Genealogy Tip: 4 Places to Learn More about the U.S. Census

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips to learn more about what the census is, and how to use it better to find your ancestors. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Most likely you’ve researched the census countless times as you work to learn more about your ancestors. But what do you really know about the census? What questions do you have? Who has the answers?

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

The following four sources should be consulted to learn more about the census, how to use the census in your research, and how to use the census to understand your ancestors’ lives.

1) FamilySearch Research Wiki

FamilySearch should be one of your first go-to sources for genealogical records and education. There’s so much to explore on the FamilySearch website, but for the purposes of this article we will explore the FamilySearch Research Wiki.

First, do a search for the United States Genealogy page. From this page, click on “Census” in the “Record Types” box found on the right-hand side.

A screenshot of FamilySearch's "United States Genealogy" page

This Census page provides links to the census on FamilySearch, wiki pages for various census types, and blank census forms. You can also click on a specific census year and view a page about that census that includes what information was collected in that year’s enumeration.

A screenshot of FamilySearch's "U.S. Census" page

2) U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau is the government agency responsible for the census enumeration. Their website has some information that can be useful to your research. Remember, they do not maintain the census microfilms and records; that is the job of the National Archives.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s website has information about the history of the census including enumerator instructions, census questions, histories of each census year, agency history, and more.

A screenshot of the U.S. Census Bureau's homepage

3) National Archives

There are several types of help you can get from the National Archives website in regards to census records. As the agency that is the holder of federal records, including the census, they have various materials in addition to records. Let’s explore two that you’ll want to become familiar with.

Research our Records

Research our Records is a section of the National Archives website that includes links and helpful information for the various records genealogists use. Specific pages within this section are for record sets like the census. On the Research our Records Census page you will find links to help you with any census record you want to learn more about.

A screenshot of the National Archives' "Census" page

On the left-side of the page you will find links for general information about various censuses. Look in the “Resources” section for links to blank forms of not only the census enumeration sheets but also general genealogy forms, as well as forms for immigration and military.

In the center of the Research Our Records Census page is a button labeled “Search Censuses by Year and Ancestor’s Name.” Click on that button and then choose a census year. You’ll find links to where the census is found online, and enumeration maps. In addition, there are resources useful when researching the census such as enumeration definitions. On the right side you’ll find a list of the information found on the census. It’s like having a quick guide for each census year.

History Hub

Another way to learn more about the census is to use the National Archives History Hub website. History Hub is a free crowdsourcing platform that is utilized by archivists, researchers, and family historians.

A screenshot of the National Archives' "History Hub" page

Before you ask or answer a question on History Hub, you must create a free account. See the History Hub website for details.

4) Historical Newspapers

What can you learn about the census from a collection of historical newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives? It turns out, quite a bit. Reading newspaper articles from a specific census enumeration year, you can learn what your ancestors knew about the census that they were counted in. This can include Q & A articles explaining to the public what to expect, facsimiles of the enumeration forms, and statistics after the census was taken. These can be useful in better understanding your ancestor’s time and place.

An article about the 1940 census, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 2 April 1940
San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 2 April 1940, page 1

Ready for the Census?

You can learn so much about your ancestors by searching the census – but don’t forget to take the time to learn more about the particular year’s enumeration that you are interested in. Educating yourself about the census can help you find your ancestors and analyze your results better than just blindly searching.

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