I just finished reading Megan Smolenyak’s Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing. In each chapter, Ms. Smolenyak talks about what she finds or asks of various census records. These all important records contain many clues about the lives and success of the individuals listed. I want to talk about some of those clues but it is important to recognize that the various indices do not search every field or question the census taker asked. A researcher must look at the actual manuscript records. Manuscript records are those that contain the names of individuals, as opposed to the compiled or statistical records that contain summaries of the answers to questions and are available for all census years 1790-2010. This same terminology is used for United States, Canadian, and British census records.
Before you start looking at census records, you’ll want to look at the actual forms so you can read the headers or the questions at the top. These questions vary decade by decade so print them out. Emily Croom’s Unpuzzling Your Past Workbook and The Genealogist’s Companion & Sourcebook are easy places to find these blanks. They are also available in the Learning Center on Ancestry and at Family Tree Magazine.
Learning Names and Relationships: All the census forms contain the name of the head of household. If you want to know the names of all the members of the household, you won’t find them in the 1790 to 1840 census years. You have to wait a few more decades, until 1880, before you learn the relationship of each family member to the head of household, the same with where individuals were born.
What did they do for a living? Well, the census actually asked that question pretty early on. By 1820, the government wanted to know who worked in agriculture, commerce, and manufacture. In later census decades, the question was open ended, so individuals could actually describe what they did. You’ll find women as keeping house, seamstresses, milliners, teachers, and assisting at home. Children are often farm laborers, scholars, and at school. Men were involved in every imaginable occupation.
Was your ancestor a soldier? The census actually asks about military service. In some decades, the question asked about pensions, in others if individuals were veterans. Sometimes it asked about a specific war. There are two veterans censuses, 1840 “A General Index to a Census of Pensioners For Revolutionary or Military Service” asking about the Revolutionary War and other military service; and “Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census (1890) Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War” (NARA M123) although some Confederate soldiers are included. This page at Family Search includes links to online census records.
By examining census pages you can learn about immigration patterns in communities, disabilities and diseases, illiteracy, and even unemployment. Because the census bureau considered questions from a variety of sources, there are variations in the ways questions were asked each decade. Ever interested in information about the expansion of this country and its resources, the bureau of the census compiled the information into statistics to the state and county level. By combining and recombining answers to questions, Statistical Abstract of the United States (since 1878), contains even more answers to questions collected by the census bureau and other government agencies.
It’s all well and good to know what questions the census answers. It is important to understand what questions the census does not answer. Census records won’t tell you what religion people are although you might be able to guess from the location of the church. Maiden names are omitted, but if an in-law lives within the household you are lucky. While a few census decades ask for number of years married or number of children born and living, you usually don’t find the answers to that question. You will not learn where couples marry but you might guess from the birth place of the first child, nor will you know where someone got his or her education, if they have a degree or hidden talent. However, if you find all the census records for each person you seek, you’ll have a wonderful skeleton to build upon, to flesh out with other types of records.
My next post will talk about the methods for accessing the census, name, soundex, and geography.
2 thoughts on “Using the Census to Uncover Details About Your Ancestors”
After reading the 1940 census about my grandfather, new insight into his character has emerged. The family has always known that he barely finished high school, and yet he claimed on the census that both he and his wife had 2 years of college! We know the information is incorrect, but we now have a better understanding of his love for exaggeration.
The census can clearly provide more than names, ages and relationships.
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