Using US Censuses

06.12.2017 |

Episode #6 of the course Researching your genealogy by Alisa Miller


Welcome to Day 6! Today, we will talk about using US censuses in your family history research. These censuses contain an amazing amount of information and offer an interesting glimpse into the lives of your ancestors.


Available Censuses

Census records of 1940 are available to everyone online here. US censuses from 1790 through 1930 are available either through a subscription to a service like or through public libraries. Check with your library to see if they provide access to sites such as HeritageQuest Online that will allow you to search the US censuses from home. One important note on census availability: The bulk of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire; less than 1% of that census survived.


What You Can Find in a Census

As you begin looking through the US censuses, you will discover that, depending on the year of the census, different questions were asked. Some questions are consistent throughout, though. What you can depend on learning are each family member’s name, age, gender, race, marital status, profession, city where they lived, and the state in which they were born. Depending on each particular census, you can also learn whether the person could read or write, how much formal education they received, the month and year of their birth, where their parents were born, how long they’d been married, and more.

The census information for each household is on a sheet that contains information for their neighbors as well. It is sometimes helpful to look at the entire sheet when you find a relative. Often, other family members lived nearby, and sometimes you can discover other family on the same census sheet.


A Useful Hint

Each census was recorded on a sheet of paper and the information was handwritten. These sheets have been digitally archived. Information about each person recorded in the census is extracted and available to view without looking at the actual census sheet. I recommend that you look at both. Sometimes there is more information on the sheet than is recorded in the extracted information.

Additionally, because the original information was handwritten, it can sometimes be difficult to read the writing, which means sometimes the extracted information is not correct. For example, I was searching for family in a census, and when I finally found them, the extracted information listed the family name as Ried instead of Rice. When I looked at the original census sheet, I saw that the census taker had written “Rice,” but the last two letters of the name were written in such a way that someone mistook it for Ried.


How to Use Censuses: Example

Censuses are useful in tracing family back through the years, especially if you have missing information about that part of your family. I’m going to use an example from my own research to demonstrate how you can use censuses (this is how I found out about my father’s side of the family).

• I knew my dad’s paternal grandparents’ (my great-grandparents’) names and my dad’s father’s (my grandfather’s) name and year of birth. I went to the census that occurred after my grandfather’s birth, which was the 1910 census. When I found my great-grandparents in that census, I learned where they and their parents were born and their ages in 1910.

• Then, I wanted to go to the census when I thought my great-grandparents were still living with their parents. Since my great-grandparents were in their early 20s in 1910, it was simply the next earliest census: 1900.

• In this census, I searched for my great-grandfather using his name, year of birth, and where he was born. When I found him, I learned his parents’ names, years of birth, where their parents were born, how long they had been married, and the names and ages of my great-grandfather’s siblings.

• After that, I repeated the same process with my great-great-grandparents.

While it is pretty straightforward to complete this process for paternal ancestors, it can be a little more challenging on the maternal side, since women tend to take their husband’s last name upon marriage. Using what information you do have on those women, you can often find their families of origin too.

As you can imagine, censuses have the potential to provide you with much information about your family. Tomorrow, we’ll explore a different resource for your research: grave websites.


Recommended book

How to Do Everything: Genealogy by George G. Morgan


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