What Can We Learn From The US Federal Census Records?

There are so many sources of information available to the family historian. The US Federal census records is by far the most valuable resource that anyone can use to trace their ancestry.

US Federal Census Records

So, you maybe wondering what information do these records hold and how can they help me with my genealogy research.

Well, please read on and I will explain it all to you.

Please watch this!

But first I just want to show you this short 6-minute video from Ancestry. This how-to video will demonstrate how you can explore the vast collection of census records that are available to you on this impressive genealogy site.

Credit: Ancestry

You can learn the following

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The 13 Key Elements of the US Federal Census Records

The census records have changed considerably since they were first introduced in 1790. They have been carried out every ten years since then.

What are the US census records?

Although the questions have changed considerably over the last 220 odd years the purpose of the census has remained the same.

Purpose of the US Federal census records!

Actually there are two purposes to collecting information about the citizens of the United States of America.

The first is to help determine how many people there are in the state and ultimately in the country.

And this can then help determine representation in the House of Representatives.

The second purpose helps the government know where to spend money for the public’s interest. This could be for welfare, education, roads, housing, etc.

It is therefore a ‘snapshot’ of America for a certain day of the year that occurs every ten years.

Due to privacy laws though you have to wait 72 years for the most recent census records.

So, as it is 2017 as this post is written the most recent census record that family historians can access is 1940.

This isn’t too bad considering that the British have a 100 year rule and so their latest census record is 1911.

So, let’s begin to dissect the US Federal census records!


The age of the person listed in the records will be an approximate year of birth. You will have to allow for some discrepancy for this piece of data if you have already obtained their birth record.

If you do not know when your ancestor was born then this data can help you to find such a record.

* Owain’s Tip *

Setting a tolerance of plus or minus 2 or 5 years can help you when searching for your ancestor.


Also, there maybe reasons that there is a considerable gap between the ages of your ancestor’s children.

It could be that one had died; was staying with relatives; or maybe they were a servant and were living with their employer.

Alien or Naturalized and Year of Immigration/Naturalization

For this question there are a few abbreviations that I will need to explain.

  • Al – This indicator shows that the person has not yet started the process to becoming a US citizen.
  • P or PA – This indicates that the process has begun. You can therefore look for a Declaration of intent.
  • NA – This means that the person listed is naturalized. Try looking for other records such as Declaration of intent and petition.

Knowing the year that your ancestor came to the United States, year of immigration, can help you to find their Declaration of intent.

Prior to 1906 you will need to look at the county or state level for this record. After 1906 then you will need to look at the federal level.

The 1900 to 1930 census records asked for a date of immigration for immigrants. Using this information can obviously help you to narrow down your ancestor’s arrival into America.

* Owain’s Tip *

From the 1850s onwards the Declaration of intent will show your ancestor’s birthplace.

The year of naturalization will help you to find their naturalization papers and ultimately which country they came from.

However, you may not be able to find out exactly from which town or city they were born.


This will give you which state or nation that your ancestor was born in. You can however find their birth record with a little detective work.

Try to find the earliest census record that lists your ancestor.

Take note of what area the census was conducted and this may lead to discovering their birth record.


However, your ancestor’s family may have moved prior to the census, but it is worth pointing out just in case.

You can check birthplaces of your ancestor’s children to see whether the family did in fact move around the state, or even country.

From this information you can try to obtain the children’s birth records as well as maybe land and perhaps business records.

Birthplace of Father and Mother

Obviously this will help you to obtain the birth records of your ancestor’s parents. But it could also lead you to discovering their marriage certificate as well.

Their marriage may have taken place in the area of where they were born.

So, it is well worth checking this line of inquiry as well.

If you suspect that you do have a military ancestor in your family tree then this information can help you to find their military records.

Checking your ancestor’s mother’s birthplace can also show their migration.

The reason for this is that it was common for a mother to go back to where she lived in order to have a child.

Color or Race

You can use this information to help you find families of various different races. It is just another key line of questioning to help trace your ethnicity and your family tree.

Color or race


There are a couple of questions listed for this key element of the Federal census records. The first asked whether the person listed in the records was still in school.

The second question asked what their highest grade that they achieved in school.

You can also deduce your ancestor’s level of literacy by the answers that were provided on the form. You can spot this by the different spellings of places, job titles and maybe misspelling their name as well.

Farm or House

If your ancestor indicated that the family lived on a farm then you can use this information to obtain agricultural census records for your ancestor.

House and Land

Otherwise if your ancestor stated home then you can search for land records and other records such as tax records, probates and maybe wills as well.

Homes would obviously be passed on to the next generation in a will.

* Owain’s Tip *

Even if your ancestor rented their home it is still well worth checking these records as well.


You just never know what you will find!

House and Number

You can use this information to find out if the property that your ancestor was living at was a home or even an apartment.


This is another key element to help you find your ancestor’s homeland. You can learn from this what languages that they were fluent in.

A particular region of a country may also be specified.

Marital Status and Number of Years Married

Knowing the marital statues of your ancestors can also help you to locate other records as well.

Knowing the number of years that your ancestor had been married by the time that the census was taken can help you to find their actual marriage record.

Besides their marriage record you could also obtain a probate or death record if they indicated D – divorce.

If W – widowed was listed then try looking for divorce or court records instead.

Mother of How Many Children & Number of These Children Living

Knowing how many children that your ancestor gave birth to can help you to find any siblings that you may not be aware of.

This has been a great help to me to an ancestor that I did not even know existed before.

Mother of children

The reason that I may not been aware of a child is simple. They could have died between censuses, and so this question has helped me to look for birth records for these missing records.

From my own personal research I was able to discover that my 2nd great grandfather had a fourth child. My father and I had absolutely no idea that this was the case, so it was a great surprise to us.

Sadly my ancestor’s died at the age of ten months.


The biggest aid to finding your ancestor within census records is to check for their name.

Obviously you will need to be mindful of spelling, especially as I have made you aware that you should consider their level of literacy and schooling.


It is fascinating to learn what our ancestors did for work and to help put bread on the table. But if your ancestor had a skilled occupation you may be able to use this information to find more records as well.


If your ancestor was highly skilled then they would likely have served an apprenticeship or indenture. It is quite possibly that they learned their profession from their father.

This has been the case within my family tree as a few generations have either been shoemakers or stonemasons.

* Owain’s Tip *

Discovering your ancestor’s occupation can help you to identify the correct family if there are more than one person with the same full name.

My Final Thoughts!

Census records as I discussed at the start of this post have helped me greatly to build my family tree. Without this valuable record I would not have been able to trace my family through the generations.

These records have not only given me my ancestors’ names, but also given me key information such as their birthplaces, year of birth, occupation and so much more.

Not only that though they have helped me to find out even more information by using what I have discovered and looking for more records.

Collecting the data and putting it into your genealogy software program can be very exciting.

But taking a closer look at the information that is provided on these forms can also raise new questions.

You can ask yourself why did your ancestor moved around the country quite a lot? Was it because they were trying to find work, escaping poverty, or was it some other reason?

That is just one example.

You can find so many stories buried beneath the facts.

So, start using these records and also look for the stories as well. You will be surprised what you will discover about your ancestors.

Further Information!

After reading this helpful guide you may want to check out further information regarding US Census Records.

Why not head on over to the United States Census Bureau for help with your genealogy research.

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining what we can learn from the US Federal census records. If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below.

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