What Can You Learn From The 1870 Census Records?

By | June 30, 2017

Your ancestry is rich with history, particularly so if you have American Civil War ancestors. The 1870 census records can give you an insight into their lives after the events of the war. So please read on as I will explain to you what you can discover from these records.

1870 Census Records

But before I do explain, here is my story?

Using documents such as census records can you give you so much information that you can work on and use to create and build your family tree. They have become a vital asset for many family historian wishing to discover their family history.

Before I found out the importance of these records I learned all that I could from my father. Over the years when I was a young kid he would tell me many a tale about my ancestors. He would spend hours and hours just going over and over these stories. And I would never tire of them.

Genealogy and Family History

I was so engrossed by not even how many there were but how many centuries old they were. Some dated back to the 1750s or so. They were really interested to hear and some I bet were really quite unique to our family and the area in which my ancestors lived.

Recording my family history!

It was only when I was older that I thought that it would be a good idea to record these stories and tales. I had known early on that they needed to be preserved but it wasn’t until much later that I set about recording them.

To do this I asked my father if he would write them down in a notepad and that I would then type them up on the computer. A simple task you may think. But it soon became apparent just how rich my family history was with the sheer volume of stories that he wrote down.

While typing them up I thought that it would be a great idea to include family charts to go along with these stories. I thought that this would be great as the reader could see the relationship between the individual and to my father and I.

I would therefore need a genealogy software program in order to create these charts. By this time my father had already began to research our family history. Some of the branches of our family tree went back at least seven generations.

I therefore had a great starting point to build our family tree and to research it more.

There’s stories in those 1870 census records!

Census records were really helpful for me as I could find my ancestors and their details and add them to my ever-growing family tree. I was however hooked on finding my ancestors through this resource. It did become an obsession at one point.

Write A Family History Book

Look between the lines of the records!

After I had entered all that I could from these records I then thought about what I could do next. After all I had carried out the genealogy part of my research. This obviously included information such as my ancestor’s name, date of birth, place of birth, occupation and so on.

What about the family history?

But there was more to it than that. There is of course family history which is quite different as it looks at the lives of our ancestors and tells their stories.

You’re probably a little bit perplexed by that sentence so let me explain.

You can take what you find within these census records and start to ask questions. Questions such as why did your ancestor move around the state or country so much? Was it so that they could find work, or was it to escape poverty? Or was it for some other reason?

This is just one example which I have just touched upon. There are many more questions that you can ask yourself about your ancestors. You just need to look a little bit closer at the information that you find.

Trust me you will be surprised as to the fascinating insights that you will discover about your ancestors and how there were many factors that helped shaped their lives. There are too many to go into detail here. But I just wanted to open your eyes as to what you can discover through this resource.

So What’s In The 1870 Census Records?

The 1870 census records was a vast improvement on the two earlier records of 1850 and 1860 as even more questions were added to the form. Again information was collected beginning on June 1st and lasting for five months.

Searching For Records

Even more questions added!

You will learn a lot more about your ancestor from these census records as opposed to earlier ones as I will discuss below. One thing though that you will need to be mindful of is that no relationships between the head of the household and the other individuals were added.

So be careful if you see other people with the same surname listed within the same household. For example, you may see a female with the same surname as your ancestor and of similar age.

You may deduce from this that this person was your ancestor’s partner. But instead it could be possible that they were their sister. Later census records will help you to find the truth.

If you cannot find your ancestor then it maybe possible that they were a casualty of the American Civil War. Another possible reason is that they were quite simply missed when it came to this census record. This has been said for this occasion.

The 15 elements of the 1870 census records!


There are a couple of tips that I can share with you to help you find your elusive ancestor. If you are having trouble finding an ancestor why not try alternative spellings of their name.

I have had great luck using this trick. I have found ancestors with surnames spelt as ‘Cooch’ and ‘Cauch’. This is even though my surname is spelt Couch.

Also, you could try entering the initials of your ancestor in the search engine when trying to find them.


You can greatly narrow down your search if you know the date of birth of your ancestor. Please be mindful though when you see the answer for this element of the form. Mistakes can occur, especially when someone can’t remember their age. I know that sometimes I have to stop and think.

For anyone who was over one year of age their age at their last birthday was recorded. If the child was less than a year old then the month of their birth was entered, (in a later question on the form). This can greatly help you to pinpoint when your ancestor was born, (that is if they were born within a year of the census).


Obviously you will know the sex of the ancestor that you are looking for. But if you have found an ancestor that you didn’t know about and their name is illegible on the form then this element of the form can help you.

Sometimes it can be quite a headache to read census records when the enumerator had fancy handwriting. And when these forms have been uploaded to the Internet it is well worth checking the original document as errors do creep in that way.


Knowing the color of your ancestor can help you to further track down other records for your ancestor. Two more options had been added for this question since the two previous census records, them being Chinese and Indian.

Possible answers included: White (W); Black (B); Chinese (C); Indian; or Mulatto (M).

Profession, Occupation, Trade

Finding out what your ancestor did for a living can really help you to know your ancestor more. The real bonus with this question was in previous census records only occupations of males aged over 15 were recorded on the form. From 1870 females were able to add their occupations as well.


Value of real estate and value of personal estate

You really must treat these two elements of the census records with a grain of salt. What I mean by this is that your ancestor may have lied when it came to these two questions. And why was that?

Well, they would have done this as they were afraid that they would have been taxed more if they entered a high value fr both of these questions.


Knowing the answer to this question can again greatly help you to narrow down your search for more records. In this instance it can help you to locate the birth record of your ancestor.

The state or territory would have been entered for this question. And if your ancestor had emigrated to America then the country of birth was recorded.

House and Land

Father/Mother of foreign born

An addition to this census record was recording whether the parents of the individual was born outside of America. This was a simple yes or no question.

Month of birth

As I discussed earlier if an individual was born within a year of the census then their month was recorded. So they would have answered Jan, Feb, Mar, and so on.

Married/Attended school during the year and literacy

These two questions had been included in the previous 1860 census records. The government were interested to know whether the individual had either married or had attended school with a year of the census.

The following question referring to literacy was however amended for this census record. Previous records asked whether the individual couldn’t read or write.

But for this record the question was broken down into two so there was more clarity. The government could therefore know whether the person could not read, or write, or both.

Be mindful though of over-zealous enumerators who may have entered in values for these questions for infants.


The government again wanted to know the infirmity of the individual. The possible answers to this question were deaf and dumb; blind; insane; or idiotic. The question of whether the individual was a pauper or a convict was removed from this census record.

Deaf and dumb

Able to vote

The last part of the census record asked whether the individual was a male, aged over 21 years and was able to vote. If the person had been denied to vote due to rebellion or crime for example then this was indicated as well.

Where Can I Find The 1870 Census Records?

Okay, so you are probably wondering how can I find my ancestors and where can I look? Basically there are two options available to you. There is the FREE option and then there is PAID.

Where can I find the 1880 census records

Your FREE option!

I will first start off with the paid option. I highly recommend that you begin your family history research by using this free method. After all what is the point spending your money on information that you could have quite literally not paid a dime on.

Genealogy is of course a hobby that you will need to and expect at some point spend money. But do so when you have exhausted your free option.

My website of choice and my number one go to site is FamilySearch. This site contains millions of records where I have found a lot of records containing my ancestors.

However, there have been times when I have not found what I was looking for on this website and so I had to turn my attention to genealogy search sites where you have to pay.

Your PAID options!

This therefore brings me to my two websites of choice, Ancestry and Find My Past. Both of these contain millions of records much like FamilySearch. But there is more of a chance for you to find your ancestors with these two.

Credit: Ancestry

My first pick though is Ancestry. There is a reason why everyone has heard of this site and why it is the number one genealogy search website. That is because not only does it have millions of records but there are literally billions of names within their database.

There is of course the community of members on this site who can help you with any queries that you may find. You may even find living cousins who are members.

If however you are unsuccessful in finding your ancestor through Ancestry I do suggest you turn your attention to FindMyPast. This is again another excellent website that you can use.

Sometimes I have found my ancestor by using this alternative. The reason for this is down to the indexing of the records.

When records have been transcribed by the person responsible for uploading the information errors are unfortunately bound to creep in. This can be down to trying to decipher the fancy handwriting of the enumerator who by a mis-key from the transcriber. This fact is sadly inevitable when it comes to genealogy research.

But to end off on a positive note I have found so many records containing my ancestors from using both of these sites. So I urge you to discover your ancestors through either, or even both of them.

Final Thoughts

By finding your ancestors within the 1870 census records you can see what happened to them after the events of the American Civil War. The war may have almost certainly have shaped their lives from that moment on.

Not only can use the census records from this year, and others, to help you build your family tree but also you can discover your the stories behind your family history.

One great way that I learned more about my ancestry was by writing my very own family history book. By looking at my ancestor’s life chronologically I was able to find gaps in my knowledge of them. For example, I was well aware of my 2nd great grandfather John Couch, but I didn’t know too much about his earlier years.

It was only by searching for records, and namely newspaper archives, did I discover that he had a couple of brushes with the law. These discoveries made for some quite interesting reading. And it quite surprised my father as well when I told him about them.

So my advice is learn all that you can from the census records. Take what you can and build your family tree from the information that they contain. Then when you have done that start to look a little closer and try to read between the lines. You will be surprised as to what you will find, trust me!

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining what you can learn from the 1870 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 “What Can You Learn From The 1870 Census Records?

  1. Sean L

    Great stuff!! I’m really into history anyway, even more so when I learn about my ancestor’s role in it. My great uncle discovered that one of my ancestors was in the Civil War and that he even wrote a book about his experiences. I was able to find a copy and it’s really interesting stuff! You make a good point about reading between the lines when it comes to the basic information we discover about our ancestors. I really enjoyed this!!


    1. Owain Post author

      That’s great that your ancestor documented his experiences during the Civil War. I was astounded how much I got from census records. This all happened when I started to write my family history and I started to question my family history and the decisions that my ancestors made.

  2. Angela

    My daughter and I are currently trying to track down our family history. We have run into a hurtle because my great grandfather was adopted. I was totally unaware of the FamilySearch site. Thanks for the information. I can’t wait to tell her!

    1. Owain Post author

      I have found so many documents on the FamilySearch website. You can learn so much about your ancestors from this resource. I wish you all the best with your genealogy research.


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