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Ancestry Magazine
January/February 1999, vol. 17 no. 1


Census Schedules
Often the first original records that new family historians will seek out and examine for themselves are the population schedules of the U.S. census, especially those for 1850 and later. Of course, we may have gathered original records among family documents, but these were found, selected, and preserved by someone else. We may even have requested copies of birth, christening, marriage, or death records from vital statistics offices or churches or cemeteries, but we have always relied on their staffs to search the records and provide a certificate, photocopy or extract. So, for many of us, microfilmed census schedules are our first introduction to manuscript records of the past.

Original records are those made close to the time the event took place that contain information recorded from a person who had knowledge of the event. We look to them as the most likely sources that will give an accurate account of what took place. Original records don’t always get their facts right—clerical mistakes can be made, or facts stated inaccurately for a variety of reasons. But on the whole, we find information from original records more likely to be reliable than information that was recorded later, based on someone’s conclusions rather than actual knowledge, or relayed through a succession of retranscribed or paraphrased documents.

The census schedules are widely available in microfilm. Complete collections are available at regional facilities of the National Archives, and individual reels can be obtained through LDS Family History Centers. Many libraries and historical societies have films covering their own areas of interest.

Census schedules are full of information useful to family historians. Since 1850, they have included the name of each person residing in a household, with age, sex, color, occupation, and state or country of birth. And, starting in 1880, censuses included the person’s relationship to the head of household and the state or country where each person’s father and mother were born. There is also a wealth of economic and social data that varies from one census year to another. It may include such tidbits as number of years married, value of personal property and real estate, ability to read and write, unemployment during the year, whether naturalized or an applicant for citizenship with "first papers" (indicated by AL, Na or Pa), years of residence in the U.S., and presence of a mental or physical disability or chronic illness.

The Census as an Original Record
New users of census schedules are sometimes disheartened to find the same household in two successive censuses with inconsistent information about its members, like ages that have not increased by ten years during the ten-year interval between censuses, or names that have changed in the interim. What are we to make of such deficiencies in an official government record? To put matters in perspective, we need to remember that a census schedule is an original record solely of what some unidentified person told the census enumerator about the people living in a particular household. Although the spelling of names may be an approximation based on how they sounded, the information generally was recorded accurately as given.

Census schedule information is likely to be most reliable for those facts that are contemporary with the enumeration—the residence and occupation of each person at that time. Most of the other information is based on events in the past. Like any facts related by an informant, we need to evaluate it, a task made difficult when we don’t know the identity of the informant— although the odds are that it came from the woman whose occupation is "keeps house," or another member of the household whose occupation could be plied at home.

The Census as Evidence
Before we rely upon information found in a census schedule, we should be asking the same questions about the probable informant as we would if the information was given to us face-to-face. Was the informant in a position to know the actual facts? Was the person’s memory reliable about happenings in the past? Did the person have any conscious or subconscious motive for altering the facts? Not knowing the informant’s identity, we can’t answer these questions with assurance, but we can look at the more probable informants—the adult women most likely to have been found at home—and decide how each one’s age and position in the household bears on those questions.

For example, age was a concern that some people were as sensitive about in the past as they are today. A wife may have been reluctant to admit that she was older than her husband, or unwilling to reveal he couldn’t read or write, especially if she could. Children, even young adults, may underestimate or overestimate their parents’ ages. Elderly patriarchs may have inflated their ages in a time when age was accorded some respect.

Another factor to consider is that the copy of the census schedule we see on film is not the original that the enumerator made in the field while going from house to house. It is a neatly prepared office copy made by the enumerator from the original, usually one each for state and federal governments, while the originals were left in the hands of local officials who often did not preserve them.

Paving Stones not Building Block
The information from census schedules is best considered as paving the way to more reliable evidence, rather than as a foundation on which to build our family history. The census, problematic as the information may be, can help us find more reliable evidence that will support convincing conclusions about our family’s relationships and its journey through time. If there is absolutely no other source of information, we may have to rely on census data for a conclusion, but we should do so only when the data is consistent with everything else we know, and recognizing that we may have to correct our conclusion if better information is discovered.

A single census can lead us to many other types of records that may cover particular times, places, and events suggested by the census entries. Among the most familiar and frequently used are deeds, tax rolls, wills and other estate records, military and pension files, church and cemetery records, and gravestone surveys. The census may also narrow our search range among many types of unindexed records, like school, employment and commercial records, local newspapers, funeral home records, voting registrations, and many other less frequently used sources.

Following Families Through Censuses
Even more helpful is the picture that emerges of a household group when we follow it through successive census enumerations, notwithstanding the inconsistencies and inexplicable contradictions. Together, several censuses can help us sort out the inconsistencies and develop working hypotheses or theories that will give direction to our search for other records that will prove or disprove a particular point. When we focus on specific research objectives, our search is much more likely to yield reliable results. We should be careful, however, not to let a hypothesis become so attractive that we become wrapped up in proving it and neglect to search out negative evidence that might prove it wrong.

The U.S. census has been taken at ten-year intervals starting in 1790. The first six, from 1790 to 1840, have much less detail than later ones, listing only the head of household by name. Within the household, the number of inhabitants is reported only for a series of age brackets, by sex and race.

We can, however, still follow a particular household through several censuses and distinguish it from others in the vicinity headed by persons with the same name. To do this, we take the number of people in each age bracket and increment the ages by 10, to find what numbers the following census should show if there had been no change in the household makeup. We then check whether the actual numbers are consistent with changes that might reasonably have taken place.

There are printed forms available for bringing together on one sheet a household group where successive entries for any of the first six censuses are consistent, even though they may have been found, through indexes, in different localities or even different states. In the waves of western migration that took place during the early 19th century, this is one of the methods we can use to identify places where a more intensive search should be made for records of a particular family.

When we attempt to trace migration trails through census schedules, we should keep in mind that most people were not "loners." When they moved, it was usually to a place where they already knew people—family, or neighbors from their former area. We don’t isolate individual families on census schedules but look beyond them to see who was living nearby, listed on the same sheet, or the ones immediately before and after. More often than not, the surnames appear, suggesting possible relationships, or head of household names duplicate those found nearby in a former place of residence. These coincidences don’t prove relationships or the identity of a migrating household, but they point to fertile fields for future research.

Finally, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the census deals with households, not families. Until 1880, family relationships weren’t even a matter of interest to the enumerator. The household included all those living and eating together—nuclear family, extended family, boarders, household servants, farmhands, apprentices, and strangers taken in from the cold. Distinguishing family members from others in the household is seldom possible solely on the basis of a census earlier than 1880, and especially so for those before 1850 when individuals weren’t identified by name.

As evidence for genealogical conclusions, census schedules leave much to be desired, but as tools for planning and shaping our genealogical research, they are among the most versatile and useful we have.


Donn Devine, a genealogical consultant from Wilmington, Delaware, is also an attorney and archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. A contributor to numerous genealogical publications, he holds Certified Genealogist and Certified Genealogical Instructor designations from the Board for Certification of Genealogists, of which he is also a trustee. He is a director of the National Genealogical Society and chairs its Standards Committee.

For Further Reading
"Census Records." Chapter 1 in Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives. Washington: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1982.

Loretto Dennis Szucs. "Research in Census Records." Chapter 5 in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (Revised Edition). Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997.

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