Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega shows how state censuses can help you with your family history research. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “”
Through the GenealogyBank “Genealogy 101” series we’ve explored various aspects of the U.S. federal census in previous articles (see list at the end of this article). The federal decennial census is one of the most important resources for researching American ancestors whose lives spanned the 18th to the 20th century. Not only does the federal census establish where your family was at a specific time and place, but it also provides genealogically relevant details such as name, age, marital status and birth place.
But there is another type of census that does that – and oftentimes provides even more information than the federal census. It’s time to explore state censuses.
The State Census
As with any source that family historians use, there’s good news and bad news about state censuses. The good news is that a state census can provide wonderful information beyond what is compiled in the federal census. The bad news is that not all states conducted a state census.
It’s important to know that when we refer to “state censuses” as a category, we may also be referring to colonial or territorial censuses as well. When a state did participate in a state census, they generally did so every 10 years, typically in the “05” year, in between federal census enumerations. But that’s not always the case.
In addition, some of these enumerations can be quite early, predating the federal census, such as in the case of Maryland which counted its citizens in 1776 and 1778, or Rhode Island whose censuses start in 1774 and end in 1935. Unfortunately, not all states took part in a state or territorial census. Connecticut, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia have no state census “known to exist.”*
The reason for learning more about a possible state census in the place you are researching has to do with tracing your ancestor in a specific time and place. This can help you determine other records to search. The nice thing about the state census is that it’s not unusual for it to provide a more complete picture of each person enumerated. This 1905 newspaper article from Kansas is a good example of this. It discusses the upcoming state census and reports:
“The census this year is more complete than ever before. By the time the census is compiled, the books will contain a life history of every one in town. The questions the assessor is required to ask, involve nearly everything about a person from the cradle to the grave, or as far towards the grave as he has gone. Some of the questions asked are what state you were born in; when you came to Kansas; occupation, profession or trade; what you have worked at; if under twenty-one, what you intend to make your life work, how much schooling you have had, how many there are in the family, how many families live in the same house; whether the home is rented, mortgaged or owned; whether you can read and write; the old soldiers’ military record is chronicled in detail, telling where they enlisted, where discharged, whether honorably or dishonorably, how long in the service, whether pensioned or not.”
Obviously, each census enumeration and the questions asked are different, even those for the same state. An example of how the questions change from census to census for Kansas can be found on the Kansas State Historical Society web page 1855-1940 Kansas Censuses.
Learn more about state censuses from the U.S. Census Bureau History web page State Censuses. This page includes a list of states and the dates various state or territorial censuses were taken. The FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki has a portal page with links to each state and information about its censuses. You can find this on the Wiki page United States Census State Censuses. You can then choose a state and learn more about the census in that state and what is available online.
Additionally, I recommend consulting the book State Census Records by Ann S. Lainhart available in the online GenealogyBank Store. This book provides information about each state census, including other census records that may exist for states without a state census.
* “State Census,” United States Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/history/www/genealogy/other_resources/state_censuses.html: accessed 8 June 2017)