1. U.S. Census The U.S. began census taking in 1790. But you would start with the 1930 which is the most current year available and begin working back in time by moving from the known to the unknown. A 72-year waiting period exists for the censuses to be released (1930 was released in 2002 to protect the privacy of those people in 1920). In 1920, a fire happened which burned a little bit of the 1920 and most of the 1890 census. If you are looking for your ancestors in 1890, you may want to use the state census, if one existed. Check in the Family History Library Catalog. Many state censuses aren't indexed either. The RI State Censuses are particularly helpful (they exist on the 5 year marks: 1935, 1925, 1915) and are indexed.
The U.S. Censuses were soundexed (indexed) for 1920 1900. A soundex is a coding system for surnames. It will group your surnames with other surnames that sound or are spelled similar. The soundex rules are available from your FHC. Get the roll of film that corresponds with you code. Then scroll to your code on the film (they are fairly numerical). Once you locate the number, the soundex is alphabetized by first name after that. If I were looking for Mello, Manuel in 1910, my code would be M400. I would see Mellos and other similar surnames. I would roll the film past the Antonios, Franciscos and Joses until I hit the M's. I would then look for Manuels. From there, I would look for the correct Manuel family that is mine.
The 1910 is soundexed for 21 states only. The remaining states are indexed via street addresses/censustracts on fiche. It is now also on film supposedly. Also, "Research Guide United States" says, "For the 1910 census there is an index on 51 fiche that can help you identify the enumeration districts in 39 cities if you know the address." That's FHL fiche 6331480 81.
The 1880 is soundexed for families with children 10 and under only. For 1790-1870, you will look up the surname in an index book. Be aware that 1870 is not completely indexed. The 1860 is mostly indexed. A 30% error rate exists in indexing 1790 1840. From 1790-1840, you will not find the names of all family members listed. You will find the head of household and how many males and females of various ages are living there.
Another way around the soundex is to buy a subscription to Ancestry.com or use it via your local public library or FHC. It does searches U.S. wide. The error rate in the indices is quite great and you will have to play around with various spellings to make your ancestor appear.
Always, always go to the census itself. Don't use the index or soundex card for the record. Make a photocopy of the census (or download the image from Ancestry). This gives you an exact copy. Writing on it changes it, and it is no longer considered an exact copy. This drives those certified genealogists crazy. I do write my references on the back (state, county, ED (enumeration district), sheet and line, or page number.) I also highlight my family. The certified genealogists wouldn't like it, but after shrinking down the census to make a copy, you will barely be able to read the family.
The following are some problems with the U. S. Census: censuses were incomplete and inaccurate; the census taker was indifferent; the family may be split between 2 pages; women lied about their age; sometimes the country listed may be the country of the grandparents, not the parents; the census taker couldn't understand your ancestor's accent. Always look a few pages ahead and back for other family members (especially in 1880).
What are they censuses good for? Censuses are really for residence only, but can give many clues (and sometimes the island). The 1930 census asks (among other things): age; marital status and age at first marriage; if foreign born, year of immigration to the U.S.; whether naturalized (Na means naturalized, Pa or PP means papers filed, Al means still and alien), veteran of U.S. military and what war. The 1920 census asks: age; marital status; if foreign born, year of immigration to the U.S., whether naturalized and year of naturalization; birthplace of person and parents (I have seen the island listed usually only Azores is written); and mother tongue if foreign born. The 1910 also asks for number of years of present marriage; and for women, number of children born and number now living as well as the same foreign born questions that are in the 1920. The 1900 doesn't ask about the number of children born and living to this mother, but asks for the month and year of birth for all in the household. This is a far cry from the 1810 census, which only asks for name of family head; if white, age and sex; race; slaves. Much information can be gleaned from these censuses. Just keep in mind that they can have errors in them.
Census can be found at your local FHC, online by subscription at www.ancestry.com, and a few free census abstracts at www.census-online.com/links
2. City Directories Although you may not find many city directories in your local FHC, it seems appropriate to mention them now, after the U.S. Census. Most City Directories are on microfilm, or you could write to the historical society of that area asking them to copy the page(s) for you (include a donation). If for some reason you cannot find your ancestor on a particular census, and you are fairly certain of the locality, you may want to find them in a city directory. A city directory is like our telephone directories of today, but theirs was more of an address book, used mainly for advertising purposes. The earliest directory was 1665 in NY. City directories are good, especially for large cities. One problem though, is jurisdiction. Suburbs are not usually included. (A historical society for that area may be of help in that case). The purpose for using a city directory is that it will put your ancestor in a particular place at a particular time. When using a city directory, copy down the title page as well as the page that you find your ancestor on (or photocopy). Check to see if a map is in that particular directory (some have them.) Read the forward in the front and read the first few pages in the front and in the back. You never know what you might find there. If you see an "H" after your ancestor, it means head of house. "B" means boarder. If you are looking in the 1910 U.S. Census in New England, you will have to use the city directory to get your ancestors' address. You will then look up the address on the fiche, which will in turn tell you the enumeration district to look in. From there you should be able to find them.
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