Genealogy Tips: U.S. Census Records, 1850-1940 (Part III)

Introduction: In this article, Katie Rebecca Garner concludes her three-part series giving tips for using the information found on U.S. Census records from 1850-1940, including another case study. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

Previously in this series (see links at the end of this article), we learned about: household members’ age; family relationships; housing and real estate data; military service; who was the informant; and other information recorded in the census. We will conclude this series by learning about additional data tracked on the censuses from 1850 to 1940, and explore a case study in which some ancestors that appeared to be missing on a census were found.

Photo: this 1940 Census publicity photo shows a census worker (left) collecting information from a respondent (right) in Fairbanks, Alaska. The dog musher (center, background) remains out of earshot to maintain confidentiality. Credit: Dwight Hammack, U.S. Bureau of the Census; FDR Presidential Library; Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: this 1940 Census publicity photo shows a census worker (left) collecting information from a respondent (right) in Fairbanks, Alaska. The dog musher (center, background) remains out of earshot to maintain confidentiality. Credit: Dwight Hammack, U.S. Bureau of the Census; FDR Presidential Library; Wikimedia Commons.

Occupation

Censuses began tracking occupation in 1850, beginning with males age 15 and older. This was expanded to include females in 1880, and the age was changed to 10 and up in 1900, then changed to 14 and up in 1940. Censuses of the 20th century expanded the occupation column to include industry and whether people were working for an employer or for themselves. This is helpful in identifying ancestors with common names and gives a potential clue for additional records.

Birthplace

The 1850 census was the first to ask for birthplace. In 1870, people were asked if their parents were foreign-born. The 1880 through 1930 censuses asked the birthplaces of both parents, with the 1920 census also asking for the mother tongue of each individual and parents. In 1940, the birthplace of parents was moved to the supplementary questions asked only of a small portion of the population. Having the birthplaces of the individuals and their parents can be helpful in identifying the correct person, or in giving clues about where to search for birth records. It also showcases immigrant families.

For example, when Joseph and Barbara Forster were found on the 1900 census, it showed that: both were born in Texas; his father was born in Texas and his mother in Germany; Barbara’s father was born in France and her mother in Germany. (1) This tells the researcher that continuing those lines would involve immigration research in the next generation back.

Immigration & Naturalization

In the 19th century, the birthplace column was the best way to use census data to track immigration. Beginning in 1900, censuses began tracking immigration and naturalization. The 1900 census asked for year of immigration, number of years in the U.S., and whether naturalized. The 1910 and 1930 censuses asked for year of immigration and whether naturalized or alien. The 1920 census included those questions and asked for year of naturalization. The citizenship column in 1930 also asked if able to speak English. This information is handy for immigrant ancestors because it gives clues for finding immigration and naturalization records.

For example, Joseph McElhinney was an alien in the 1920 (2) census and naturalized in the 1930 census. (3) Both censuses stated he immigrated in 1909. The different statuses from one census to the next indicate that he naturalized in the 1920s.

Language Barriers

It is important to note that language barriers would have existed for any immigrants from non-English speaking countries, and this could affect the reliability of the information.

For example, Anita Barelay, a 1900 census enumerator in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, was assigned an enumeration district mostly populated with Italian immigrants and their young children; her enumeration district also had some families from Bohemia, Ireland, and Poland-Russia. (4) Few families in that district were from the U.S. Most the people in that district born in Illinois were young children whose parents were immigrants.

A suspiciously large amount of people on her census returns were born in July or August. It seems unlikely that so many people in such a small area share the same few birth months, and it seems very likely that language barriers between residents and enumerator would have made it difficult for Anita to communicate with them while recording her census returns.

Case Study: Finding Elusive Ancestors on the Census

In a census study for Daniel Gauker and his household, he was not found on the 1860 census when searching the GenealogyBank and FamilySearch databases. Searches were done for him, his wife, Susanna, and his son Thomas, and nothing could be found, even with the surname search set to the broadest setting. It was looking like it would be necessary to painstakingly search the 1860 census listing by listing in the area where the Gaukers were reported to be living on other censuses.

A census study was also conducted for Daniel Gauker’s father-in-law, Jacob Bower. Jacob Bower’s household was found on the 1860 census – and living in the same dwelling was the household of Daniel Gaupher! (5) The census taker had written down Gaupher instead of Gauker.

Conclusion: If a family isn’t appearing in a census search, try searching for family members who might live nearby – that might lead you to uncover the ancestor you’re searching for. Also, be inventive in thinking of name variants when searching for an elusive ancestor whose surname did not turn up in your initial search – the enumerator may have misspelled your ancestor’s name in ways that are not immediately apparent.

The 1850 to 1940 censuses tracked many things including: household members’ age; family relationships; housing and real estate data; military service; who was the informant; birthplace; immigration and naturalization; education; occupation; marriage status; and other information that gives valuable clues for further research. U.S. Census records are a great starting point for any genealogical research.

Reminder: You can access the U.S. Census records on GenealogyBank.

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(1) U.S. 1900 census, Bexar County, Texas, population schedule, San Antonio, Justice Precinct 9, ward 4, p. 255A (stamped), dwelling 270, family 298, Barbara Forster in household of Joseph Forster; digital image, GenealogyBank (https://genealogybank.com: accessed 10 March 2022), citing FamilySearch.
(2) 1920 U.S. census, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Philadelphia, p. 183 (stamped), dwelling no. 136, family no. 141, Joseph McElhinney; digital image, FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org: 4 April 2022; citing NARA microfilm publication T625.
(3) 1930 U.S. census, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Philadelphia city, p. 8-A (penned), house no. 106, Joseph McElhinney; digital image, FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org: 4 April 2022; citing NARA microfilm publication T626.
(4) U.S. Federal census 1900, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, ward 19, ED 601; digital images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org: accessed 11 April 2022); FHL film 1240269, images 472-509; citing NARA microfilm publication T623 roll 269.
(5) 1860 U.S. census, Berks County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Maidencreek township, p. 44 (penned), dwelling 172, families 192 and 193, Daniel Gaupher and Jacob Bower; digital image, GenealogyBank (https://genealogybank.com: accessed 11 April 2022); citing FamilySearch collections.

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