Sunday, April 18, 2010

Census Basics

A few weeks ago, I filled out the census record for my family and it represents the sixth census in which I am listed. Having viewed census records since I began my immersion into genealogy in 1978, I have taken a keen interest in the census wondering if my descendants would ever be looking for me. I was a bit dismayed by the lack of information the average census record contains; however, I do know a select group of households will fill out longer and more detailed records. I had the opportunity to submit the long forms both in 1990 and 2000. Statistically, I suppose I was an anomaly in this regard and was hoping we would get to do it again – especially since my educational level increased in this decade.

Alas, this was not the case and there are only a handful of questions for each person. I suppose for my descendant's benefit that there would be more information available to those who may want to know more about my family in the future. While the census is one of the important primary records for genealogical research, I must remind myself that the census was not designed to be a genealogical document. It is to be a count of the number of people in the United States and this information plus the statistical data is helpful for realigning congressional districts, allocating funding for certain localities, and providing a statistical snapshot of our country at this point in time.

When I began my search of primary documents for genealogy in 1978, I am fortunate that the staff in the Pennsylvania Department at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh provided help in pushing me in the right direction. Some of the other records that they encouraged me to peruse were city directories, the obituary file, and local newspapers. Thirty-two years later, I am still searching these documents. For the purpose of helping budding genealogists, I have put together a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the various census records.

What kind of information can I find in the census records?

Not all censuses asked the same questions; however certain censuses provide the following information that might be important to your research:

  • the name of everyone living in the household (1850 onwards);
  • the nativity of all persons in household (1850 onwards);
  • the exact age of the household members (based on the official census date; 1850 onwards);
  • the occupation of household members (1850 onwards);
  • the relationship of these household members to the head of the household (1880 onwards);
  • the nativity of the person’s parents (1880 onwards);
  • the street address of house (1880 onwards);
  • the person’s month and year of birth (1900 only);
  • the total number of children born to a mother and the number still living (1900 & 1910);
  • the year of immigration and citizenship status of all household members (1900 onwards);
  • the mother tongue of all persons in the household (1920 and 1930);

I noticed that the censuses before 1850 are not listed in the above figures. Why is this?

The earlier censuses (1790-1840) only listed the head of the household by name. While all members of the household are counted by their respective sex, they are listed under age categories that are not exact, but in a series of ranges (i.e., “under five years of age”). The head of the household is not distinguished in this counting - so it is sometimes impossible to tell which age group the head belongs.

Are there other interesting data in these records?

Yes, certain census records have information regarding home ownership, household wealth, information concerning disabilities, number of months worked in the previous year, if attended school, and literacy.

I noticed that my ancestor’s last name varies in spelling from census to census. Does this mean that the family changed the spelling of the name?

While that is certainly a possibility, it probably can be explained by other factors. These could be among the following: the person giving the information (perhaps a landlord) wasn’t sure of the spelling of the name, perhaps the census taker was careless and wrote the name as he thought it was spelled, or the household member was illiterate and the census taker was responsible for the name’s spelling. While people did in fact change spellings, there may be other reasons a name is spelled differently in a census record.

I noticed that my ancestor’s age varies from census to census. Didn’t the family member know that person’s age?

The information that was given to the census taker is only as good as the person providing the information. Even a person may be confused on his or her own age. While this seems somewhat ridiculous in our day and age, there are times when we momentarily forget our own ages or when a family member may not remember his or her own age.

In the past, knowing one’s own exact date of birth was not as important as it is today. In addition, census age information is based on the official census date. For example, John Doe may have turned 30 on July 28 and the census information wasn't gathered until August 17; however, the official census date for that year is June 1. What age would be listed? Based on the information, he would appear as being 29.

These dates occasionally changed and are as follows:

Census YearAge by Date
1790-1820First Monday in August (various dates)
1830-19001 June
191015 April
19201 January
19301 April

I noticed that my ancestor’s place of birth varies from census to census. Didn’t the family member know that person’s nativity?

There are three possibilities for this one.

  • a person may or may not be aware of the nativity of his or her spouse or parent;
  • a parent may forget where a child was born. As strange as it sounds, I’ve seen an example of this. My step-father’s father was listed as being born in the US; however, records from Sweden indicate that he actually was born there and not here.
  • the name of the locality changed. Throughout the 19th century the map of Europe changed frequently and countries were often reckoned by its current name. For example, I have an ancestor whose locality changed during the various censuses.
Census YearLocality

The above represents my family’s ancestral origin in Hesse-Darmstadt. The locality differences can be reckoned in the following manner. The 1850 entry of Germany was listed because the Grand Duchy of Hesse was part of the German Confederation. Since several Hessen states existed, the 1860 and 1870 list the province by its capital and then by its name.

Following the unification of Germany in 1871, the 1880 census listed the constituent states as being Prussia – the largest province in the German Empire. Much like the USSR was referred to by its largest state Russia, the German Empire was referred to as Prussia – even though Hesse-Darmstadt was never a part of Prussia per se. Finally, Germany was listed again in 1900 and 1910 reflecting the name of the German Empire to which Hesse-Darmstadt was a part.

This occurs somewhat with border changes in the United States as well. In the 1870 census, persons who were born in the counties that seceded from Virginia in 1863 to become West Virginia are listed as being born in Virginia. These same individuals are listed as being born in West Virginia in later censuses.

Can a person be listed more than once in any given census?

This is quite possible and I've seen it a number of times. This is caused by a person being counted in one district and then moving to another district and taking part in a count there.

Then can a person be missed in a census?

Yes, this happens as well. This could be from moving or being missed by the census taker. There appeared to be several of these cases in my family, but I was able find some of my missing family members. In my next installment, I'll provide some hints to help you find these missing relatives.

Are there any censuses that are missing?

The majority of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire; however a large portion of the Special Veterans census has survived for certain states. While part of Kentucky is missing, the remaining portions of Kentucky and the states that follow alphabetically remain. Only a handful of localities of the 1890 Federal Census still exist. Since the Special Veterans census deals with specific information, I will discuss it in a future installment.

Why does (and other sites) only go up to 1930?

The federal privacy laws require documents like the census be closed to the public for a period of 72 years; therefore, the 1940 census will not be released until 2012 and the 1950 will become available in 2022.

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