The Basics of US Census Records

By | June 19, 2017

Do you want to build your family tree and get to know your ancestors in the process? Well then the US census records are a great resource for you to use. By far censuses can give you so much information about your heritage and also there are stories that you can discover along the way.

Basics of US Census Records

First though a little bit about my story!

Before I explain what are the US census records and what you can find in them I just wanted to tell you a little about my story. And by reading this you can understand the importance of these records for your genealogy research.

Genealogy and Family History

I was interested in my family history because of the many stories that my father would recite to me and my brothers. When it came time for me to discover my family tree I took what research my father had done. So I set about putting all the names and data that he had collected into my genealogy software program.

After that I checked out what I could find out from census records. Not only did I had ‘new’ ancestors and their details to the tree but also their siblings as well. I have always been interested in my family history but also cousins as well. I think the reason for this is because both my parents are only children and so I never knew of any cousins while growing up.

I probably went overboard checking censuses. I looked at my ancestors siblings and then their descendants. As you can imagine my family tree just exploded with so many people. Although censuses are a great resource it is important not to get too carried away otherwise you will get overwhelmed.

As long as you take your time and put on your detective hat then you can use these records to make the connection to a ‘new’ ancestor and also get details about their past, i.e. where they were born and what they did for a living.

Credit: Ancestry

One other thing that you can take from these records is their story as well. By checking different census years for a particular ancestor of yours you can see their migration trail. If you learn about the history of the area that he/she moved to you maybe able to decipher why they moved, i.e. was it to find work or escape poverty for example.

There is so much that you can discover just by looking that little bit closer. I think that I have digressed enough so let me get on with this post.

Topics discussed in this post:

  1. What are the US census records?
  2. What years do they cover?
  3. What information can I find in the US census records?
  4. Where can I find US census records?

What Are The US Census Records?

So what are the US census records I hear you ask? Well it is an inventory of every US citizen that is living in the States. The purpose of the census is twofold. The first purpose is to determine representation in the House of Representatives. What this means is that a count is made of how many people there are in a state, and the US as a whole.

What are the US census records?

The second purpose is to help know where to distribute funds to the public, a similar reason to the UK census records. So by knowing how many people there are in areas of the country the government will know who will need services such as welfare, schooling, recreational activities, housing projects and so on.

So the census is a count of the population for the entire country, every state, county and city on a given date. It is in effect a ‘snapshot’ of America on a certain day of the year.

If you are familiar with this form of data retrieval from the public then you may know that you are required by law to answer truthfully to all the questions. For the purpose of genealogy research they are, as I have pointed out earlier, a great asset to the family historian.


What Years Do They Cover?

By now you will know the importance of US census records and how they can help you build your family tree. They can also tell your ancestors story if you look a little closer between the lines. But what years do they cover and which ones can you get access to?

What years do they cover?

You maybe surprised to know that this Federal Census has been taken every 10 years from 1790 right up until now. Due to privacy laws you will not have access to the most recent census records. There is in fact a 72 year wait, which means that the most current record is the 1940 census records.

If you think that is a long time then you are lucky that you live in America. In the United Kingdom there is a 100 year rule in place. So for the family historian in Britain the most recent records available are the 1911 census records. They will have to wait until 2021 to get access to the 1921 census records.

Unfortunately a large portion of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire in 1921. Sadly only a few fragments of this census year remain.


What Information Can I Find In The US Census Records?

So now you know the importance of the US census records and what years they cover. But what can you actually learn from them? As I have pointed out you can learn who your ancestors were and their siblings. And then from this you can start to build your family tree.

What information can you find in them?

US census records from 1790 through to 1840 contained very limited information, but don’t be worried as they will still be of great help to you. These earlier censuses records are very similar to the first UK census records from 1801 to 1841.

These early records were only interested in obtaining a headcount of the population and do not contain much more information other than names.

From the 1850 census onwards this change with the introduction of more questions. I will discuss what was added, and removed, from subsequent censuses below.

1850 & 1860

  • Name, age and gender for each member of the household
  • Birthplace and occupation
  • If married in that year

1870

  • Were father or mother born outside the country

1880

  • Marital status of each member of the household
  • The relationship to the head of the household
  • Place of birth of father and mother for each member of the household

1900

  • Month and year of birth
  • Number of years in current marriage, (if applicable)
  • Mother of how many children and how many are living, (if applicable)
  • Naturalization statues, i.e. alien, naturalized or papers submitted
  • How many years lived in the country
  • Year of immigration to America, (if applicable)

1910

  • Asks whether a Civil War Veteran
  • Removed – Month and year of birth; and how many years lived in the country

1920

  • Native language, and native language of parents
  • Removed – Number of years in current marriage; number of children and are currently living; whether a Civil War Veteran.

1930

  • Age at time of first marriage
  • Whether a military veteran and if so which year

1940

  • Removed – Age at time of first marriage; birthplace of parents; whether a military veteran; year of immigration to America; and native language

From these records then you can find out when and where your ancestors were born. You can then use this information to search for their birth certificates. You could also learn who was living with your ancestors on the date that the census record was taken.

And you can also discover whether other family members were living nearby. This last point I have found particularly interesting to discover.


Where Can I Find US Census Records

Ok, ok so now you are probably wondering where you can get access to these US census records. And rightly so. There is just so much information that you can gain from these records as I have stressed in this post. They really were a great asset for me to learning who my ancestors were and helping me build my family tree.

Where can I find census records

Accessing these records basically fall under two categories – FREE and PAID. So lets look at both of them shall we.

Your FREE option!

For me one of the most helpful genealogy search website was FamilySearch. The great thing about this website is that it is free site for you to search, and it is the largest free site online. Currently there are over 3 billion names in their databases which contain millions of records.

Even though access to these records is free the downfall of this site is that you may not find what you are looking for. But FamilySearch are adding more records all the time, so if you do not find what you are looking for then it is worth checking back at a later time. Unless you want to go the PAID option route.

Your PAID options!

When it comes to paying for access to the US census records you have two options available to you. They are Ancestry and Find My Past. Both have an extensive collection of census records, and other types of records for you to access as well. So when you have discovered your ancestors through the censuses you can look for them in other records.


Final Thoughts

If you are beginning to trace your family tree then learning about your ancestors through US census records is the way to go. And even if you are well on your way to building your family tree you may want to take a step back and discover what these records hold. Who knows you may find out something about your ancestors that you didn’t know about.

I would stress though that you stick to one ancestor and family group at a time. It is too easy to follow the path of a sibling, and then his wife and then her ancestors. You just get sidetracked and lose who you were originally researching.

Also, the amount of information that is contained in these records and the number of years available can mean that you will get information overload. So pace yourself.

I am talking from experience. It is a good idea to collect the information first and then assimilate that into your genealogy software program. But do not gather too much information as you will not know where to start.

Census records though can be a fun resource for you to use. They are great at building your family tree. And as I have pointed out if you look a little closer you will pick out the stories from the facts. Good luck!

So come on people, come to your senses and use the censuses!


Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining the basics of US census records. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Author: Owain

Hello, Owain here. After researching my family history for a number of years I wanted to give back to the genealogy world. So here you will find guides, tips and product reviews that will help you on your genealogy journey.

4 thoughts on “The Basics of US Census Records

  1. Rose

    Genealogy is so much fun. I never thought that you should or could use US census records. There is just so much information that I didn’t realize that I could use to build up my family tree.

    Thank you for sharing these tips. They will be a great help to me.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Thanks Rose for your comment. I just can’t stress enough the importance of these records. They can tell you so much about your family history.

      I wish you all the best with your genealogy research.

      Reply
  2. Althea Kerr

    Hi Owain,
    What an incredibly useful site. It is so difficult tracing one’s genealogy and I have always given up halfway as there are so many places to look but very few that actually provide the info one needs.
    I found everything I need here and you have explained everything so clearly.
    Thank you for your help.

    Reply
    1. Owain Post author

      Thank you Althea for your kind comments. It’s nice to know that I am providing a practical site and that my work is being appreciated.

      Genealogy is such a varied subject. You can learn so much about your ancestors and there is just so many ways that we can find out about them.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *