February 26th, 2010

Why Census Records Might be Your Best Genealogy Resource

If you ask anyone about census records, you might be greeted with a blank stare. They might be your best resource in genealogy, yet many people are aware of its importance. According to the US Census Bureau, a census is a simple enumeration, usually of the population, but also businesses and commercial establishments, farms, government etc. What better place to find the information you need?

The US Constitution requires a new census every 10 years for re-districting the US House of Representatives. In 1790, the US government conducted the first census, which has continued until today. The 2010 census forms should soon be arriving in your mailbox.

You can search census records from 1790 – 1930. Data that is more recent is not available to the public as there is a 72-year restriction on access to federal census. In 2012, access to the census from 1940 will be open for public use.

A wealth of information to be found in census records.

Before beginning your search, arm yourself with a list of the people you want to research and as much of the following information about each person as possible. Here are some things you should have on that list:

1. Date of birth and a five year range of birth

2. State, county or city of birth

3. Names of parents and locations of their birth

4. Name of children and their spouses

5. Any name changes you are aware of, different spelling of the last name

6. Profession.

The National Archives also has Soundex files, where you can search for a last name based on how it sounds rather than its spelling. Census data is known to have errors, especially in the spelling of names. When searching, be sure to create a list of possible alternative spellings of each last name on your list.

How the questions vary with each census collection. Every year, the Census Bureau compiles a new list of data categories contemporary for the year in which they collect the information. Take a look at the list of questions from two different years:

1830 Census Questions

1. Name of Family head

2. age

3. sex

4. races

5. foreigners not naturalized

6. slaves

7. industry

1930 Census Questions

1. Name, Address, Relationship to family head

2. home owned or rented, value of rental

3. radio set

4. whether on a farm

5. sex, race, age, marital status

6. age at first marriage

7. school attendance, literacy

8. birthplace of person and parents

9. if foreign born language spoken at home before coming to the US

10. year of immigration

11. Naturalized or not and ability to speak English

12. occupation, industry and class of worker

13. whether at work previous day or last regular working day

14. veteran status

15. for Indians – full blood or tribal affiliation

Census records are not your only source for genealogy research information.

If you are not able to get all the information you need from the national census bureau records, you can also find valuable information from these alternate sources.

1. Birth, death, marriage and divorce records – US Dept. of Health and Human Services

2. Birth and death records for Americans overseas – Passport Services-Vital Records Section.

3. Immigration or naturalization records from 1906 – Department of Homeland Security, Bureau of Citizenships and Immigration Services

4. Death Records of Service Personnel – National Personnel Records Center (Military Personnel Records)

5. Military Records from World War I – Military Records Division, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri

6. Historical map records, family and local histories and other historical records – Library of Congress, History of Genealogy Division

7. Homestead applications, ships’ passenger lists, American Indian tribal census rolls – National Archives & Record Administration, Washington, D.C.

8. Selective Services records men born after Jan 1, 1960 – Selective Services Headquarters, Arlington, VA

9. Selective Services records for men born before 1960 – NARA – Archival Programs, St. Louis, Missouri.

Completing your research

Working backwards from the 1930 census is a good place to start. Start by finding the name of the person you are searching for, then, find that person on the previous census. This process will make it easier to find your ancestry.

Remember the process is tedious. It is impossible to complete your research in one sitting. Take careful notes and record the names as you find them. You can make your comparison later. Good luck.

When your 2010 US Census form arrives, answer all the questions and return the form. Just consider, in the future a relative of yours might be using this years census records as their resource for genealogy search.