Researching the Federal Censuses
1850 | 1860 | 1870 | 1880 | 1885 | 1890 | 1900 | 1910 | 1920 | 1930
Since 1790, the United States government has taken a nationwide population
count every ten years to determine each state's representation in the House of Representatives.
From the first census (1790) to the most recent census available to the public (1920), the federal census records
present a readily accessible resource that is rich in personal information about the people of the United States.
The importance of census records does not diminish over time, and few public records reveal so many details about
individuals, families, and communities as do the population schedules of the United States census.
The federal census is one of the most useful tools
for genealogists. Each of the decennial enumerations of the inhabitants
of the United States has its own potential for solving mysteries of the past. While some inaccuracies are to be
expected in census records, they still provide some of the most fascinating and useful snapshots of personal history
to be found anywhere.
Like nearly all sources, census records contain errors
and omissions, and require thorough validation of evidence from other sources to evaluate findings before drawing
conclusions. Census enumerators were not necessarily well educated
or particularly qualified for the job, and anyone who has studied census records knows that good penmanship was
not a requirement. Census takers were political appointees who were frequently chosen because they were of the
correct political affiliation in a particular time and place, or just because they knew the right people.
Despite its imperfections, the federal census is one of the most widely used resources in almost every genealogical
research project for placing individuals in a particular time and place, and for connecting people with other sources
The 1850 Federal Census
From 1790 to 1840, only the heads of households were listed by
name in the census, with other family members simply being checked off anonimously in statistical age groups. In
the 1850 census, for the first time each person in a household was
listed individually by name, age, sex, race, birthplace,
and occupation. For this reason, the 1850 federal census is considered to be the first "modern" United
The 1850 census can help researchers identify the parents of known ancestors, verify marriages and remarriages,
investigate potential in-law and step-relationships, learn principal occupations, discover how much property families
owned, and determine which family members died at what ages.
The inclusion of birth place for every individual allows for the tracking of migration routes. The identification
of previous residences points to record sources to be searched in other localities. It is possible to track the
migration routes of families by the family members' places of birth, and decide which other records to search along
the route of their passage. If a couple was married within the year, you could search marriage records. If an unrelated
man of marriageable age was present, he might be a possible son-in-law. If the family owned real estate, you could
search land and tax records. If the head of household was elderly, you could search probate records.
The inclusion of so much personal data for the first time in the 1850 census is an obvious benefit to genealogists.
For the first time it is possible to identify families and other groups by name. Ages provided in the 1850 census
allow researchers to establish dates for searching other records.
The identification of real estate ownership suggests that land and tax records could be searched. The 1850 census
may provide starting information for searching marriage records, probates, and other important records. Possible
family relationships may be surmised.
The 1850 census provides valuable insights into occupations and property values. It may also be possible to infer
remarriages and step relationships, and to determine approximate life spans.
The 1860 Federal Census
The 1860 census contains the same information as the 1850 census, with the addition of a column for the value of
personal estate. The 1860 census was the first to ask those being queried to reveal the value of their personal
estate. Information about the value of an ancestor's real and personal estate could help researchers match such
information with land, tax, and probate records.
With the aid of the 1860 census, it is possible to get a glimpse of an ancestral family on the eve of the Civil
War. Many families would never be as intact or as stable again. Persons of Indian descent not residing on reservations
are also included.
The 1870 Federal Census
The 1870 census may help researchers identify survivors of the Civil War, suggesting further research of military
records. Conversely, if a person does not appear in the 1870 census, as expected, it may be a clue that the person
may have been a casualty of the war.
The 1870 census is the first census in which parents of foreign birth are indicated, a real benefit in identifying
immigrant ancestors. Immigrants who were naturalized and eligible to vote are also identified, suggesting follow-up
research in court and naturalization records. The 1870 census allows researchers to verify Chinese, Indian, black,
and mulatto descent as well.
The 1880 Federal Census
The 1880 census is the first census to specify a person's
relationship to the head of household, marital status, illness or disability at the time the census was taken,
number of months unemployed during the year, and the state or country of birth of every individual's father and
The 1880 census may be helpful to verify birth and marriage records, or even to partially replace them when birth
and marriage records are not recorded elsewhere. The census may be useful in helping researchers to identify previously
unknown surnames of married daughters, mothers-in-law, cousins, and other relatives living within a family. The
1880 census can also help researchers begin to trace genetic illnesses and diseases in earlier generations of a
Photography became more widely available by the time of the 1860-1880 censuses. If you have unlabeled family photos
from this period, you might be able to combine tax and census information to identify family members. Tax lists
specify gold watches, pianos, carriages, horses, and other personal property, which may appear in photographs.
With the aid of the censuses, you may have a better chance of identifying likely owners pictured in photographs.
The 1885 Special Census
The federal government offered to reimburse half of
the costs of a special interdecennial census to any state or territory that agreed to accept the offer. The Dakota
Territory was one of five states and territories that elected to participate in the special census, which was conducted
during the summer of 1885.
The 1890 Federal Census
More than 99% of the entire 1890 Federal Census of
the United States was destroyed in a fire in 1921. The entire 1890 Federal Census of North Dakota was completely
destroyed in this fire, and the only surviving schedule of the 1890 Federal Census of South Dakota was a fragment
of Jefferson Township, Union County, South Dakota, enumerating the five members of the James M. Lafferre family.
Fortunately, most of a special census enumerating veterans
of the Civil War, and the widows of these veterans, did survive the fire, including the complete schedules of both
North Dakota and South Dakota.
The 1900 Federal Census
The 1900 census is a genuinely significant enumeration,
and is regarded as one of the most inclusive and accurate of all the federal censuses.
The 1900 census is the only available census that specifies the month and year of birth, as well as the age, of
each person enumerated. Previous censuses, and the later 1910 and 1920 censuses, specified only a person's age.
The 1900 census is also the only census to include the number of years a couple was married, and the number of
children born to the wife, including the number still living at the time of the census. The 1900 census is also
the first to indicate how long an immigrant had been in the United States, and whether the immigrant was naturalized.
Other information identified whether the home or farm was owned or rented, and whether the owned property was free
The 1900 census noted whether a person was a Civil War veteran or the widow of one. Using the 1900 census, researchers
can verify Civil War service, and locate ancestors serving in the armed forces overseas or aboard ship (listed
in separate sections of the census).
The 1900 census, like the 1910 and 1920 censuses which follow it, are excellent research tools to determine dates
and places to search for marriage records, birth records of children, deaths of children, and the marriages of
children not listed. Researchers can also trace and document ethnic origins and family traditions, identify unknown
family members, and connect known information with other sources, such as earlier censuses, naturalization records
(especially declarations of intent for United States citizenship), school attendance rolls, property holdings,
and employment and occupational records.
The 1910 Federal Census
Although the 1910 census does not provide as much precise
information as the 1900 census, such as exact month and year of birth, number of years married, and the number
of children born to the wife, it is still a useful tool for determining approximate dates and places to search
for marriage records, birth and death records of children, and the marriage records of older children not listed
within a family.
The 1910 census makes it possible for researchers to verify Civil War service, trace and document ethnic origins
and family traditions, identify unknown family members, and connect known information with other sources, such
as earlier censuses, naturalization records (especially declarations of intent for United States citizenship),
school attendance rolls, property holdings, and employment and occupational records. The 1910 census also allows
researchers to locate military and naval personnel in hospitals, aboard ship, and in overseas duty stations, such
as the Philippines.
The poor quality of the microfilming of the 1910 census seems especially noticeable when compared with other censuses.
As an extra impediment, no complete index exists for the 1910 federal censuses of North Dakota and South Dakota.
A genealogist researching in the Dakotas would have to rely on city directories, county landowner atlases, cemetery
lists, enumeration districts, and determined page-by-page searches of the census microfilm itself to find elusive
The 1920 Federal Census
Many genealogists use the 1920 federal census as the
best starting point for researching federal records. Working from known information about the most recent generations,
researchers can work backwards in time to discover family relationships, and determine where additional records
may be found.
The 1920 census is a good tool for determining approximate dates and places to search for marriage records, birth
and death records of children, and the marriages of older children not listed in the census. The 1920 census makes
it possible for researchers to verify ethnic family traditions, identify unknown family members, and connect information
to other sources, such as earlier censuses, school attendance rolls, property holdings, and employment and occupational
The 1920 census asked immigrants for the year of their arrival in the United States, making it easier to pinpoint
the date of passenger arrival records. The census also asked for the naturalization status of every foreign born
person, and inquired about the year of naturalization for those individuals who had become United States citizens,
thus facilitating searches for naturalization records.
Due to the more specific questions asked of immigrants from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey regarding
their birthplace and that of their parents, researchers may be able to discover the exact towns or regions from
which their families emigrated. The 1920 census also asked for the mother tongue of each respondent, and that of
each parent, which may further help to define the ethnic origins and traditions of families.
The 1930 Federal Census
To protect the privacy of living individuals, access to
federal census population schedules is restricted for 72 years after the census is taken. The 1930 census is the
most recent federal census to be made available to the public, being released in microfilm form through the National
Archives in 2002.