What Can You Learn From The 1860 Census Records?

By | June 30, 2017

Discovering that you have American Civil War ancestors can be very exciting. Also, finding them in the 1860 census records can also be exhilarating too. As family historians we want to know everything about our ancestors and learning their story before one of America’s biggest moments can be really interesting.

1860 Census Records

So where shall I start?

Census records can give you so much information as I will discuss later on in the post. So before I do go on any further I just wanted to share with you my family history journey. And I will show you just how important census records can be for your own genealogy research.

I became interested in my family history because of my father. He would tell me stories that had been passed down to him by his mother and father. Some of these stories were a couple hundred years old! And some of them were from when my grandmother and grandfather were growing up and what they did during the Second World War.

Genealogy and Family History

They were really fascinating stories that my father would recite to me and my brothers. As I grew older I became more interested in my family history. I knew that these stories formed quite an important part of that history and that I would have to record them some way.

Why would I want to do that you maybe wondering?

Well I knew that if I didn’t then these stories would be lost in time. Sure my brothers could pass them onto their children and in time they could pass them on to their children. This story telling is how my father got to hear them in the first place.

But with subsequent generations details get omitted and some stories forgotten altogether. Even my father now wishes that he had recorded these stories that his parents had told him as he knows that there were many more but know they are gone. How sad?

Anyway, I asked my father to write down these stories in a notebook and then I set about typing them up on the computer. It wasn’t long before I thought that it would be a good idea to include family tree charts in with these stories in order to make them more interesting. Also, anyone reading the stories could see how these people related to me and my father.

I therefore bought a genealogy software program and entered what research my father had done. This was a great starting point for me as he had researched many branches of our family tree back six or seven generations.

My father had used census records in order to find out who our ancestors were. He also used these records to get information such as year of birth and birthplace. Our family tree was shaping up quite nicely by this stage.

You can get stories from these 1860 census records!

You may, or may not, be surprised to learn that you can even get stories out of these census records. To begin with though I was just interested in collecting names, dates, places and so on. I wanted to build my family tree and these records were a vital help for me in doing that.

Write A Family History Book

But you have to look between the lines of the records!

Once you have collected all the data that you possibly can from the 1860 census records you want to look a little closer. You can pick up even more information if you read between the lines.

Genealogy is all about gathering your ancestors names and their details. But family history is all about learning their story and preserving them for future generations.

I am probably not making much sense right now so let me explain it!

If you look at several census records and for example take note of where your ancestor was living. Does the location change frequent between these? If so then you can ask yourself why was this?

There could be many reasons for your ancestors migration. Could it been because of work? This was the case for one of my ancestors who traveled around the country looking for work as a coal miner.

Finding out about the local history of the area of where my ancestor lived I discovered that a coal mine had closed. And this some time after my ancestor was living close by. The following census showed that he had moved and was near another coal mine, still working the same job. This closure was more than likely the cause of his relocation.

This is just one example. There are other stories that you can discover from these census records if you look a little closer. The stories are there you just have to look.

So What’s In The 1860 Census Records?

The 1860 census records provides you with a very fascinating insight into the lives of your ancestors before the events of the American Civil War. The information in these records was collected from June 1st 1860 and continued for five months. By the time that this census took place there were 33 states in the Union.

Searching For Records

What was unique about these records?

The previous 1850 census records was a great leap forward as it was the first time that names were recorded on these forms. The following 1860 census records offers the family historian more detailed information for us to work with.

A person’s value of their personal estate was asked on this form. However, although this is quite interesting to read we must note that the figure given by the individual may not actually be correct.

The reason for this is that they may have been hesitant as they would have been taxed accordingly. So with a higher figure given then the more taxed that they would have had to pay.

Another key element to this record was that the individual provided a more specific answer when it came to where they were born. So in the previous census records they would have entered for example Great Britain.

On this form however they could enter England, Scotland or Wales. This can therefore help us narrow down our genealogy research even further as we have more of an idea of where we can find our ancestors.

The 12 key elements of the 1860 census records!


Chances are you will quite easily find your ancestor when you search for them by their name. However, there maybe occasions when you will sadly not find them. If this is the case then I would suggest to you to try either alternative spellings of their name or maybe their initials instead.

I have had great luck using these methods, so it’s definitely worth trying.


To narrow down your search further you could try to search for your ancestor by entering their date of birth, (that’s if you know it of course). This will greatly narrow down your search results. This is particularly true if your ancestor has a common name.


Obviously this key element will show you whether you are looking at a male or a female. It is a good indicator for you if your ancestor has a name that can be used for either a man or a woman.

If the enumerator’s handwriting is not really legible and you cannot really read the name of the individual then this field can help your research further as well.


1850 was the first time that this question was added to the census records. Later records would ask the race of the individual. This question though can help you to narrow down the race of your ancestor. Possible answers include white, black, or mulatto.


This element of the census records can help you identify whether you have found your ancestor. That is again of course if you know what your ancestor’s occupation was. This field though was entered by any male who was aged 15 years or over.


Value of real estate and value of personal estate

Again I must point out again that the information within these fields may not be entirely accurate. So please do not pay too much attention to the amounts that were entered for these questions.


This field can again help you to narrow down your search for your ancestors within the 1860 census records. If your ancestor migrated to America you will have more of a clue as to where they originated from.

Married/Attended school during the year and literacy

The first two questions of this part of the records asks if the individual had either married or had attended school within the year preceding the census records. The third part then asked whether the person, if aged over 20, could read and write.

Infirmity, pauper or convict

The government also wanted to know whether the individual was deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic. This question was also included in the previous 1850 census records.

Deaf and dumb

The last part of this question wanted to know whether the person was a pauper or a convict. This can be really fascinating for you as a family historian as this information can help you to learn more about your ancestor and their story.

There was a time when convicts in the family were best left forgotten. But now these skeletons in the closet have become more acceptable and even embraced. This is particularly true for Australian citizens where one fifth of the population do have a convict ancestor in their family tree.

Where Can I Find The 1860 Census Records?

After reading this post so far you probably have realized the importance of census records. Not only can they give you the details that you need to build your family tree but also they can provide you with the stories behind your family’s history. But where do you find these records you maybe asking yourself.

Where can I find the 1880 census records

Your FREE option!

The first option that I want to present to you is a FREE one. I am all for saving money and why not do so with genealogy research. So with that in mind why not try out FamilySearch. This is a great free resource where you can gather information about your ancestors.

There are millions of records within the FamilySearch site and it’s very likely that you will find them within their database. However, one drawback to this website and that is there is the possibility that you will not find some records that you maybe searching for.

Their records are growing all the time but there maybe some information that they do not have.You will therefore need to turn your attention to the paid sites.

Your PAID options!

There are two websites that I highly recommend you to use for your genealogy research and they are Ancestry and Find My Past. Both of these sites offer millions of records, much like FamilySearch. But there will be much more of a chance of you finding your ancestors within their databases as they do contain more records.

Credit: Ancestry

Ancestry is of course the more popular choice. This is most probably because everyone is more familiar with this site. We all have heard of Ancestry, even people who are not interested in family history have heard of this genealogy search website.

If you do not find your ancestors when using Ancestry then I would suggest that you try FindMyPast instead. This is because they may have indexed your ancestor’s records differently.

This is because the person transcribing the 1860 census records may have read the details differently than someone from Ancestry. The reason for this comes down to trying to read the enumerator’s handwriting. Obviously errors will creep in.

Sometimes when I haven’t had much luck finding my ancestors using the Ancestry site I have turned my attention to FindMyPast. And luckily that I did because there was the record.

Some of my ancestors have been entered as ‘Cooch’ or ‘Cauch’ on these sites. So if you cannot find your ancestors on one of these then why not try the other?

Final Thoughts

The 1860 census records is a great way for you to learn about your ancestors. You can find out so much about them as I have discussed above in this post. It really is fascinating to learn where they were and what they were doing before the Civil War broke out.

Census records have become a great asset for family historians as they offer so much. And as I have said in the previous section you can get that information freely from the FamilySearch website.

One great way that you can make sense of all the information that is in these census records is to write a family history book. I have done this myself and believe me it really has helped.

You can put into words what you have found out. And by doing this you can pick up the stories as well. So, as I picked on earlier you could ask the question why did my ancestor move about the country? What was the reason for this migration?

That is just one example, but there are many others.

Writing your family history can also be a great way to present and preserve your findings to the rest of your family. Your family history book can be easily copied and passed down to your children, and their children and so on.

I am really proud of the family history book that I have created and I can’t wait to share it with my daughters when they are old enough.

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining what you can learn from the 1860 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.

6 thoughts on “What Can You Learn From The 1860 Census Records?

  1. Arianna

    I always wanted to know more about census records and you have provided the information I was looking for. There is just so much details that they provide. I didn’t even to think about looking for stories so thank you! 🙂

    1. Owain Post author

      You’re quite welcome Arianna. Yes census records are very rich with information that can help us know more about our ancestors. Looking for the stories was something I didn’t expect when I first used this resource. But as I looked closer I saw just how much potential that they did have.

  2. Carole Brooks

    Hi Owain! This is great. My brother spent a couple of years on our family history and traveled to meet one of our relatives who is a Monk in a small town outside of London. He took my brother to family graveyards. It was not a coincidence that both of them had the same inquisitive nature and they shared much information.

    Thanks for sharing this information.

    1. Owain Post author

      That’s really interesting that your relative is a monk. Your brother could learn a lot from your ancestors graves. That is something that I want to touch upon on a later post.

      There is just so much information out that. It is just knowing about it all, where to find it and how to use it.

  3. Maurice

    I have read some of your work about an ancestor search. I found the story you mention here to be nice and enlightening as to help you with your search. I have always been curious about my heritage and this post here is taking it to another level.

    1. Owain Post author

      It’s important and interesting to know that you can learn a lot about your ancestor from records such as these. And as I have pointed out not only can you get the details from these records but you can learn so much from them.

      Try to read between the lines. There is just so much you can get from these records. I was so amazed what I found out about my ancestors. And so I wanted to share that discovery and show you the family historian the potential behind these records.


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