Federal Census Data compiled by census reports is one of the most important documents to use when beginning your family research. The data contained in the reports will create a family blueprint through the decades and lay a strong foundation to go deeper into your research.
History Of The Federal Census
The Federal Census began under George Washington as a way to keep track of their population and how many men were available for industry. Since its beginning the United States population has grown from approximately 3.9 million to 317 million in 2013. Throughout the decades the census has evolved from a brief listing of household heads and the number of people in their household to listings of heads, their spouses, children, boarders, laborers, location, parents birthplace, education, age, occupation, and other relevant data. This data helps the family researcher create a base for learning more about their family.
1790 – 1840 Federal Census Data
From 1790 – 1840 the Federal Census Data logged information about the family, but only the head of the household was named. While this data is still important to researching the family it can be difficult to confirm the names without the names of their children and spouse. To confirm the names of residents in the household we must looks at birth records, marriage records, death records, cemetery records, divorce records and other various records.
In 1790 the census report had six inquiries and by 1840 had over twenty. Over time the inquiries expanded the categories of ages of free white male and female citizens. Slaves were numbered, but never named since they were viewed as property of the head of the household.
1850 – 1940 Federal Census Data
Census records were reformed in 1850 to include the names of anyone living in the household. This gives us a greater snapshot of what was occurring in the household and the effects events such as the Civil War and western expansion had on the family. With more information available it makes it easier to track children as they grow up and marry and have families of their own.
Census reports are released to the public 70 years after they are taken. In 2010 the 1940 census was released to the public.
Federal Census Records 1790 – 1940
Each decade has different inquiries that can be difficult to understand. When doing family research one must try and understand the language used at the time and how it was interpreted by your ancestor. As the decades moved forward Census reports became more sophisticated. Below is a list of available census records and how to interpret them and the different inquiries you will come across:
- 1790 Federal Census
- 1800 Federal Census
- 1810 Federal Census
- 1820 Federal Census
- 1830 Federal Census
- 1840 Federal Census
- 1850 Federal Census
- 1860 Federal Census
- 1870 Federal Census
- 1880 Federal Census
- 1890 Federal Census
- 1900 Federal Census
- 1910 Federal Census
- 1920 Federal Census
- 1930 Federal Census
- 1940 Federal Census
Common Mistakes Found In Census Reports
Before I tell you the most common mistakes found in census reports I want to cover the mistake many people make when looking back into the past. It is important to not judge the people in the past by the standards we have today. The world in which they lived was their reality, not ours, and it is unproductive to develop self-righteous opinions about their behavior and why you think it was right or wrong. Your opinion, to be frank, means nothing and adds nothing to the discussion since the ancestors you are offended by or want to apologize for is dead and nothing but bones. Just stick to figuring out why they did what they did and you will proceed further. Check your 2014 morals at the door.
It is estimated that in 1790 between 60 – 75% of the residents in the United States could not read or write English. This meant that the spelling of the name depended on how the enumerator thought the name sounded. Think about how difficult the poor enumerator had it! Many of the immigrants still had broken accents and pronounced their last name in their native language. This is why I find so many different spellings of the surname Yost throughout the decades. Many of my ancestors married first-generation immigrants. The name Yost was spelled, Jost, Joust, Joast, Yowst, Yoast, and Youst.
If you hit a wall and it seems like your ancestor has disappeared from the census report for a couple decades, then try spelling your name differently. When I tinkered with the spellings of my Civil War ancestor George W. Yost I found him in the 1870 census records in a different location under the name George W. Yowst.
Up until the 1880s birthdays were not annual celebrations. Because birthdays were not celebrated it is not uncommon to find ages off by a year. It is best to record the birth-date’s of your ancestor using their birth certificates, death certificate, and military records.
I have ran across this once in my research and boy did it ever mess me up. My great-uncle Sterling Bonaparte Yost was listed with his wife as being a negro. I’ve seen a picture of Sterling and his wife and I know they were not black in fact they were about as pale white as you can be. I don’t know if the enumerator had had a long day and started to hit the bottle before he reached McDowell County, West Virginia or did it as a joke, but he certainly made an error and an error that took me awhile to figure out since it seemed like an impossible one to make.
Missing Data and Duplicates
Enumerators were human and made mistakes. It is common to see missing data that perhaps the enumerator forgot to ask about or forgot to write down. It is also common to see two different enumerators visit the same family within the same year. This can happen for a couple reasons but the most common one is that the family moved after the first census was taken and a different enumerator doubled back to interview them again since their location had changed. It is interesting to see the different styles of each enumeration.
It is common for ancestors to go by initials rather than names. While this is not a mistake on the part of the enumerator it is something to think about when searching your ancestor. For example, my Civil War ancestor George W. Yost is often found in census reports after 1880 as G. W. Yost or Geo. W. Yost. If you are hitting a wall with your ancestor try to search their abbreviated name and see if you come up with anything.
How To Use Census Records In Your Research
Census reports are great resources for finding information on your family, but they are full of errors so it is important to not base your research solely on what you see in a report. Instead allow the census to be sort of a map for your research. When you establish your ancestor’s presence in a certain location begin to check out other resources such as local libraries, local churches, local historical societies, local newspaper archives, local public records, and local cemeteries to help fill out the life of your ancestor.