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September 30, 2021 | Nathan Lynn

Introduction to Family Tree Building – United States Federal Population Census

The United States Federal Census has been taken every 10 years since 1790 and is a highly used source for genealogical and historical researchers. These records can provide names, ages, places, and so much more.

The United States Federal Population Census is an inventory of everyone living in the United States, taken for the purpose of determining representation in the House of Representatives. A census is a count and description of the population of a country, state, county, or city for a given date. One way to think about it is the census took a “snapshot” of a family or household on a certain day. Every individual contacted by a government representative is required by law to answer truthfully.

 Since a lot of census information has been historically collected by enumerators, it’s important to remember when researching the census that the information could have discrepancies due to the person providing the information having not known that they were providing false information or that the enumerator could have heard or written the information incorrectly.

The United States first collected information for a Federal Census in 1790. The 1790–1840 censuses can seem limited, these census usually only list the “head of household,” and how many free whites and slaves under a certain age demographics were living in each household. These were only recorded by dashes or numbers and can be challenging to decipher. But, beginning in 1850 and 1860, census records began asking for more information including listing name, age, gender, occupation, birthplace, marital status, and more. While in 1830-1840 slaves were totaled with the household, but in 1850-1860 there were slave schedules. Unfortunately, most often, only age and sex of the slaves, but no names.

The 1870 Census adds the question of whether father and mother are of foreign birth. This is notably the first census collecting information of emancipated slaves, although there are some freed slaves noted in earlier years.

In regards to searching for individuals who were formerly enslaved, the last name does not necessarily indicate the name of the slave owner and the last name may be spelled differently across multiple censuses, so be alert. Search engines may show you records that aren’t your ancestor, despite same name and location, so pair with multiple pieces of info before accepting.  Make sure you view the entire page, not just the transcribed record as families often lived near each other. You may find added siblings or relatives this way. Often individuals may have been named after named after thiern former “owners,” who may have also named children, brothers, and sisters.

The 1880 census is very similar to the 1870 but also collects information regarding marital status and the relationship to the head of household. This could also include grandchildren, niece, or nephew, and can help build a picture of the family. This census also asks for the place of birth for the person’s father and mother.

Unfortunately, most of the 1890 census’ population schedules were severely damaged by a fire in the Commerce Department Building in January 1921. Fewer than 6,160 names on only 3 rolls survived. While it is unfathomable to comprehend the loss of historical data, there are some other ways to find individuals from this time period including tax list, city directories and the Veteran Census, which list about 75,000 former Union troops.

The 1900 census adds questions for number of years in current marriage, month and year of birth, mother of how many children, number of children living, naturalization status, year of immigration to U.S., and how many years living in the U.S. Prior to 1900 a minority of indigenous people are listed in the census but starting in 1890 enumerators began listing people as, “Indian.” The 1900 and 1910 Indian Schedules collected additional information including name of tribe, tribal affiliation of parents, and more. The 1910 census also adds whether the person was a Civil War Veteran but drops month and year of birth, number of years in the U.S.

The 1920 census adds year of naturalization, native language, and native language of father and mother but drops number of years married, mother of how many children living and whether an individual was a Civil War Veteran.

The 1930 census drops native language of father and mother but adds age at first marriage and if the person is a military veteran and if so, of which war. Then in the 1940 census the questions for age at first marriage, father and mothers’ birthplace, military veteran, which war, year of immigration, native language, are dropped. One interesting addition to the 1940 census, is that some information is asked about individuals living arrangements in 1935, giving researches some added information for tracking down their family history.

Since U.S. Federal Population Census are released 72 years after being taken, the 1950 census will be released to the public in April of 2022. This will add a plethora of information to family trees across the world.

To find access to the census and more visit us online at https://www.mclib.net/history/