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U. S. Federal Censuses

Census 1790 censusAnyone who doing their family history has to go over every U. S. Federal Census record that their ancestors might have been recorded on. The official census taking started in 1790. These serve as historic records of a specific time and place with a person’s name. Unfortunately, the first six decades (1790 to 1840) it was just the head of the household whose name was listed. That head of household could have been a female (a widow for example), so not just male names appear.

They are housed in the National Archives and Records Administration offices in Washington, D. C. Each decade has been made into a digital format so viewable now on many online sites. However, due to privacy laws, each decade’s census can not be made public until after 72 years when the census was taken. So the last publicly available census is the 1940 which came out in 2012. The 1950 census will be available in 2022. However, the censuses for 1950 to 2010 can be obtained by the person named in the record or their heirs after they submit the BC-600 form.

Besides learning about individuals or family branches, the census does provide an over of the nation at each decade. In 1790, there were 13 states with a population of about 3.9 million. It was assistant marshals who went to each household, listed the name of each head of household, and asked just numbers questions, such as the number of white males over and under age 16, number of white females, number of others in house and then the number of any slaves. By 1800 there were 16 states with a population of 5.3 million and the number questions were the same other than it was broken down into age brackets for males and females – ages under 16, then 16 to 23, 23 to 45 and over 45 years old. This would later help the family researcher know an ancestor in 1800 may have had 3 young children under the age of 16.

By 1840 the ages were broken down into smaller numbers and also the question if any person was blind or those who were ‘foreigners’ – not naturalized. With the 1850 census, family researchers had for the first time names of all people in the household plus much more. The age, place of birth, their occupation, sex, value of real estate they owned, if they had married within the past year, if they attended school in the last year, if they could read and write or if the person was blind, deaf, dumb, insane, a pauper or a convict. Some really interesting questions and answers. This was before the American Civil War, as would be the 1860 census, so good records of those before thousands would died in the war. census-1850 cartoonAlso with the 1850 and then 1860 census was the separate questionnaire on those who were slaves. No individual slave names but the owner’ name, male or female slave and their age. Interesting addition was the number of uncaught slaves and those freed in the last year.

In 1880 was the first time seeing the question of whether a person was a widow, widower or divorced! Marking those divorced was very unusual for the Victorian era. As it turned out many times a female would say they were a widow rather than stating they were divorced, that was done by males also. Again the enumerator (census taker) never did any verification on information provided, just what was given him when he visited the house was recorded.

census - 1890 reader cardsThe 1890 census was taken and completed, but then was destroyed in a fire in 1921, long before any digital, microfilm or other type of copy made. There area few fragments for specific counties that did survive.

With the 1900, the only time asked, the month and year of each person was recorded. Another good question was how many children a female had given birth to and how many were still alive as of 1900.

In 1930 veterans were now listed and which war they served in.

There are several sources for viewing the 1790 to 1940 censuses online. First check with your local public library, they may have a subscription for an online site with censuses, free to use. Check also your local genealogical societies and the Family History Center in your community.  census-1920 taker

From your own home, go to for the free online viewing of 1790 to 1940 census records plus the 1850 mortality census, 1930 merchant seaman census and district maps for 1900-1940. For a pay subscription, there is with online images and indexes for all available 1790-1940 population schedules, 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, most 1850 to 1885 mortality schedules, surviving 1890 veteran’s schedules (except Ohio and Pennsylvania), and the 1930 merchant seamen schedules. Then the pay subscription for Heritage Quest with online images for all available 1790 to 1930 federal population schedules, and 1850 and 1860 slave schedules. They also have indexes for some years.

Photos: 1790 handwritten census, 1850 cartoon in Harper’s New Weekly Magazine, and 1890 Pantograph for reading census cards.

Related genealogical blogs:

1890 Census Survivors

Census Day April 1, 1950

Mobile App Called Dwellr from Census Bureau


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