The U.S. Federal Census started in 1750. It is mandated every 10 years in order that the government have a count of the residents of various geographic areas. Most census questionnaires are unique. Until 1850, only the Head of Household was listed by name on the census. Everyone else in the house was simply tallied by age and gender.
The questions on a Decennial Census are based on the ‘needs of society’ to know certain things about the country’s population. Each census is held private for 72 years to protect the living individuals listed within.
While name, gender, age, occupation, and birthplace are fairly traditional and standard questions on a Federal Census, you might be surprised as some of the other questions that were asked over the years.
- 1900 & 1910—how many children did you give birth to and how many are now living?
- 1920 & 1930—do you have a radio?
Typically, the census will also help you learn about property ownership, education, and immigration and naturalization.
And while the pages of the Federal Census reports can be searched on line at several sites, the Instructions for the Enumerators of the Census can also be found on the Internet. Joke all you want about who does and doesn’t follow directions. One thing you’re bound to determine from census work is that the Enumerators rarely read the instructions!
There are other types of Census reports as well. Several states conducted their own Census listings. Other countries also have census reports at various time intervals.
Besides the direct answers to the questions asked on the census, a report that includes your ancestor may also tell you the following:
- Type of neighborhood they lived in
- Did they live in a single or multi family home?
- Did they have servants?
- Did they take in boarders?
- Did they live in an ethnic neighborhood—constantly reminded of their heritage?
As full of information as a census report may be, as a researcher you still need to keep in mind that it is a document that was recorded by one human being based on another one’s oral answers. There is a great deal of room for error with the U.S. Census Reports.
In their original form you need to consider any language barrier, ethnicity issues, or prejudices that might influence the Enumerator’s recordings. In addition, what we now use mostly on the Internet are indexes to the reports. The index was created by someone reading the Enumerator’s handwriting. Spelling mistakes abound.
When you find an ancestor on a U.S. Census Report, try to look at the previous and next pages to get a better feel for their neighborhood. Also, there was no instruction about keeping a household all on the same page, so check for a continuation.
The Enumerator’s Instructions will help you decipher some of the codes used. However a good magnifying glass is essential for deciphering the handwriting.
There are also places on the Internet to print blank sheets for the various Census Years so that you can read the column headings easier.
Don’t Forget the Page Heading!
Geographically, our country has seen many changes. Be sure to read the page header to see what State, County, and Town the census is for. Also important is the actual date the report was written. Although the instructions always included an ‘as of’ date, the actual date might explain an age discrepancy.