advantage:
1. Family researchers will probably have information on most of their kin who were alive in the previous generation, so start with the most recent census and work your way back as you to link families from one generation to the next.
2. Use the census information, such as birth dates and places, to obtain vital record that will provide you with additional family information.
3. Employ a 3-page rule — look at the names of the census 3 pages before and 3 pages after your family’s listing in the census. If you find another family with the same surname, it could be these families are related. This is particularly true with census from the 1800s, since immigrant families tended to stay together and help each other “get on their feet.” You may also find the surnames of the spouses that children married in close proximity. For example, John Smith married Kathy Jones. The Jones may have lived a few blocks up the street from the Smiths.
4. Until about the 1940s, it was typical for children to take care of their parents in their “golden years.” You may find these golden parents listed as a border/lodger, servant/domestic, or other type of employee. It is possible that the surname of this mysterious person living with the family may be different from the head of household, so you may not know if this is a family member or not. In cases like these, use the lodgers’ name and details to search for additional records to ascertain if this is a family member or not. Even a sibling – such as a married sister who was divorced or widowed and ended up living with another sibling – may have been listed as “lodger” as opposed to “sister.”
5. Names can be a real issue when you are researching your family. There may have been possible nicknames or other name changes of which you are not aware. For example, the child “Jackie” on the 1920 census may be the adult ”Joaquin” on the 1940 census, or Sarah may be listed as “Sallie.” Visit the Common Nicknames page on the USGenWeb Project site for a list of names and their associated nicknames.
Up until the last 20 or 30 years, women traditionally took their husband’s surnames once they married. This makes it harder to trace women once they marry and leave their parents’ home. Even in rare instances when a woman did not take her spouse’s name, the census taker may still have listed her with her partner’s last name. Nancy gives some good advice about searching for female family members in her Are You Looking for Ladies blog.
Naming variations can also knock you off track. For some advice on how to manage some of these variations, please see my blog Name Game Part One: Spelling Variations.
6. Unfortunately, the Great Depression caused many families to split up in order to search for work. If you can’t find certain family members on the 1930 or 1940 census, they may have re-located to other individual family units or moved into households of various family or friends. In the event parents were unable to care for their children, those children may have been placed in orphanages or become foster children. You will have to search the census for these missing family members individually, as you may find them in a variety of households or institutions.
7. When using online census, compare the digital image to the index and summary. The individual who indexed or summarized the record may have made mistakes in the spelling of names, or misreported key information.
8. If it looks like your family, but birthplaces and ages don’t seem right, it could still be your family! The accuracy of the information is only as good as the skills of the census taker in taking the correct information, as well as the accuracy of the person providing the information. A child, housekeeper, or lodger may not have given the correct details, instead estimating or guessing at birth dates, spelling of names, and other vital information. For the past as well as the present, there are also a variety of reasons why some people may think they have to deceive a census taker.
How to Access Free Census Records
Most local, state, and university libraries keep census records in books and/or on microfilm. Through inter-library loan, you can order information your library may not have.
2. National and State Archives
You can search the National Archives website for the index numbers of documents and then view them at any of the National Archives locations throughout the country. Currently, the 1940 census is available to view and download on the National Archives “Getting Started” webpage.
State Archives also have local, state, and national census collections. Many have searchable online indexes so you can order the item over the phone or view it at the Archives. Keep in mind though, not all documents at the Archives will be indexed, so you may have to visit the Archives and search through relevant materials
3. LDS Family History Centers
Federal and state censuses are available at Family Search Centers or online at Family Search. The centers are free and open to anyone doing research. Different sites have different resources, but if what you are looking for is unavailable at your local center, you can order it from the main Utah site.
4. Local and State Genealogical and Historical Societies
Local lineage or historical societies may have a center that you can visit to view and copy census records. These societies, which sometimes charge a small annual or daily user fee, can be very helpful, so it’s worth checking local societies in your area. The staff is usually composed of knowledgeable volunteers or professional genealogists who are eager to help you.
For expert help with your ancestry research and census research, speak to a professional genealogist today.