Doing research using the U. S. Federal Census is a major undertaking but can yield great information about your ancestors. The most important item to remember is that all information recorded on a census was provided by someone in a specific household. It may have been the wife, the husband, a father, an uncle, a second cousin, anyone available to answer questions. So there can be errors, in a person’s full name, their age, especially their birth place, where their parents were born, etc. However, it is still a great first person account of family information taken every ten years.
Keep in mind as you go over each census, make note of when the information was gathered, since it did vary each decade. Below is the listing of census years and when a census was officially marked. This is especially important for births and deaths in a family. If someone died on August 16, 1820, they would have been still counted in that household because they were alive on the first Monday of August. The census taker could not be at each household on just one day, it usually took a month to 6 weeks to cover a district. But one date was selected as for providing information of who was living in the house on that that date.
1790-1820: First Monday in August
1830-1900: June 1 (except it was June 2 in 1890)
1910: April 15
1920: January 1
1930: April 1
1940: April 1
When looking for a specific person in a household where all the names are provided, if you do not find them, review all the names comparing to ages. A nickname or a middle name might have been used for that census year. Also look over neighbors. An individual may have married but is still living in their own house one or two houses away. Check neighbors also for any surnames you are checking in those neighboring houses – just might find a unknown relative.
Misspellings, especially of surnames can really slow up your search in the census. The one taking the down the information tried their best to spell a name, but if the person in the household giving the names could not read or write, they would not know the correct spelling. So try various spellings. Also if an ancestor had an unusual given name or their wife did or their children – search without a surname, just use the given name, the hometown and approximate age. Also try using the initials. That tip has proven to be the most successful!
Also with transcriptions of the handwritten censuses for the indexes, the spelling of a name can change. It a handwritten letter looked like ‘r’ and it was really ‘n’ – there is a mistake.
Location or where a person lived can make the search harder. If you found them in a town in 1850, 1860, 1880 but not in 1870, there are several reasons. One is the census taker just overlooked or missed them – it happened. Another, the family may have moved to another county or state from 1860s into the 1870s but returned to their hometown by 1880. Especially during certain historical events, such as the American Civil War there were re-locations done. So look at other locations for a specific family.
When having worked on a search in the census for a specific person with no luck, put it aside for a few weeks or months, but make note on a calendar you need to return to that search with ‘fresh eyes’. In the meantime you may have learned new information about a marriage, a new job in a different location or another given name and can restart the census search.
When searching a certain relative, always start with the date they lived closest to the present that a census is available. That would be 1940 if they were alive then. After totally checking that decade then move back ten years to 1930, then 1920, etc. When you can find that relative as a child in a household, you can gather additional information about parents, grandparents, siblings, or even aunts and uncles.
Immigrants – if your ancestors immigrated and were listed on the 1900, 1910, 1920 or 1930 censuses, it will have the date year provided by the family member of when they immigrated to the United States. Don’t be surprised if you find different years listed on different censuses, it is all based on memory.
When following your direct family lineage – parents-grandparents, etc., also do a census check on your extended family – the aunts, uncles and cousins. Examine who is living there a specific census year, there might be some surprises.
There were also some special federal censuses done over the years. In 1885 the federal government helped five states or territories conduct a special census with population and mortality schedules. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of the 1885 census for those five: Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Dakota Territory. Check with your local Family History Center for details.
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