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Genealogy: The Evolution of the Census

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Tree Tips

Use the address provided by the 1880 census to examine the city directories for a few years before and after the 1880 census. You may find relatives living with or near the family during some of those years.

The 1860 and 1870 Censuses

The 1860 census contains information similar to that of the 1850 census, but adds a column for the value of personal property and a column for those who were paupers. There were also separate slave schedules, as in 1850.

In 1870, a column was added for Father Foreign Born and another for Mother Foreign Born. (If marked, this can lead to a search of naturalization records and ship passenger lists.) Also, if an individual was born or married within the year, the month of the event was to be recorded.

1880, 1885, and 1890 Censuses

The 1880 census adds the birthplace of the father and the mother (state and country only) in the population schedules. This has created an important resource, but it must be used with caution. Often the person did not know where his or her father or mother was born, so only guessed. The 1880 census added another entry important in your search: the relationship of the person listed to the head of household, such as “wife,” “brother,” “mother-in-law,” “boarder,” and so on. Whether they were single, married, widowed, or divorced was noted. Another helpful addition is the address of those who lived in cities or urban areas.

Special 1885 Federal Census

Five states and territories conducted an 1885 census partly funded by the federal government: Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, Dakota territory, and New Mexico territory. These are at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; only those for Colorado and Nebraska have been microfilmed.

Special 1890 Civil War Census

With a few minor exceptions, most of the 1890 federal population census was burned. A special census taken that year for Union soldiers, however, was only partially destroyed. It is missing states and territories from A through Kansas and part of Kentucky, but the rest survives and includes the soldier's rank, company, regiment or vessel, enlistment, discharge, length of service, post office address, and some other remarks. This is available on microfilm in the National Archives.

Changes in the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 Censuses

The 1900 census has the month and year of birth in addition to age and the number of years married. The mother was required to list how many children she had borne and how many were still living. For immigrants, the year of entry, the number of years in the United States, and whether naturalized were noted. The census also included various other questions.

In 1910, refinements were made. One of the most important additions was the question of whether the males were Union or Confederate veterans. This can lead you to military records.

Lineage Lessons

A serious deficiency exists in locating families in 1910 microfilm, because only 21 states have a Soundex or Miracode. For the other states, you must do a page-by-page search in the counties of interest, or use the subscription services of Ancestry.com or HeritageQuest.com for they have this census indexed. If you can establish the physical address of the family, you can shorten your search by using National Archives micro-publication T1224 to establish the enumeration district.

In addition to names, ages, and so on, the 1920 census adds the year of immigration, whether naturalized, and the year of naturalization, as well as other important information.

In 1930 the census had interesting questions such as whether individuals owned a radio set. Besides personal questions such as sex, race, age, marital status, and occupation, they were asked if they were veterans, and if so, of which war. If an immigrant, the enumerator inquired as to year of immigration, naturalization, or whether an alien. All these details are important in weaving our ancestor's lives.

Lineage Lessons

In addition to the federal government taking censuses, a number of states conducted a state census. These are not centrally located. The best source for information on these records is Ann S. Lainhart's State Census Records, widely available in libraries. It explains the differences between the state and federal censuses, questions asked, and the location of these records.

Mortality Schedules

Starting in 1850, a listing was made by the census taker of those who died during the previous 12 months (June 1, 1849, to May 31, 1850). This mortality schedule is an important search record. It includes the name of the deceased, sex, age, “color,” whether widowed, place of birth, the month in which the death occurred, profession (or occupation or trade), the cause of death, and the number of days ill. The originals of these are not centrally located. In addition to the 1850 mortality schedules, the 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses included similar lists with a few changes. In 1870 the census included the birthplace of the deceased's parents. Mortality schedules were also taken with the special 1885 federal census. Greenwood's Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy has a listing of mortality schedules and the physical location of these important records.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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