Genealogy Introduction—Census Records at the National Archives

Genealogy Introduction—Census Records at the National Archives


My name is Connie Potter. I’m with the National
Archives and Records Administration, and I’ll be talking about census records. I’m going
to give a brief introduction. Then talk about the census records from 1790 until 1870, and
then census records from 1880 until 1930. When working with census records, it’s important
to remember a few things. One, this is oral history. No one had to provide information
to verify that what they said was correct. And, because it’s oral information, frequently
people mispronounce names. People didn’t spell the names correctly. Also, the census
takers could have very bad handwriting, so you can’t always read the handwriting. You
don’t always know who provided the information, and so the information may be inaccurate because
a neighbor or a family member that wasn’t as familiar with everyone in the family might
have provided the information. Also, the census reflects what happened the previous ten years,
and we’ll see some examples of that as I go through the questions. And finally, not
everyone was counted. The Constitution reads, “ Representatives
and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within
this union according to their respective numbers which shall be determined by adding to the
whole number of free persons including those bound to service for the term of years and
excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons. The actual enumeration
shall be made within three years of the first meeting of the Congress of the United States,
and every subsequent term of ten years in such manner as they shall direct by law.”
So, the first census was taken in August of 1790, and it’s been taken every ten years
since then. The census is closed for 72 years after it is taken. And they are arranged by
census year, state, then county, and, beginning in 1880, enumeration district. And we generally
recommend that you start with the most recent census and work backwards, although I’m
going to start with the first census and move forwards.
Census records from 1790 until 1840 generally list just the head of the household, and they
give statistical information on everyone else in the household. Now, the head of the household
can include a man, a woman, or an African American if they are free and the head of
a household. This example from the 1790 census shows the condition that some of the records
were in when we received them. And the person on the second line is Samuel Adams. The person
on the first line is John Hancock. Samuel Adams was one white, free male aged 16 and
older and in his household was another free white male under 16. There were three free
white females. There were no other people, and he held no slaves. This census took nine
months to take. Later on, it was either two months or two weeks depending on whether the
area counted was in the city or in the country. And, from 1790 until 1820, the marshals who
took the census used whatever piece of paper they had on hand. There were no printed forms.
So, using the early censuses can be a little difficult because you sometimes need to go
back to the first page to figure out what the questions are and, if your ancestor’s
on the fourth page, you don’t necessarily know what the questions are until you go back
to the top of the page. In 1830, they finally printed the census schedules, but it was still
a statistical summary. On line four is Samuel Yoder, and there are two males between ten
and fifteen, one between fifteen and under twenty, and one male 30 and under 40. There’s
one female under five, and then one female in each of the categories: five and under
ten, fifteen and under twenty, twenty and under thirty. So, to use the records you need
to know the ages of the people in the family. But what you can also look at are the other
people in the neighborhood to see if there are other families that might have been related.
So, you want to read the entire census page in these early censuses or, if not, the entire
township or county. Beginning in 1850, they list everyone in the household, but they don’t
give you their relationship. In 1850 and 1860, there are separate free and slave schedules.
This is the 1870 Census for Prescott, Arizona, and you get the name of the person, their
age, sex and race, their occupation, and where they were born. The final question reflects
what went on in the previous decade. This is the 1870 census, and it refers back to
the Civil War. The last column, it asks if you are a male 21 years of age or over, and
have you been denied the right to vote on other than a crime or the late rebellion.
This is referring to the men who received the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment
where you could vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Women
could not vote, so this refers to the black men who were slaves who were freed under the
Fifteenth Amendment after the Civil War. This a slave schedule from Maryland in 1850. The
slave schedules rarely rarely give the name of the slave. It usually gives the name of
the slave owner or the person who was working with the slave. Now, this one isn’t particularly
difficult. If you knew your family member, for example, had been owned by Mrs. Pierce,
there are only four slaves listed. But, on some of the slave schedules that can go on
for page and page and page. Jefferson Davis in Mississippi had many pages of slaves, and
it’s would be almost impossible to determine using these records if your ancestor was a
slave for Jefferson Davis. Beginning in 1880, they list the relationship
to the head of the household. It also, starting in 1900, provides citizenship information;
the year of immigration, naturalization status whether naturalized N-A, whether they filed
their first papers P-A, or they were an alien A-L. And, in 1920, it gives the year of naturalization.
The records are also arranged by enumeration districts, and those are areas within the
county that an enumerator could cover in either two weeks or one month depending on whether
they’re in the city or the country. Also, in 1880, for the first time, in cities only,
it lists the name of the street and the house number. So, you can get the address beginning
in 1880. 1880 census for the first and only time asks health questions. They use phrases
that we might not use now, but they ask if you’re deaf and dumb, an idiot, insane,
maimed, crippled, or disabled. And some of the examples they use, not examples but some
of diseases they put down may not be familiar to you, but just get on the internet and search
for a medical dictionary, and you can frequently get the answer that way. On line 15, you’ll
see Andrew Davis is a white male age 70. He’s a ship carpenter born in Maine, and his father
and mother are both born in Maine. So, you know at least for that time you don’t need
to look at immigration records. The other people in the household are Mary, a daughter,
age 41, a teacher, and Lucinda also a sister keeps house. The 1890 census was destroyed
as a result of a fire in the Department of Commerce, but part
of the 1890 veterans’ census survives. The
states from Alabama through Kansas are missing. We just have Kentucky through Wyoming and,
fortunately, Washington, DC is listed under Washington, DC and not District of Columbia.
And, this will give the name of the soldier, what unit he was in, what his health problems
were…Now, the census is surviving soldiers, sailors, marines, and widows of the Union.
However, fortunately, people don’t always follow directions, so you can find information
as far back as the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, and Confederate soldiers. This is the
1930 census. The most recent census that’s available. This one gives you, for the first
time, how much do you pay for rent, do you rent or did you buy your house and, if so,
for how much? Do you have a radio? It gives the place of birth of not only the person
but the father and the mother, and this started in 1880. It also asks if you’re a veteran
of any wars, and they ask that frequently on the census records. And, in 1930, they
give both the occupation and the industry. And President Hoover, his occupation is President
of the United States, but his industry is federal employee. These records are available
on microfilm at the National Archives building in Washington, DC, and in some of the regional
facilities, but you need to check with each facility to see what they have, if it’s
onsite, how you can get a hold of it. They’re online at Ancestry.com, Footnote, which is
a partial list, HeritageQuest, and these are available at National Archives facilities
free of charge although they are subscription-based online services. And mail-order for a fee,
and you can get information at “order online” at www.archives.gov.

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