Federal Census Records - What Can They Tell You?
Cole Bio

[From the March 1998 Newsletter]
[Updated on March 17th, 1998]

United States Federal Censuses

Information extracted from Article of William Dollarhide, Genealogy Bulletin #37 of AGLL, Jan/Feb 1997

No other document that genealogists use is as useful in giving a full picture of their family at a certain point in time as the census. The Federal Censuses are a backbone of genealogical research. They exist from 1790 to 1920. The 1920, because it is the latest one available to researchers, contains much information and is indexed for the entire United States, is probably the most valuable resource of Italian genealogists. The Privacy Law prohibits the Census Bureau or the National Archives from releasing any information from censuses for a period of 72 years. There are exceptions to this law (see section on Future Release of Federal Census and Italian Genealogical Group Newsletter of April 1997).

When using a census that does not have an index, you need to know the exact geographic area where that person lived. Thanks to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930's that we have soundex indexes for 1900 and 1920 and for some states the 1880 and 1910 (not New York).

Since the major immigration by Italians came around 1880, this article will begin only with the 1870 Census. In almost all censuses, persons are organized by geographic area:

  • district

  • village

  • town/city

  • all subdivisions of a county

PRIVATE CENSUS INDEXES (1880 Census and prior):

Accelerated Indexing Systems (AIS), a private company, began indexing censuses in the 1960's and has done all 1790 to 1860 and most of 1870. These indexes are available as printed books in many libraries in the US. The founder of AIS, Ronald Jackson, in the late 1980's "provided his entire database of census indexes to the LDS Family History Library." Later one they were reformatted and put on CD-ROM by a company now owned by Family Tree Maker/ Broderbund. Other companies have also started indexing not only federal but some state censuses.

"Thus, it is important to know that more than one version of a state-wide census index exists, if only to compare the date for completeness and accuracy." This is particularly true of the early censuses. For instance, for the 1850 Census, there were five different schedules which listed people by name i.e., the free population, save (which listed the owners or overseers), industrial, agricultural and mortality schedules. If the general free population schedule is the one you are using check which copy you have - the one forwarded to Washington, the one sent to the state government or the one deposited locally. There are often differences between one version and another. And you thought using Federal censuses was easy! The process of converting data into index and then converting that data into a CD-ROM has caused the loss of information and certain inaccuracies to be "put in stone." An index is just an index. The original records have to be accessed for not only finding additional information but for accuracy.


1870 Federal Census

The 1870 census schedules listed the name of every person in the household as of June 1, 1870.

Categories Included in the 1870 Census:

name, age of census date, sex, color, birthplace, occupation, value of real estate, value of personal estate, if married within previous year and month thereof, whether deaf, dumb, blind or insane; if able to read or write, if father or mother was foreign born and if person attended school in previous year. No relationships of household were included.

Information on some States for 1870:

STATE CENSUS AVAILABLE AIS BOOK INDEX BRODERBUND CD-ROM
Connecticut YES NO --
Louisiana YES YES CD#319
Massachusetts YES NO --
New Jersey YES PARTIAL --
New York YES NO CD #287
Pennsylvania

YES NO CD#285 & 286
Rhode Island YES YES --
Virginia YES NO --

1880 Federal Census

United States was composed of 38 states in 1880 plus 8 territories (which later became states).

Categories Included in the 1880 Census:

(new items put in bold, crossed out items were deleted from census)

name of every person in household, age of census date, relationship to head of household, street and number of house, sex, color, birthplace, occupation, marital status, value of real estate, value of personal estate, if married within previous year and month thereof, whether temporarily or permanently disabled, whether crippled, maimed or deformed, time unemployed during previous year, whether deaf, dumb, blind or insane; if able to read or write, birthplace of father and mother, if father or mother was foreign born, and if person attended school in previous year.

At the response of the newly created Social Security Administration in the 1930's, the WPA created an index to the 1880 census. They devised the "soundex" code and made 3"x5" cards for each household that had a child 10 years of younger. Other families were not index nor were older children or persons living alone. The index was prepared solely for the purpose of confirming a person's age when he applied for Social Security benefits.

Each card contained a citation to enable one to go to the original census schedule. Cards were arranged in alphabetical order by the soundex code number, thereafter by the first name of the head of the household. The pertinent information needed from the 1880 soundex index is the State, County, Enumeration District (E.D.) number and page number to locate a family in the census. At present all of the 1880 Censuses are being indexed under a private project. The present index, having only families wit children under 10, is still useful to check on a surname. You can learn where the families appear and how often.

Information on some States for 1880:

STATE CENSUS AVAILABLE AIS BOOK INDEX BRODERBUND CD-ROM
Connecticut YES NO --
Louisiana YES NO --
Massachusetts YES NO --
New Jersey YES NO --
New York YES NO --
Pennsylvania

YES NO --
Rhode Island YES NO --
Virginia YES NO --

1890 Federal Census

By 1890 there were 44 states and 5 territories. Over 90% of the 1890 population schedules were destroyed by a fire in January 1921 at the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. Out of almost 63 million names enumerated in 1890, only 6,160 names remain which have been index and microfilmed by the National Archives. Part of Westchester County and Suffolk County in New York State are surviving and Hudson County in New Jersey (of the states included in this report).

A majority of the special part of the census for surviving Union soldiers, sailors, etc. and their widows survived the fire and are available. Accelerated Indexing Systems (AIS) has printed an index to the surviving 6,160 names.


1900 Federal Census

The 1900 Census is probably the source of the most comprehensive information you can obtain on families who lived at the end of the 190th Century. With the 1900 Census, many questions important to genealogists were asked. It also has the most inclusive and accurate index of all the censuses.

Categories Included in the 1900 Census:

(new items put in bold, crossed out items were deleted from census)

Name of every person in household, age of census date, relationship to head of household, street and number of house, sex, color, birthplace, occupation, marital status, number of years in the United States, if married within previous year and month thereof, whether temporarily or permanently disabled, whether crippled, maimed or deformed, time unemployed during previous year, whether deaf, dumb, blind or insane; birthplace of father and mother, whether parents were foreign born, if person was able to read or write, or speak English, and if person attended school in previous year.

Only in the 1900 census were their asked for the month of birth. The 1900 and 1910 census also asked for number of year married and number of children born to the mother and still living at time of census. These questions were discarded in the 1910 census. There are soundex indexes for the 1900 and 1910 censuses for all states which included every head of household. For the 1910 census, a Miracode/Soundex index was compiled by a department of the Census Bureau in 1960's. Only 21 states were indexed. The generally accepted reason is that they needed an index for those states that did not by statewide birth registration by 1910. The difference between Miracode and Soundex is in the citation of the original record. Due to the lack of an index for 1910 for most states , researchers must use other finding tools (see section on street indexes) to find families in the 1910 Census.


1910 Federal Census

Categories Included in the 1910 Census:

(new items put in bold, crossed out items were deleted from census)

Name of every person in household, relationship to head of household, street and number of house, sex, color, month and year of birth, age, marital status, number of years married, total number of children of mother, the number of children living, birthplace, birthplace of person's father and mother, number of years in the United States, year of immigration, citizenship status, whether able to speak English, occupation, industry/company, employee or owner, if unemployed, (weeks)months not employed, if person was able to read or write, if person attended school in previous year, whether home owned or rented, if home was mortgaged, if veterans of Union/Confederate army/navy, and if blind, death or dumb.

City Street Indexes to Cities of 1910

The National Archives published a "Cross Index to Selected City Streets and Enumeration Districts for the 1910 Census" which is available through Family History Centers for 39 cities. Some the ones included are New York City (boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx and Staten Island), Chicago, Los Angeles, Long Beach (CA), Newark (NJ), Paterson (NJ), Philadelphia, Reading (PA),Richmond (VA), San Diego and San Francisco. This is a great finding aid when you know a person's address for the year 1910. In addition, volunteers at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, have completed a street index to various cities in 1910 that have no index which added to the cities in the above National Archives lists. These indexes include Boston (MA) and the Borough of Queens in New York City.. This publication "Street Indexes to Unindexed Cities in the US 1910 Federal Census" are arrange by city and then by street name and house number. It will give you the page number, enumeration district and FHL microfilm number for most addresses. The microfiche version is available through Family History Centers.


1920 Federal Census

United States was composed of 38 states in 1880 plus 8 territories (which later became states).

Categories Included in the 1880 Census:

(new items put in bold, crossed out items were deleted from census) marital status, number of years married, total number of children of mother, the number of children living, citizenship status, year of immigration, naturalized or alien, year of naturalization, if person attended school in previous year, if person was able to read or write, birthplace and mother tongue, birthplace of person's father and mother and their mother tongue, whether able to speak English, occupation, industry/company, employee or owner, and number of farm schedule.

By 1920 the United States was composed of 48 states plus the territories of Alaska and Hawaii. The 1920 Census is the most important census not only because of the time period but because it asked detailed questions about Naturalization. It becomes a shortcut to obtaining Naturalization papers and Passenger List information.

Information on some States for 1900 to 1920 Censuses:

STATE 1900 & 1920 SOUNDEX 1910 SOUNDEX OTHER 1900 INDEX OTHER 1910 INDEX OTHER 1920 INDEX
Connecticut YES -- -- -- --
Louisiana YES -- YES -- --
Massachusetts YES -- -- -- --
New Jersey YES -- -- -- --
New York YES -- -- -- --
Pennsylvania

YES -- (miracode) -- --
Rhode Island YES -- -- -- --
Virginia YES -- (miracode) -- --


Note: The National Archives has the original censuses for 1850-1870 but the 1900, 1910 and 1920 were destroyed by an acts of Congress in 1946 after filming. However, if the microfilm of your copy is so poor that you cannot read it, you can contact the National Archives in Washington which has the original microfilm for a better copy of that page. However, if there is a missing page from the census, there is nothing that can done about it.


Future Release of Federal Censuses

The 1930 Census will not be released until the year 2002. The Privacy Law prohibits the Census Bureau or the National Archives from releasing any information from censuses for a period of 72 years. There are exceptions to this law (see Italian Genealogical Group Newsletter of April 1997). The 1930 Census will only have 10 southern states indexed and there will be no index for the 1940 and 1950 censuses. Electronic computers were used for the 1960 census but the stability of that magnetic tape is in question.


TIPS FOR YOU!

When using the actual census record, make sure you extract all data! This means all the information on the page headings, all page numbers penned or stamped on the sheet, all details for the entire household in which the person lived, and identification of neighbors. Check for others of the same surname in the same district, if not the same county. In the future, these people may be the link needed to find someone in your own family research. Also be sure to check the Mortality Schedule if available (1880 and prior). When you cannot find someone in a census, take the following steps: 1) Recheck all indexes for any and every possible spelling of the name. 2) Read the original schedule line by line for the area you believe they lived in to make sure the indexer did not misread the name (i.e., reversal of first and last name), omit it or just fail to list it because the person was in someone else's household of the same surname. 3) Try to locate any relatives or neighbors you may know of in that area and time and then check their neighborhood closely. 4) Check pagination of the entire census to see if pages are missing. If pages are missing, contact the National Archives and request that they look for the missing sheets on the original returns. Pagination can be confusing on some censuses as they were numbered twice by the census taker and later the government. Many people who are not included on the federal copy of the census can be found on the state or local copies of such census. In pre-1870 censuses, people not listed on the population census can be found on either the agricultural, industrial, mortality or slave schedules.

MOST IMPORTANT! Keep a complete detailed record or log of all the research and checking you have done including the exact variations and materials searched for. This will avoid your dismay when you check your research a year or two later for some additional information and only find the notation "Checked the 1900 census but didn't find Anthony Ferrara."

Extracted from article of Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL On Board, Newsletter of the Board of Certification of Genealogists, Jan 1998, p.8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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