by Michelle LeClair


Census: a usually complete enumeration of a population specifically; a periodic governmental enumeration of population. Federal censuses were constitutionally mandated beginning in 1790 and take place every 10 years.

The 2020 census is billed to determine how federal funding will flow into states and communities to determine health clinics, fire departments, schools, roads and more. It also will reflect the number of Congressional seats for each state. Censuses are used for marketing, data comparison, research and planning as well.
This year, the data can be collected via phone, online or mail, in many cases with no physical contact by the census taker. The questions are pretty basic: the number of people in the household, type of residence, telephone number, name(s), date of birth, sex, ethnicity and relationship between residents. Genealogically speaking though, 2020 is a bust.

Tracing your family every 10 years can be fascinating, frustrating and immensely satisfying. A census is one of the most useful tools in a genealogist’s toolbox, although there are other federal census forms not based on population. From 1850 through 1880, there are agricultural, manufacturing and mortality schedules. There can be state censuses, too. New York started in 1825 for some counties and expanded through the years. New York generally worked off years ending in five (1825, 1835, etc.), which can be handy to fill in the 10-year gaps of the federal forms. These can all lead to information that will expand your knowledge and understanding of your family.

For example, in 1860, the mortality schedule for Lehigh County, PA, contains my third great-grandfather’s death. He was 47, a farmer who died from a hemorrhage. This is invaluable info because death certificates as we know them didn’t exist back then.

Early censuses from 1790-1840 revealed little evidence in the connection of families. The questions reflect limited details in the story of your ancestors. They only list head of household (typically a male or possibly a widow) and the enumeration of household members by free males and females, by age range, along with a tally of slaves. The address is usually limited to town, city or post office location. Household members were not individually listed, so a genealogist can only infer possible relationships. If there are three males/females under 16, two between the ages of 25-30 and one 50-60, it’s possible that you have two or three generations in one house. If there’s a head of household, let’s say John Smith, who is over 60 and next door there’s a Michael Smith aged 25-30, it’s possible that a son is living on the same property or next door to his father. Along the sames lines it could be a nephew, younger sibling or possibly a more distant relationship.

A whole new world opens up beginning in 1850 and going through 1940. More specific residential data, possibly even a street number. The household number—the order of houses the census taker visited. Family number tells you if there was more than one family in a residence (could be second family or an apartment building). If the home is rented, owned, mortgaged or the cost thereof. Was it a farm? Was it an apartment?

Every household member is listed with age, sex, color, birthplace, marital status and relationship to the head of household. Males over 21 to know if they can vote. Veteran status—even back to the Civil War. Was there a medical disability? Education questions asking the ability to read, write or speak English and the highest level of study that was achieved.

Some years it would ask where that person was born, where their parents were born and possibly what tongue (language) is spoken. More questions concern immigration and citizenship status. How long were they in the country? Were they naturalized? Occupation data—what you did, where you worked, how much money you earned or how many weeks you may have been out of work.

Some of my personal favorites.
1850: Value of real estate?
1860: Value of personal estate?
1870: Mother/father of foreign birth?
1880: Relationship to head of household?
1900: How many children (living or deceased) a woman had?
1910: Year of immigration?
1920: Home owned/rented/mortgage?
1930: Do you own a radio?
1940: Amount of wages earned?

Sadly, the 1890 census was burned in a fire. But a Civil War veteran’s schedule does exist for that year.

Census data can be a virtual treasure trove but researchers have to be aware of the possible inherent errors. Not all censuses were taken the same day of the year so children may not have been born yet and seen as missing in the family. Remembering the ages of all 16 children may not be a quick recall—there’s bound to be a year or two off. Husband or wife is too young or too old to be reputable (respectable?). Child is too young based on marriage date, hmm…might explain why my dad wasn’t listed in the 1930 census. The census taker visited a remote area on one day and asked the neighbors about family members, ages, etc., because he didn’t want to come back to Red Rock the next day. Each year may ask the same question differently: what age were you married vs. how many years have you been married. Until 1940, there was no notation on who was providing the info, thus factor in answers from well-meaning neighbors, grandparents, children or even visiting relatives.

For anyone concerned about privacy, the personal data is made public only after 72 years, but statistics can be accessed earlier. In 2012, the internet literally crashed when the 1940 census was released. Genealogists will be anxiously awaiting 1950 in 2022.