Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Making Sense of Census Records – Your second best family history resource

When possible, it’s best to start your family history research with family interviews. Learning surnames and siblings’ names, as well as the names and locations of towns where your ancestors once lived, will be a big help when you start searching the census records.
Knowing at least one complete name, where the person lived and approximately when he or she was alive will make searching the census records easier. On the other hand, you need to remember that the early census records were compiled by people – census takers – who wrote down the information given to them by the people they were interviewing. While most immigrants spoke some English, many did not read or write English. Therefore, names are often misspelled or spelled phonetically and birth and immigration dates may be incorrect.
Even with these errors, census records can be a goldmine of information for the family history researcher.  From the first Federal Census in 1790 to the 1840 Census, only the name of the head of household was listed.  The remaining family members were not named, but counted by category -- grouped by age, gender and whether free or slave.
Beginning with the 1850 Federal Census, a great deal more information became available. Here are a few examples of what you can learn about your ancestors from the census:

  • name, sex, age, color and occupation of each member of the household
  • married/attended school within the year (1850-1880)
  • value of real estate (1850-1870)
  • place of birth (state, territory, country) (1850-1930)
  • father’s/mother’s place of birth ( 1880-1930)
  • person’s relationship to head of household (1900-1930)
  • year of immigration to the U.S. (1900-1930)
  • number of years of present marriage (1900-1910)
  • mother of how many children/number of these children living (1900-1910)
  • own a radio set (1930)

The 1890 Federal Census was destroyed by a fire in 1921. Most of the records not burned in the fire were made unusable by water and smoke damage.  Several of the subscription databases are trying to recapture the 1890 data through state, territorial and other censuses and city directories from around that time.

The 1930 Census is the most recent census data currently available.  The 1940 Census data will become available in 2012. By law, the data must be 72 years old (presumably the life expectancy of the average person) before it can be released.
Discover your roots and watch the branches of your family tree begin to grow.
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