How To Use The Census in Your Genealogical Research

Oct 14
Old glasses on the vintage document

The census can offer you an intimate look at your ancestors’ lives in ten year increments. Typically, researchers focus on getting to know specific ancestors through their birth records, death records, and marriage certificates. While these details are excellent for putting a boundary around a person’s lifespan, they don’t tell you as much about their day to day lives. In contrast, the census can tell you where your ancestors lived, what they did for work, whether they were veterans, and more. Here’s a closer look at what the census is, the kinds of information that it contains, and how to use it in your genealogical research project.

The History of the Census

Many governments have used a census to help count their citizens and learn more information about them, including demographics, economics, and health data. The United States implemented its first formal, national census in 1790. The objective was simple: to understand who lived in the newly formed nation and how best to organize the nation’s services. From there, a new Federal census has been conducted every ten years. While the information that’s been collected has changed somewhat, the census offers a fair number of insights. By Federal law, the census can’t be released for 72 years after it has been completed to protect respondent privacy. The most recent census details available are from 1940, which were released in 2012.

The Types of Census Information Researchers Gather

Individual event records, such as a birth certificate, marriage information, or wills are often the best information that researchers can access. But a census collects additional information about their lives including job status, whether they could read and write, and whether they owned their homes. The census also provides context by allowing you to see that information for all of the members of a family, to put trends into perspective.

In the 1930s, for example, the census was influenced by the Depression. Questionnaires began to ask about income levels and whether people were seeking work. It’s also possible to look at factors such as where respondents were born, where their parents were born, how long they were married and so forth. Often, you can garner dates and locations of birth or a general timeframe for marriage that makes it possible to find other supporting records that otherwise prove elusive.

Seeing the Trends in the Census

Using the census to track your family’s evolution in ten year increments can provide valuable insights. Did your ancestors put down roots in one area, or move around a lot? Did family units remain the same, with children moving out on a schedule that makes sense or did families live together in multi-generational homes? Can you see an ancestor’s wealth grow or career progress, or their fortunes take a downturn by following them through the census? In many cases, it’s possible to “check in” on each ancestor via the census between their birth and their death. One note, however: if your ancestor lived in 1890, with the exception of around 6000 records, you’ll be unable to view their entry. The records from that census were lost in a natural disaster, tragically.

Do you need assistance with a genealogical research project? Contact us today to learn more about how Price & Associates’ experienced team can help you find your relatives through the census and other records.