Understanding Census Records

 

 

 

 

 

There are four things you should know about census records:

1. They are only as good as the enumerator who collected the data.

2. They are only as accurate as the person providing the information.

3. Many people were not counted at all or refused to participate.

4. Transcriptions contain errors.

Now that you know the challenges, here's the good news: in spite of the possible inconsistencies in data, illegible handwriting or ages and places of birth that don't add up: census records are still the first and best line of defense when starting your research. A brief summary below gives you an idea of what to expect to find in the census records for each enumeration year.

The first federal census begun on 2 August 1790 . Information includes the name of head of household, number of free white males under 16 years of age, number of free white females, number of all other free persons, and number of slaves.

The 1800 census was begun on 4 August 1800. The count was to be completed within nine months. Entries list name and address of head of family; number of free whites under 10 years of age, 10 to 15, 16 to 25, 26-44, and 45 years and upward in the household; number of all other free persons except Indians not taxed; and number of slaves.

The 1810 census was begun on 6 August 1810. The count was due within nine months, but the due date was extended by law to ten months. Lists name and address of head of family; number of free whites under 10 years of age, 10 to 15, 16 to 44, and 45 years and upward in the household; number of all other free persons except Indians not taxed; and number of slaves.

The 1820 census was begun on 7 August 1820. The count was due within six months but was extended by law to allow completion within thirteen months . Lists name and address of head of family; number of free white males and females under 10 years of age, 10 to 16, 17 to 18, 17 to 25, 26 to 44, and 45 years and upward in the household; number of foreigners not naturalized; number of persons engaged in agriculture, commerce or manufacturing; number of free blacks and slaves by various age and gender categories; and number of all other persons except Indians not taxed.

The 1830 census was begun on 1 June 1830. The enumeration was to be completed within six months but was extended to allow completion within twelve months. Lists name and address of head of family; number of free white males and females in five-year groups to 20, ten year age intervals from 20 to 100, and 100 years old and upward in the household; number of free male and female black persons by age and sex; number of slaves by age and sex; and the number of aliens.

The 1840 census was begun on 1 June 1840. The enumeration was to be completed within nine months but was extended to eighteen months. Lists name and address of head of family; number of free white males and females in five-year age groups to 20, ten year age groups from 20 to 100 years old and over; number of free male and female black persons and slaves according to age groups; number of persons classified as deaf, dumb, blind, and insane or idiotic in public and private charge; number of persons in each family employed in various classes of occupations; number of white persons over 20 who were illiterate; and names and ages of any military pensioners.

The 1850 census was begun on 1 June 1850. The enumeration was to be completed within five months. Lists name, address, age, sex, race, and occupation for each free person; occupation and value of real estate owned by all free males over the age of 15 years; birthplace; marital status; whether individual was illiterate, attended school within the year, or was a pauper or convict. Entries regarding slavery show name, age, sex and color of slave; information about whether individual was a fugitive; and slave owner's name.

The 1860 census was begun on 1 June 1860. The enumeration was to be completed within five months. Lists name, address, age, sex, race, and occupation for each free person; occupation and value of real estate owned by all free males over the age of 15 years; birthplace; marital status; whether individual was illiterate, attended school within the year, or was a pauper or convict. Entries regarding slavery show name, age, sex and color of slave; information about whether individual was a fugitive; and slave owner's name.

The 1870 census was begun on 1 June 1870. The enumeration was to be completed within five months. Lists name, address, age, sex, race, and birthplace for each person in household; occupation and estate value of all males over 21 years old; whether person attended school or was married within year; whether individual's parents were of foreign birth; and for a person 10 years or older, whether he or she was deaf, blind, insane, idiotic or able to read and write.

The 1880 census was begun on 1 June 1880. The enumeration was to be completed within thirty days, or two weeks for communities with populations of 10,000 or more. Lists name, address, sex, race, birthplace, age, marital status, relationship to head of family, profession, occupation or trade; number of months unemployed during census year; whether individual was sick, temporarily disabled, literate, blind, deaf, dumb, idiotic, insane, maimed, crippled or bedridden; whether person attended school; and parents' birthplace.

The 1890 census was begun on 1 June 1890. The enumeration was to be completed within thirty days, or two weeks for communities with populations of more than 10,000 . Destroyed by a fire in Washington in 1921. A Special Census of 1890, Schedule Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War is available on microfilm. Entries list name and address of person surveyed, veteran's rank, company, regiment, length of service, dates of enlistment and discharge, and any disability incurred.

The 1900 census was begun on 1 June 1900. The enumeration was to be completed within thirty days, or two weeks for communities with populations of more than ten thousand . Lists name, address, race, sex, date of birth, age at last birthday, marital status; relationship to head of family; number of children that each mother gave birth to, and the number of offspring still alive; place of birth of person and parents; occupation, trade or profession of everyone over 10 years old; number of months every able-bodied person unemployed that year; how many months of school each household member attended. 

The 1910 census was begun on 15 April 1910. The enumeration was to be completed within thirty days, or two weeks for communities with populations of more than five thousand. Lists name, address, race, sex, age at last birthday, marital status; relationship to head of household; whether house is owned or rented; whether house is owned free or mortgaged; year of immigration to United States; whether naturalized or alien; year of naturalization; whether attended school since September 1, 1909; ability to read and write; place of birth; parents' birthplace; ability to speak English; trade or profession; industry or business in which employed; and whether employer, employee or self-employed.

The 1920 census was begun on 1 January 1920. The enumeration was to be completed within thirty days, or two weeks for communities with populations of more than 2,500. Lists name, address, race, sex, age at last birthday, marital status; relationship to head of household; whether house is owned or rented; whether house is owned free or mortgaged; year of immigration to United States; whether naturalized or alien; year of naturalization; whether attended school since September 1, 1919; ability to read and write; place of birth; mother tongue; parents' birthplace and mother tongues; ability to speak English; trade or profession; industry or business in which employed; whether employer, employee or self-employed.

The 1930 census was begun on 2 April 1930, although the official start date was 1 April 1930 with the exception of Alaska, where the official start date was 1 October 1929. Entries in the 1930 census offer the following information about each place of abode: street address; census taker's numbers (assigned to the home and the family in order of visitation); name of each person living in the household on April 1, 1930; relationship of each person to the head of household; whether the home was owned or rented; value of home or monthly rental payment; whether the home contained a radio set; and whether the family also owned a farm. Information categories provided for each individual listed include personal description (sex, color or race, age at last birthday, marital status, age at first marriage); education (attended school or college since Sept. 1, 1929, whether able to read or write); place of birth of the person and his or her parents); native language; citizenship (year of immigration, naturalization, whether able to speak English); occupation and industry (profession, type of industry or business, class of worker); employment (whether actually at work on the last regular working day, and if not, the line number on the Unemployment schedule--which no longer exists); whether or not a veteran, and if so, of what war or expedition. Special census schedules for farms, merchant seamen and other classifications also exist.

The 1940 census includes the territories of Alaska, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, the Panama Canal, and the American Virgin Islands. Besides name, age, relationship, and occupation, the 1940 census included questions about internal migration; employment status; participation in the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and National Youth Administration (NYA) programs; and years of education. This was the first census in which the census taker wold return to the home if no one was available to answer questions. Unlike in the past, the census taker would ask neighbors or others rather than the head of household or spouse.