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Making sense of the census, a valuable resource

Early census records were often compiled by an odd assortment of folks for whom accuracy was not a priority.

If no one was home, the census taker either omitted the family or obtained the information from a neighbor. Spelling didn't count. Visiting grandchildren and friends were sometimes erroneously included as household members simply because they happened to be there when the census taker came by.

Still, beginning with the first federal census taken in 1790 to the one compiled in 1920, the most recent to be made public, census records remain one of our most valuable sources of genealogical information. (The federal government does not make the personal information available until after 72 years for privacy reasons.) Accessing these records is as easy as visiting your local library or, in some cases, booting up your computer.

Before 1850, census data was minimal. Except for the head of household, only the surname, gender and age range were recorded for each family member. For example, the listing for the John Smith family might look like this: one male, age 20-30; one female, age 20- 30; two males under age 5; and one female age 5-10. Occupations and whether a person was foreign-born were sometimes included.

Starting with the 1850 census, additional data was collected. Each person's given name and age were listed, for example. Thus, the same Smith family would appear on the 1850 census as: John Smith, 30, farmer; Mary, 28, housewife; Bobby, 4; Jimmy, 3; and Elizabeth, 9.

The information isn't always accurate; the spelling is atrocious ("Sendarol" instead of Cinderella, for instance.) Nicknames may leave you mystified (Polly was a popular nickname for Mary. Go figure.) Nevertheless, census records provide an excellent springboard for research.

Just because you live in Florida doesn't mean you can't research census records from New Jersey from where you are. All records are available on microfilm, except for 1890. Most of those records were destroyed in a fire.

Most large libraries carry census records. The main branch of the Tampa Public Library and the Largo Library have at least some records for nearly every state. Most are on microfilm. A small selection is available on CD-ROM.

The Mormon Family History Centers also keep some records on hand. In this area, there are centers in Tampa, New Port Richey, Brooksville, Largo, Bradenton and Sarasota. Check with your local genealogical societies about locations; information on the societies is available at any public library.

Can't find what you need? The library staff may borrow microfilm from other states through a library loan program. The Mormon Centers will order microfilm copies from the main library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The National Archives in Washington also loans microfilm. (Log on to http://www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/ for details.)

Rental fees are nominal, usually less than $5. You need to allow about three weeks for the microfilm to arrive.

Some census records can be accessed online. Volunteers have been transcribing census records and posting them on Web sites for several years. The monumental project is not nearly complete. But it's worth logging on to http://www.rootsweb.com/usgenweb/census/ to see what's there. Genealogical sites devoted to a specific geographical area sometimes carry a smattering of records for that locale, as do some general genealogy sites.

All you need to know to get started is in what state, and preferably which county, your ancestors lived when the census was taken. In some states, particularly up North, each county was divided into townships. Knowing in which township your kin lived can save hours of research.

Know only the state? A state census index, when available, should help you narrow your search. Keep in mind that county and township boundaries changed often before 1900. If you don't find your ancestors where you expect, check records for neighboring areas or consult a census index.

Farm records can yield a genealogical harvest

In 1879, Cornelius McAvoy rented 15 acres of tilled land, 120 acres of pasture and 15 acres of woodland in Jefferson County, N.Y. Four calves were born on his spread, and he bought three others. He produced 730 pounds of butter.

Clearwater reader Jean Henry learned this and more about McAvoy's life by reading the 1880 Agricultural Census records in the New York State Public Library in Albany.

Federal agricultural censuses were taken each decade from 1850 to 1880. They showed how much acreage a farmer owned or leased, quantity of livestock and wages paid to hired help, etc. Researchers find them useful for proving where ancestors lived and whether they owned or rented as well as for providing a glimpse into the past.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) makes them available through inter-library loan. (Contact your local library or Mormon Family History Center (FHC) for details.)

States also conducted agricultural censuses, generally in years ending in five, from about 1850-1900. A quick look online at a Kansas genealogical Web site shows that George French owned 160 acres of Phillips County land in Crystal Township in 1895. He cultivated 100 acres of it. Just knowing he lived in Crystal Township may reduce time spent researching other resources.

"Since the 1890 census was destroyed, agricultural censuses can fill in some really big gaps," said Ginger Brengle, a library assistant at the Largo Library. Records are kept in each state's archives. Copies can be found at many large libraries - the Largo Library has a good selection from other states - and anything they don't have can usually be borrowed through inter-library loan. You might also find what you need at your local FHC.

For a complete listing of these and other state records, check with the Largo Library.

Other Census clues

The federal census was first taken in 1790 and one has been conducted every decade since. All returns become public information after 72 years and are available on microfilm, except for 1890. Those were destroyed in a fire. The 1930 census reports are due out in April 2002. FHCs and most large public libraries carry copies.

On-line? Check out http://www.rootsweb.com/usgenweb/census/ and http://www.genforum.com. Some county sites carry a smattering of records for their locale.

On returns before 1850, personal data are minimal. Except for the head of household, only the surname, gender and age range appear for each family member. From 1850 on, additional data were collected, including each person's name and age. Many later census returns even contain the precise address.

On the 1910 return, survivors of the Rebellion were noted. Not too many were still around. But if one of your ancestors has UA, UN, CA or CN after his name, he served in the Union Army or Navy or the Confederate counterpart, and you'd be wise to order his military and pension records from the National Archives.

The 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses indicate the person's year of immigration to the United States and the naturalization status (AL=alien; PA=first papers and NA=naturalized). The 1920 report also shows the year in which the person became a citizen.

The information isn't always accurate, but census records provide an excellent springboard for further research. You just need to know in which state and county your ancestors lived when the census was taken to start searching. In some states, particularly up North, each county was divided into townships. By knowing the precise township, you'll save hours of research.

Remember that county and township boundaries changed often prior to 1900. If you don't find your ancestors where you expect, check records for neighboring areas or consult a census index.


Copyright © 2002 Donna Murray Allen. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission