Census Records: A Powerful Tool for Genealogy, Part II

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards continues giving tips for finding and using census records in your genealogy research. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

In Part II of this census article, I will discuss how to cite a census, talk about how there is different information in each census, and then examine particulars of the first four U.S. censuses: 1790, 1800, 1810, and 1820.

Photo: large office with women working at desks in the Division of Vital Statistics section of the Census Bureau, c. 1920
Photo: large office with women working at desks in the Division of Vital Statistics section of the Census Bureau, c. 1920. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

How to Cite a Census in Genealogy

The most commonly accepted way of citation is: year of census, place, roll number, page number, enumeration district, image number. So, if for example I saw the excerpt below:

I would write: Source Citation: Year: 1910; Census Place: St Louis Ward 28, St. Louis (Independent City), Missouri; Roll: T624_823; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 452; Image: 489.

1910 United States Federal Census about George E. Waddell

  • Name: George E Waddell
  • Age in 1910: 33
  • Estimated Birth Year: abt 1877
  • Birthplace: Pennsylvania
  • Relation to Head of House: Head
  • Father’s Birth Place: Pennsylvania
  • Mother’s Birth Place: Pennsylvania
  • Spouse’s Name: Madge
  • Home in 1910: St. Louis Ward 28, St. Louis (Independent City), Missouri
  • Marital Status: Married
  • Race: White
  • Gender: Male
  • Neighbors: View others on page

Household Members: Name, Age

  • George E. Waddell, 33
  • Madge Waddell, 18

I would write: Source Citation: Year: 1910; Census Place: St Louis Ward 28, St. Louis (Independent City), Missouri; Roll: T624_823; Page: 7A; Enumeration District: 452; Image: 489.

Why Information Can Be Different in Each Census

New users of census schedules are sometimes disheartened to find that the same household, in two successive censuses, may be inconsistent in the information about its members – like ages that have not increased by ten years during the ten-year interval between censuses, or names that have changed in the interim. Why is this? We need to remember that a census schedule is an original record solely of what some unknown person told the census enumerator about the people living in a particular household. Although the spelling of names may be an approximation based on how they sounded, the information generally was recorded accurately as given.

Before we rely upon information found in a census schedule, we should be asking the same questions about the probable informant as we would if the information was given to us face-to-face. Was the informant in a position to know the actual facts? Was the person’s memory reliable about happenings in the past? Did the person have any conscious or subconscious motive for altering the facts? What age were they? Not knowing the informant’s identity, we can’t answer these questions with assurance, but we can look at the more probable informants – the adult women, children, and elderly were the most likely to have been found at home – and decide how each one’s age and position in the household bears on those questions.

Also keep in mind that age was a concern that some people were as sensitive about in the past as they are today. A wife may have been reluctant to admit that she was older than her husband, or unwilling to reveal he couldn’t read or write, especially if she could. Children, even young adults, may underestimate or overestimate their parents’ ages. Elderly adults may have inflated their ages in a time when age was accorded some respect.

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Another factor to consider is that the copy of the census schedule we see on film is not the original that the enumerator made in the field while going from house to house. It is a neatly prepared office copy made by the enumerator from the original, usually one each for state and federal governments, while the originals were left in the hands of local officials who often did not preserve them.

The information from censuses is best considered as paving the way to more reliable evidence, rather than as a foundation on which to build our family history. The census can help us find more reliable evidence that will support convincing conclusions about our family’s relationships. If there is absolutely no other source of information, we may have to rely on census data for a conclusion – but we should do so only when the data is consistent with everything else we know, recognizing that we may have to correct our conclusion if better information is discovered.

A single census can lead us to many other types of records that may give us more detailed or correct information, such as deeds, tax rolls, wills and other estate records, military and pension files, church and cemetery records, and gravestone surveys. The census may also narrow our search range among many types of unindexed records (like school, employment and commercial records, local newspapers, funeral home records, voting registrations, and many other less frequently used sources).

Several censuses can help us sort out the inconsistencies and develop working hypotheses that will give direction to our search for other records that will prove or disprove a particular point. When we focus on specific research objectives, our search is much more likely to yield reliable results. We should be careful not to let a hypothesis be so appealing to us that we become wrapped up in proving it, and neglect to search out negative evidence that might prove it wrong.

The 1790 U.S. Census

The questions asked on the 1790 census:

  • Name of the head of each household
  • How many free white males age 16 and older
  • How many free white males under age 16
  • How many free white females
  • How many other free persons
  • How many slaves

You might be surprised at how much information you are able to turn up in this simple set of data in the first census taken nationally by the United States. Even though only the “Head of Household” is listed by name, that is very useful information: examine the surrounding households in the census, as you will often find other families related to your ancestor living nearby.

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The 1800 U.S. Census

The questions asked on the 1800 census:

  • Name of the head of each household
  • How many free white males under age 10
  • How many free white males over age 10 and under age 16
  • How many free white males over age 16 and under age 26
  • How many free white males over age 26 and under age 45
  • How many free white males over age 45
  • How many free white females under age 10
  • How many free white females over age 10 and under age 16
  • How many free white females over age 16 and under age 26
  • How many free white females over age 26 and under age 45
  • How many free white females over age 45
  • How many other free persons
  • How many slaves

While the 1800 census still only lists the “Head of Household” by name, this census is more helpful than the 1790 one as it further breaks down the family members by age groups. This will make it easier to determine if a specific name is the correct person when there is more than one person with the same name as your ancestor. The early census records become more helpful when you can compare them to the later records in which names are listed. One problem with the 1800 census is, in some cases, the entries have been alphabetized rather than listed by order of visitation, making it more difficult to determine relationships between families.

Good Census Tip: Name spellings are not necessarily important in census records. Census takers often spelled the names phonetically and some people didn’t even know the correct spelling of their own names, or (if a neighbor gave the information) the name spellings of neighbors. Once in a while, when the census taker came to the door and nobody was home, they visited the neighbor and got the family information that way, which could be very wrong indeed. You may find your ancestor’s name spelled in a different way on each census year.

The 1810 U.S. Census

The questions asked on the 1810 census:

  • Name of the head of each household
  • How many free white males under age 10
  • How many free white males over age 10 and under age 16
  • How many free white males over age 16 and under age 26
  • How many free white males over age 26 and under age 45
  • How many free white males over age 45
  • How many free white females under age 10
  • How many free white females over age 10 and under age 16
  • How many free white females over age 16 and under age 26
  • How many free white females over age 26 and under age 45
  • How many free white females over age 45
  • How many other free persons
  • How many slaves

As in the earlier 1790 and 1800 censuses, the 1810 census still lists only the “Head of Household” by name. The rest of the family members are broken down by age groups as in the 1800 census. Some manufacturing schedules were included in the 1810 census which may be of help to some researchers.

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Good Census Tip: Because early census records only list the “Head of Household” by name, it can become difficult to determine which person is your ancestor. After all, there can be umpteen individuals named John Smith in an area. Using the statistics for the other family members will help you narrow it down – and once you have it narrowed down to a few individuals, you can request records for those people from the county or search other records of that area. Combining all of these methods together will help you find the correct person in census records.

The 1820 U.S. Census

The questions asked on the 1820 census:

  • Name of the head of each household
  • How many free white males under age 10
  • How many free white males over age 10 and under age 16
  • How many free white males between age 16 and age 18
  • How many free white males over age 16 and under age 26
  • How many free white males over age 26 and under age 45
  • How many free white males over age 45
  • How many free white females under age 10
  • How many free white females over age 10 and under age 16
  • How many free white females over age 16 and under age 26
  • How many free white females over age 26 and under age 45
  • How many free white females over age 45
  • How many other free persons except Indians
  • How many slaves
  • How many persons not naturalized
  • How many persons engaged in agriculture, commerce or manufacturing
  • How many colored persons (sometimes broken down into age categories)

As in the earlier censuses, the 1820 census still lists only the “Head of Household” by name. The rest of the family members are broken down by age groups as in the 1810 census. However, a new age group was added: Free white males between age 16 and 18. This question was asked because the government wanted this information for military purposes. This information can be useful to further break down the age groups of male family members. Another clue on this census is the Naturalizations Column (the naturalization status can prove helpful in determining how long the person has resided in the United States and help with looking into finding naturalization papers in a local court).

Good Census Tip: Be careful of the age groups on this census. One pitfall many researchers make with this census is to count the males between 16 and 18 twice as family members, thereby inflating the number of family members. You need to realize the men between age 16 and 18 are listed in the count twice. This means when you add the total number of family members, do not add in the number for the age group 16-18.

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