One of the most common documents to find when researching one’s family history is a census report. After all, it’s a federal document and there’s one created every ten years.
The U.S. Federal census started in 1780 and is mandated to occur every ten years. It is also kept private for 72 years. However, it wasn’t until 1850 that every member of a household was listed in the census. Between 1780 and 1850 only the Head of Household was listed by name. Other household residents were represented by tick marks in categories by status, gender, and age.
The Federal Census is taken over time but as of a specific date. Always look at the heading on a census page to see the date the questions were answered and the census date. Sometimes they are months apart. Of course, human nature plays into the accuracy of census data. Babies born after the census date are known to be included, as are people who died before the census date. People are also missed entirely or counted more than once.
Unfortunately, until 1940 there is no indication of who answered the census question. If the enumerator tried several times to contact the residents of a particular home without success, he may have settled for answers from a neighbor. As of 1940, there is a mark next to the name of the person who talked to the enumerator.
States also took census reports, typically in a year ending in five. A few of these exist today. Territories also took additional census reports as they applied for statehood.
Regardless of the type or date of a census report that includes your family – review the entire page! Many people read only the names and ages for their own family on a census report. This is important for confirming that it is your family. The rest of the page(s) is important for learning about their life.
There are different questions on each census but they are all geared to reveal the social condition of a family. The address, house number and family number can tell you about the type of home they had. Reading the full ist on the page will paint a picture of the neighborhood in which they lived.
Some reports include information on rent payments, real estate values, and earnings. Most contain information on a person’s literacy and heritage. Several have questions about military service. A few ask how many children a woman gave birth to.
So, read all about your family, left to right across the page. Then read about the neighborhood top to bottom of the page. Lastly, check the previous and next pages to see if your family list started or continues there. Of course, family members used to live near each other, so also check for more relatives in the same area. All of this will help you better decipher the handwriting as well.
This article has discussed population census reports – there are also non-population census reports that still exist and will reveal more information about ancestral lives and living conditions.