Using the Census for Genealogy Research

The United States Census has been taken every 10 years since 1790.  The primary reason for the census is to determine population and assign representation to Congress.  The higher the state’s population, the more representatives assigned that state in the US House of Representatives.

What makes this resource such an invaluable tool in family history is the ability to locate your ancestor in census years.  Every census from 1790 to 1940 is available for public searching.  The majority of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire so only a few states are available.  Due to privacy laws, the census must be held for 72 years before being released to the public.

To begin using the census for your family tree research, you just need to determine which ancestor would have been born prior to 1940 whether that is a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent.

From 1790 to 1840, the census only listed the name of the head of household, with numbers of males and females falling into different age categories.  Beginning in 1850, the name of every member of the household was listed. Beginning about 1880 there was also a column listing the relationship to the head of household.  What a boom for the genealogist.  Prior, you made a stab at guessing the relationship.  Now, you could determine whether it was a child, grandchild, stepchild and even in-laws.  Often you will find elderly parents living with a child which gives you the next generation in your family tree.  With relationships listed, occasionally, you can determine the wife’s maiden name which gives you another clue for searching another line and generation.

The different census asked different questions.  Some asked if you were a veteran.  All ask your age or category of age but one of the census ask for month and year of birth.  Some ask the females for the number of children they have had and the number now living.  Most of the censuses also ask for occupation.  This will give clues to why great-uncle Clyde moved to Indianapolis or Illinois if Uncle Clyde was working for the railroad or the streetcar company.

I consider the census to be the number 1 source in doing genealogy research.  Family research is not the purpose of taking a census, but it has proven to be an invaluable source.

This year 2020 is Census year.  I encourage each and everyone to make sure you are counted.  It helps Indiana to get tax money and sometime in the future it may help one of your descendants to find great-great-grandma Mary.

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