Census Records: A Powerful Tool for Genealogy, Part III

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards wraps up her three-part article 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 III of this census article, I examine particulars of the U.S. censuses from 1830-1900.

Illustration: “Taking the Census” by Thomas Worth, 1870
Illustration: “Taking the Census” by Thomas Worth, 1870. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The 1830 and 1840 Censuses

The censuses in 1830 and 1840 reflected changes that were starting to brew within the United States. The changes are reflected by placing more emphasis on free versus slave; non-handicapped versus handicapped; and citizen versus non-citizen.

The questions asked on the 1830 census included:

  • Name of the head of each household
  • How many free white males and females age: 0-5; 5-10; 10-15; 15-20; 20-30; 30-40; 40-50; 50-60; 60-70; 70-80; 80-90; 90-100; over 100 (note the acknowledgement of longer life spans)
  • How many male and female slaves age: under 10; 10-23; 24-35; 36-54; 55-99; over 100
  • How many deaf and dumb white males and females age: under 14; 14-25; over 25
  • How many blind white males and females
  • How many deaf and dumb slaves and free blacks age: under 14; 14-25; over 25
  • How many blind slaves and free blacks
  • How many white foreigners not naturalized

As in the earlier censuses, the 1830 census still lists only the head of household by name. The rest of the family members are still broken down by age groups as before, but in this census the groups are broken down further, giving the researcher a much clearer picture of family members. The new category for deaf, dumb and blind persons can be a lead to research in institutions, schools, and hospitals for records.

The 1840 census asked the same questions as the 1830 census, but also added questions on:

  • How many individuals were engaged in: mining; agriculture; commerce; manufacturing; trades; navigation of the oceans, lakes, canals, and rivers; learned professions; engineering
  • How many idiotic or insane white males and females
  • How many white males over age 21 who cannot read and write
  • How many idiotic or insane slaves and free blacks

This census included a separate listing for all Revolutionary War pensioners (name and age), thus creating what you will often find online listed as the “1840 Pensioners Census.”

Good Census Tip: Be sure to check the Revolutionary War veterans listed in this census. If you are lucky enough to find your ancestor listed there, you may be able to find military records, pension records, and even search for bounty or land grants.

The 1850 And 1860 Censuses

Questions asked on the 1850 and 1860 censuses were basically the same as the 1840 census (with the addition of a question concerning the value of personal property in 1860): name, age, sex, and color of every person in the household; occupation of each person over age 15; value of real estate owned; place of birth of each person; was the person married within the past year; did the person attend school within the past year; can the person read and write (only if over age 20); is the person deaf, dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, a pauper, or a convict?

The 1850 census is the first federal census that lists each individual by their name.

Finding your ancestors is much easier beginning with the 1850 census due to the listing of the names of all family members and their exact ages. Once you find your ancestors in this census, it may be easier to work backward to earlier censuses as you can compare them with this one, making it possible to identify individuals. Beginning with this census, you can learn the occupation or profession of your ancestors easily. This census also included mortality schedules which listed every person who died within the past year by name and gave the reason for death. Slave schedules listed slave owners’ names along with the number of slaves owned.

It is pretty doubtful that an individual would disclose the actual value of their personal property in 1860, for fear of taxation. This census also included mortality schedules which listed every person who died within the past year by name and gave the reason for death. Slave schedules listed slave owners’ names along with the number of slaves owned.

There were 36 states in the union at the time of the 1850 census and 42 states at the time of the 1860 census.

The 1870 and 1880 Censuses

Questions asked on the 1870 and 1880 censuses: name, age, sex, and color of every person in the household; occupation of each male and female; value of real estate and personal property owned; place of birth of each person; was the person married within the past year; whether or not parents are of foreign birth; if a person was born within the past year, the month of birth was given; if a person was married within the past year, the month of marriage was given; did the person attend school within the past year; can the person read and write; is the person deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic; is the person a male citizen over age 21; and is the person a male citizen over age 21 who cannot vote.

Good Census Tip: The 1870 census asked if the parents were of foreign birth, which is a great help in finding immigrant ancestors and opens up the possibility of locating naturalization records when they became naturalized. Mortality schedules were part of this census. Names of people who died in the year previous to the census were listed in these special mortality schedules along with the cause of death. States included in 1870 census records were all states in the United States at that time.

The 1880 census gave us even more information on each household, and this is the first census to use Indian as a race – although not all appear in the regular population schedules. If searching for an Indian family, check the Special Indian Schedules. This is the last census to provide mortality schedules, whereby each person who died in the year previous to the census was listed by name with cause of death. The 1880 census records had information from 48 states.

The 1890 Census: The Problem Census

The 1890 census is the bane of most genealogists because a fire in 1921 destroyed the majority of the 1890 census records. Small fragments of the 1890 census survived, but they comprise less than 1% of the original schedules. Keep in mind that even the remaining census fragments do not contain complete counties, townships or districts. This would have been the first enumeration for Oklahoma, so people with ancestry in Oklahoma will experience particular difficulty with this loss.

These 1890 census fragments survived the fire:

  • Alabama: Perry County – Perryville Beat #11 and Severe Beat #8.
  • District of Columbia: Q. Thirteenth, Fourteenth, R.Q. Corcoran, Fifteenth, S.R. and Riggs Streets, Johnson Avenue, and S. Street.
  • Georgia: Muscogee County – Columbus.
  • Illinois: McDonough County – Mound Township.
  • Minnesota: Wright County – Rockford.
  • New Jersey: Hudson County – Jersey City.
  • New York: Westchester County – Eastchester. Suffolk County – Brookhaven Twp.
  • North Carolina: Gaston County – South Point Township and River Bend Township. Cleveland County – Township #2.
  • Ohio: Hamilton County – Cincinnati. Clinton County – Wayne Township.
  • South Dakota: Union County – Jefferson Township.
  • Texas: Ellis County – J.P. #6, Mountain Peak and Ovila Precinct. Hood County – Precinct #5. Rusk County – Precinct #6 and J.P. #7. Trinity County – Trinity Town, and Precinct #2. Kaufman County – Kaufman.

The questions asked were the same questions from the 1880 census. The 1890 census schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of Union veterans of the Civil War did survive and are often used as a census substitute. While this is likely not helpful if your ancestor was on the Confederate side, sometimes even they are listed by accident in these schedules – so it does bear checking.

The veterans and widows schedules for some states were lost. Surviving schedules are extant for the following states: Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Indian Territories, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Washington, D.C., and United States vessels and navy yards.

The 1900 Census: The Census That Is Cherished by Genealogists

The 1900 census provided columns for the month and year of birth for EVERY PERSON. This is the only census which provides this information, allowing researchers to more closely pinpoint the age and birth date of their ancestors. Other great information in this census includes the questions about number of years married, and the number of children born to a mother along with how many are still living. This will help you determine if a person has been married before, and – very important – if the children listed in the household are all the children of the wife shown. If you are researching an immigrant ancestor in this time period, you will be able to see the year of immigration and information about naturalization, making it easier to gather records about these individuals.

So, what questions did the 1900 census ask? It asked for: the house number and street name for city dwellers; name and sex of every person in the household; the relationship of each person to the head of household; color or race of each person; the month and year of birth of each person and their age on their last birthday; if the person was single, married, widowed or divorced; how long has the person been married; how many children born to females and how many are still living; the place of birth of each person as well as where their mother and father were born; if an immigrant, the year of immigration to the United States; how long an immigrant has been in the United States; if the person is naturalized; the profession, occupation, or trade of each person over age 10; number of months a person was unemployed in the past year; did the person attend school within the past year; can the person read and write; can the person speak English; and does the family own or rent the home, is it mortgaged, is it a farm or a house.

Wrapping It All Up

I hope this three-part article makes things easier to understand when you tackle reading and interpreting censuses. I not only write down the information when I am researching a family, but I also scan a copy of it so that I can go back to it and possibly pick up more information later (like I found a great uncle lived two doors down from the family of the woman he was later to marry).

Happy hunting!

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