Back to Basics · tips and tricks

Census Survey: Your New Best Friend

When I first started taking family history classes, I considered the census just another record (I know, after that 1890 Census blog post, it’s hard to believe I was ever so naive). I mean, it had good information on it, but it’s not like it gave birth, marriage, or death dates. And those were obviously the most important records to find out about a person.

Was my world shaken or what?

The census is the best! That is why the fact that one of the US Censuses was burned is so absolutely depressing. We were told in our class that one of the very first things we should do when we start researching is perform a census survey. Basically, you find all of the censuses that follow the person/family you are researching from their birth to death (if you don’t know when they were born or died, you can use the censuses for the general time period that you think they lived) and take down all of the information that you possibly can glean from it. The information you get from one census can help you find them in the next census back. I recommend starting with the most contemporary census. Doing a survey can help you figure out where the family was moving, how many children there were (in the 1900 US Census it shows the number of children the woman has had and how many are still living–a great resource), where the person’s parents were from, their occupation, and even if they owned a radio (1930 US Census).

But using censuses is not all peaches and cream. There are limitations. For example, censuses have not been around since the beginning of the world. The first US Census was taken in 1790 and it doesn’t give a whole lot of information. All US censuses before 1850 only listed the head of household and the number of people in each age group.

1820 Census
ancestry.com, 1820 US Census

It’s hard to get a lot of information from that, but it can help track how many people and possible children they could have had. So even if your ancestors are back in the tough days of censuses, keep looking. The good news is that in 1850 they started listing all of the names of the people in the household and other relevant information.

1850 Census
ancestry.com, 1850 US Census

There is the sadness of the 1890 US Census, but there are about 6,000 surviving names if you are extremely lucky. Not all censuses that have ever been taken in the US are available for viewing due to privacy for people who are still living. The most current one that you can view right now is the 1940 US Census.

Where can you find censuses? They have all been digitized and indexed and are on websites like FamilySearch and Ancestry. I prefer Ancestry for census records because it seems easier to find them and they are a really great quality. But you can use either. They are also available on microfilm in select locations like the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT. I’m of the opinion, though, of “Why should I leave my couch?” So I look at them online. Plus, online=searchable.

If there is a census available for the country you are interested in depends on the country. A great resource to look at to find out if there is a census for a certain country is the FamilySearch Research Wiki or Ancestry’s Red Book. Pretty much if you can find reference materials for your area of study, you can try to find out when or if censuses were taken in a country.

Off the top of my head (thanks to lots of drilling in my class), the only census that we have available for Mexico is the 1930 Census and that doesn’t include the Federal District. For the British Isles, Ancestry has censuses from 1841 to 1911. They are split up into England, Wales, Scotland, and different islands.

Just be careful when searching in England and Wales Censuses because there are a lot of common names and you need to be certain that it is actually your ancestor. I found out the hard way that there are a lot of Thomas Wests in England in 1861. Trust me, a lot. Over a thousand at least. Just use other information that you have like parent’s names, average birth year, where he/she was born, that kind of thing. And that goes for all censuses, not just the ones in the British Isles.

Census surveys aren’t always the easiest, especially since different people are reporting the information, but they are a wonderful tool for starting out. Good luck with your census surveys and all of your genealogy research!

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