What Can You Learn From The 1880 Census Records?

By | June 26, 2017

There is just a wealth of information that can be obtained from census records. The 1880 census records does offer you a lot of data that you can use for your genealogy research. So please read on and I will explain it all to you!

1880 Census Records

Where do I even begin?

Researching your family history can be an exciting and rewarding hobby. Before I explain the importance of census records, and the 1880 census records in particular, I just wanted to share with you my own family history journey.

I became interested in my own family history because of the many stories and anecdotes as well that my father would tell me. They were really a joy to listen to and I couldn’t believe just how many there were. As I grew older I realized the significance to record these as if I didn’t then they would be lost in time.

Genealogy and Family History

So I asked my father if he would pen these stories and then I would type them up on the computer. It wasn’t long before I realized that I would have to include family charts so that people could see the relationship between the people talked about and me and my father. I knew by doing this that it would make the stories that much more interesting.

I took what research my father had done and put that into a genealogy software program that I had purchased. Being tech savvy I knew that using a computer program would save me a lot of time.

My father had originally drawn family pedigree charts using just pen and paper. I knew that a program would be best as I could easily use it to make corrections or additions to our tree.

This was just a start to researching my family history. The next part was to look at census records. The trouble though with them is knowing when to stop. You can go from one relation then jump to the next and so on before you have even finished looking at the first relation that you wanted to research.

So take your time. Learn all that you can about one individual and then look at the next. And then repeat this process. Simple right?

Well it can be but there are census records tips that I can share with you that will help you to find that elusive ancestor of yours.

There’s stories in those 1880 census records!

What am I talking about here then? Just where are the stories in these records? They are just a collection of names and details to go along with them right? Well, there’s more to them than that.

Write A Family History Book

Look between the lines of the records!

When I first became interested in my family history I was so caught up with finding my ancestors and recording their names and details. I wanted to go as far back as I could possibly go and find as many relatives as I could.

That’s the genealogy part. But the family history looks at their story. Just what decisions did shape their lives?

For example, you may see from the census records for a particular ancestor that they kept moving about the country. Now why was this?

Was it because they were looking for work? Was it because they were trying to escape poverty? Or was it some other reason?

These maybe possible answers for that question but it could be for some other reason. To answer it you could start to look at the history of the area that your ancestor lived in. And you can compare it with what occupation that he or she had.

This is just one example. There are many other stories and questions that you can pick from the census records. You just need to start looking a little closer once you have collected all the information.

So What’s In The 1880 Census Records?

The 1880 census gives us a snapshot of our ancestors lives from when it was taken on June 1st of that year. Thirteen different elements that make up this census which I will explain below.

Searching For Records

There were 50 million individuals recorded in this census. The 1880 records have become an essential resource for the family historian as the 1890 collection was largely destroyed by fire.


Obviously this will be the key element which will help you to find your ancestor. Please bear in mind that if you do not find your ancestor through this method then there are a few tips that I can offer you.

You could try alternative spellings of your ancestor’s surname, or maybe entering their initials instead. Failing that you could try searching for their partner or children instead. This has been particularly helpful to me when I have not been able to find an elusive ancestor of mine.


From this element you can find out whether they were listed as:

  • White (W)
  • Black (B)
  • Chinese (C)
  • Indian (I) – First time featured in the census records
  • Mulatto (M)

Color or race

Month of birth

This element is given if your ancestor was born within a year of the census

Relation to head of household

This question featured for the first time I need the 1880s census records. You can tell from this element whether a person listed with your ancestor was a partner, child, sibling, etc. This can help you to fill out your family tree appropriately.

Also, it is particularly helpful for another reason. For example, if someone is listed with your family with the same surname you may think that they are a relation. Taking note of what is entered in this field can help you tell whether they are or not.

Marital Status

There are four different answers that your ancestor could have answered for this question.

Marital Status

The four possible answers given were:

  • Single,
  • Married,
  • Widowed,
  • Divorced

You can again learn a lot from this field of the census records. For example, if your ancestor was listed as a widowed you will have a limit as to when their partner had died. You know that this census was in 1880 and that it was taken from June 1.


Your ancestor would have answered this question if he had married within a year of the census.

Occupation or months unemployed

Another key piece of information that you can learn from the 1880 census records is what your ancestor did for a living. This is great as you can really get to know them. I personally have learned a lot about my ancestor by studying further what their job entailed.

It’s one thing to know that your ancestor was a shoemaker for example, but what was really involved with their work, what tools did they use and how big was their business. You can find out so much about your ancestor from this one question of the records. It makes you explore their lives more closer.

–> Old Occupations Their Meanings and How To Find Them <–


The 1880 census records also included for the first time information regarding the state, county and any other subdivisions.

When searching for your ancestor online you can enter this information to narrow down your search. Of course you can enter this if you already know where they were born. And if you don’t know then this is another link to your ancestor’s life that you can find out about.

Parents’ birthplace

Following on from the previous question you can also find out where your ancestor’s parents were born. This information is vital for helping you to trace your family tree further back.

House and Land

School attendance

This question was answered if your ancestor was in school within a year of the census records taken place.

Unable to read

This question would have been answered by a parent if your ancestor was unable to read if they were over the age of ten years. You can from this whether your ancestor was illiterate.

Unable to read

Sick or temporarily disabled

The government wanted to know whether the person listed in the census was sick or temporarily disabled when this record was taken place.


Another question posed which was similar to the previous question was the listed person’s infirmity. This question, and the previous one, can give you clues as to your ancestor’s genetic diseases.

The possible answers given were:

  • Blind,
  • Deaf-mute,
  • Idiotic,
  • Insane, or
  • Permanently disabled

Where Can I Find The 1880 Census Records?

By now you are probably wondering where you can find the 1880 census records and start looking for your ancestors. Here I will present to you three possible options. The first being a free one followed by ones that you will need to pay for.

Where can I find the 1880 census records

Your FREE option!

The first website that I suggest that you go to is FamilySearch. This is a FREE site that you can search for your ancestors. There are over 3 millions names within their database collection and millions of records.

However, despite being a free option there does come a disadvantage with this site. Unfortunately there maybe the case that you will not find your ancestor within their database. For this reason I suggest you look at the following two paid options.

Your PAID options!

Two options that are available to you are Ancestry and Find My Past, both of which I have used extensively for my genealogy research. They have given me so much information that I have been able to work with. But there is a disadvantage to that.

Credit: Ancestry

As I mentioned earlier I became obsessed with finding my ancestors and any possible relation that I could find. There are so many records with these two sites so it is really easy to find your ancestors. So really it isn’t a bad thing, you just need to know when to stop and to assimilate what you have collected.

Because there is a higher chance of you finding your ancestors with these two sites it is therefore worth checking them out. But only do so when you have exhausted your search on FamilySearch.

Also, if you are not able to find your ancestor on Ancestry then please try your luck on FindMyPast, or vice versa. You may have a better chance of finding them.

Final Thoughts

There is just so much information that you can collect from the 1880 census records. Remember though to pace yourself. So whenever you do find your ancestor in these records then put them into your genealogy program.

Once you have entered their name, date of birth and any other data that you find then why not start to write a family history book. I have found that by doing this you digest the information that you have found and also makes you think about your ancestor’s life as well.

For example, if you find that your ancestor wasn’t living with the rest of the family as well you may ask yourself why was this? Why was he not with his wife and children? Was it because of work or for some other reason?

This is just one example. You can tell so much from this census records. It can lead you to other records and also give you some questions to ponder over.

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining what you can learn from the 1880 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.

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