The Hugely Valuable Records Many Family Historians Forget About

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The Hugely Valuable Records Many Family Historians Forget About


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Most genealogists use federal census records on a regular basis. Few resources are, after all, as packed full of information and as easy to access as a census.

And, while we all know that the details found in a census can often be incorrect, this helpful record collection has become a family history staple for good reason. No other resource recorded details about our ancestor’s lives in such a frequent and predictable way and, often times, the federal census may seem to be the only method we have to explore our ancestors’ lives between birth, marriage and death.

However, a recent comment by a Family History Daily reader reminded us that there is another related resource group that many people researching US ancestors are either unaware of, or regularly underuse. And it’s a hugely valuable one.

We’re talking about US state census records.

Many of you are probably nodding your head right now because you’ve already found a good deal of information in a state census.. Others many be wondering — what the heck is a state census?

While the regularity and availability of state census records varies widely by state, this record collection could easily be the resource you need to fill in critical details about your ancestors’ lives. Most state censuses were conducted exactly between federal census years — such as the 1885, 1905 and 1915 New Jersey state census, whereas some were conducted on off years, such as California’s 1852 census. This means the details found in these records can often provide a special window into a person’s life between federal census dates — or when you cannot locate an ancestor in the federal census at all.

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This record collection becomes even more valuable when we consider the lost 1890 census and the twenty year gap that loss created.

As we pointed out, the dates and availability vary widely, as does the information contained in each census. But most of us researching ancestors in the US will likely be able to locate ancestors in some, or many, states censuses.

Let’s take a look at a census record from the Minnesota 1885 census, one of eight state census collections easily available online from that year.

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While we don’t see some of the wonderful details in this census that we have come to expect from a federal census, like the occupation, there are many other tidbits to be gathered — such as residence, family relationships and parental birth information.

A look at the Nebraska State Census from 1885 on the other hand feels a little bit more like perusing a federal census, right down to the coveted occupation box. 
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The best free place to access these records (or transcripts of records when no image is available) is on FamilySearch. You can head straight over to this page on their site which showcases all of their record collections.

You may remember that we covered this page on FamilySearch in another article about accessing millions of records that cannot be searched.

To find the state census records just type in the term “state census” in the left sidebar and further filter by including the state name or date to find what you are looking for. Once you have done this, click on a resource name to search it, or browse images if a search is not available. FamilySearch does require login for some of these records, but since a membership is always free you have nothing to lose.

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Happy Hunting!

You may also like: Thousands of 1890 Census Records DO Still Exist: Here’s How to Find Them for Free

By: Melanie Mayo | Editor, Family History Daily

Image: Unidentified woman and child in front of porch. Library of Congress

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8 Comments
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  • Mary Ellen Lanigan
    March 3, 2016 at 8:50 am

    I have been trying to find my great grandfather John Lanigan (born Ireland) who lived in Ottumwa, Iowa an d died before the 1880 census. He is in the 1870 though as living in Ottumwa, Iowa. His wife Mry Burns is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Ottumwa. Any help would be great~~Have been working on this for over 30 years now and am hoping to find as much info as possible for the next generations so that they won’t have to know their history.

  • February 3, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    Another resource that fills in the gaps between census years: city and county directories.

  • Carole
    January 31, 2016 at 11:53 am

    New York State Census are awesome… box for length of residency in the particular county VERY VERY helpful in tracking family movements.

  • Mary Beth
    January 28, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Kansas’ state census is on Ancestry. They got them from the Kansas State Historical Society. They cover the years 1855, 1865,1875,1885,1895,1905,1915,1925.

  • Mary Francis
    January 27, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    I have looked for years for info on Ashford G Dallas with no luck at all except he married a Nancy Murry in TriggCo Kentucky they later resided in Clay Co Ill up till july 1870 then both disappeared off the face of the earth. I would love to trace them back to when they were born and who their parents were and where they came from before I die its a legacy I want to leave to my children and grandchildren my father was named Gerald Ashford Dallas I presume after the Ashford G dallas any help would be most welcome

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