The United States Census

One of the most powerful tools for any genealogist is census records. I still seek these out and I love all the juicy details they provide: where my ancestor lived at a specific moment in time, who was living with them, and of course an idea of their age. They are “the building blocks of your research” as noted by the National Archives.


Why The Census is Done

According to, “the framers of the Constitution of the United States chose population to be the basis for sharing political power, not wealth or land”. So counting people every 10 years is important, it helps determine the representatives for each state and territory in the House of Representatives, “federal funds, grants, and support to states, counties, and communities” is based on “population totals and breakdowns by sex, age, race, and other factors”. Businesses also use census information when deciding to “build factories, offices and stores” which helps in job creation.

Other information the census shows us, according to is how the U.S. has changed. It illustrates where populations have increased and decreased. For example, in the 1990 census, the highest growth was in the south and western states.

The 1790-1840 Years

When working with census records you tend to begin with 1940 and work backward. Life is fine and dandy until you hit 1840 and suddenly going every 10 years and seeing familiar names stops as it becomes 1-name (the head of household), and a bunch of hash marks in columns associated with their sex, age, and sadly, color.

These early census records do provide age approximations, economic, military, immigration and naturalization information (depending on the year) that can help point you in the direction of other supporting material to help in your family history journey.

1890 Census

The 1890 population census is no more due to a fire in the Commerce Department in January 1921. The 1890 Veteran’s Census for Surviving Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, and Widows survived the fire and can be used for a relative who qualifies.

The 72 Year Rule

There is a 72-year waiting period before the release of a census after the information is collected. This is for the privacy of the people within the documents.

State Census

Did you know some states had their own census done, often on the fives?  This is such a great help as it assists in tracking your family members even more closely, finding children who may have had technical names so you have a better chance of getting it correct, or ones that may have passed away young and so they show up on an official document.

I was originally going to list all the states that have done a census, but it’s apparently easier to list those who have not: Connecticut, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia.

I’ve just begun to peek at other countries census records so we’ll leave foreign census for another day (if my foreign is your home, my apologies, but feel free to enlighten us in the comments below).

I have enjoyed learning about my ancestors and all the other branches by viewing names on the United States Federal and even State census. Sometimes (no, all the time) the lack of the 1890 census bugs the dickens out of me. I have a great-great-aunt, Margaret Blair, who is on the 1880 census.  It states she was born October 1879, but by the 1900 census, she would be 20. Trouble is I don’t know if poor Margaret got married (my hope) or died as I’ve not found any marriage records for her (when I peek at other user trees on Ancestry, it appears no one else has been successful either).  One day I’ll find you, Margaret, I promise.

Though I’d still like to think if our ancestors knew how wonderful these records were going to be for those of us wanting to know them, more attention to detail would have been had by all – informant, census taker, the works!



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