How to Use U.S. Census Data for Genealogy

Charting your family’s bloodline and identifying your ancestors is one of the most eye-opening and exciting endeavors available to us. What’s more powerful than learning about the men and women who paved the way for your very own existence?

At times, it can even become a treasure hunt. You follow trails and land on some old newspaper article, with a story that comments on your great-great grandpa’s heroism – or something the likes of. It’s almost intimate. Much more than just charting names and dates, genealogy is about getting to know those that lived before you.

Thus, one of the best ways to conduct your genealogy research is by using the U.S. Census. But how to use census data correctly isn’t common knowledge. That’s why we’ve written you this guide on how to use U.S. Census data for genealogy.

Just keep on reading.

Photo: this 1940 Census publicity photo shows a census worker (left) collecting information from a respondent (right) in Fairbanks, Alaska
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.

What Is the U.S. Census?

Within the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Sec. 2), there’s a clause set forth by the Founders that allows the government to conduct a decennial “resident count,” or population count, of everyone living in America. The first census in U.S. history took place in 1790, and this process has continued to today. The census is conducted every decade (10-year counts), meaning if your ancestors lived in America after 1790, then it’s likely they’re in the U.S. Census.

What Good Is Census Genealogy Research?

Census genealogy can create visibility on your ancestral roadmap that you would otherwise never have. It can help you determine who exactly your ancestors were. Better yet, as America aged, the census records became incredibly detailed, offering much more information than just the family member’s name and their place of residence. The data collected each census year can reveal vital information that allows you to dig further into your family history.

Census data allows you to skip through time. For example, there might be a single family member’s name on one census, yet the following census might show the names of two children. By their age, you can then determine when your family member possibly became pregnant and what travels they endured along the way.

Thus, aside from a population number, your census genealogy research can show records of:

  • Your Family Members – From their names, position (head of household, for instance), trade or job (occupation), sex, age, birthday, race and ethnicity, marital status, to any changes in the family structure along the way, if they were recorded in the census there’s going to be a wealth of important information for you to discover.
  • The Family as a Whole – By looking at how many children a family member had, where they ended up, and whether or not they were still alive, your ancestral painting can welcome a few pointed and detailed brush strokes.
  • Birthplace – Often, the census will show where the person was born. From there you can deduce what travels ensued, being that they could’ve changed states or migrated elsewhere.
  • Immigration Records – The census will also reveal whether a certain person immigrated into the U.S., or if they were born here. This is another vital piece of information that will further flesh out your research.

How to Use Census Data for Ancestry Research

Think of your census data exploration as a puzzle of sorts. Say, for instance, one of your distant relatives was a carpenter living in New Jersey in 1840. However, the census in 1850 shows that this person made their way to California. By this, you can – within reason – assume that it’s likely they heard the siren call of the Gold Rush and hastily made way to the West Coast.

The next census then shows that this relative married a California native and had three children. This creates a fun list of questions to explore:

  • Was it really because of the Gold Rush that they emigrated?
  • Did they strike it rich? Or did they struggle in poverty?
  • What did they do once they settled in California?

This is where the “treasure hunt” phenomenon comes into play. Census genealogy data provides the framework; it’s up to you to put on your detective hat and start exploring. For instance, you could utilize GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to try and locate specifics on your ancestors. This additional information will be invaluable for helping you write your family history.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn that this relative of yours was in a newspaper due to a massive gold finding? And due to this endeavor ended up meeting their spouse?

How Do I Find U.S. Census Data?

The U.S. Census records are available on GenealogyBank.

Decennial census records are only released 72 years after the fact. This is to protect respondents’ privacy. In which case, census records from 1950 to now can only be retrieved by the person in question. However, on 1 April 2022, the 1950 U.S. Census will be released publicly.

As for the NARA (National Archives and Records Administration), you can access the census records of 1790-1940 through a multitude of different avenues – some of which are completely free. By visiting the U.S. Census website, they’ll direct you to the right place (also, many public libraries provide access free of charge).

Keep on Diggin’

Using census data is a fantastic way to create a framework for further digging into your family history. Log the details. Input the data. Then utilize GenealogyBank to dive further into the lives of your ancestors.

The U.S. Census data will tell you what to look for… we’ll help you find it.


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16 thoughts on “How to Use U.S. Census Data for Genealogy

  1. I have used the Census to look at the neighbors surrounding the specific ancestor I am looking at. Many times I have found other family members living nearby and have been able to really fill-in the story of how they lived. In other cases I have found close family friends and that can trigger memories for older family members that leads to yet more information and stories. Sometimes the Census listed the country of origin of the ancestor’s mother and father and this has been very valuable in doing international research.

      1. I have had a similar find. One of my great grandmothers was widowed. She remarried. I noticed by accident the gentleman she remarried lived two doors down from them. Were they friends for a long time? Was he secretly in love with her all those years? Something to ponder…

  2. I found an error on census information regarding my grandfather. It shows my grandmother as still being alive when in fact she had passed away 4 years before and he had remarried to another woman.

  3. You failed to comment on how census records, unless carefully analyzed, can be confusing. Names in the early census records frequently varied from one census to the next. No requirement apparently existed to use the legal or baptismal name of the individual, so nicknames were used and frequently middle names and given names were interchanged. Also ages frequently varied from census to census. Also problems with blended families, Head was listed by his surname and the entire collection of children were listed under that surname even though some were children of the wife and her previous spouse. And sometimes a family member disappears from the next census. Death or just living with other relatives when the census was taken. So it sometimes take some detective work to figure out who is who.

    But, for finding descendants, the census is a great resource, followed by marriage records, birth records, and SS records, all of which can be used to analyze the anomalies in the census records.

    So that is what I would tell anyone who asked me about census records.

  4. Great information! Even for someone who has been at it for awhile it is good to refresh the basics. Thank you for posting.

  5. Yes, the Census is a valuable tool, which I use often. There also are some things observed in my own research. Misspelled names, birthdates, birthplaces of responder or their parents. Also names can be common in families, generational & location. So wariness is advised for Census & any resource.

  6. Thank you for your information about census records, you given me information that I did not know about.

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