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Using Census Records

Barbara Kirkpatrick




History of the U.S. Census


Why a census?


What reason did the founding fathers have for the inclusion of the census in the constitution?


Article 1, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution designates the first enumeration be done “within three years” of the first census of Congress, and within every term of 10 years as directed by law.  The enumeration was done to determine the number of people in the United States, and thus, the number of representation to Congress each state would have.  From this first mention of enumeration came one of the genealogists’ most-used federal government records.


In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled that federal funds and Congressional representation must be based on an actual count of individuals, not on a statistical sampling technique that estimates the number of people.  In 1911, Congress capped Congressional membership at 435, so places that undercount people in censuses will lose federal funds and representation.


Census dates


Obviously, a census couldn’t be taken all in one day; for example the 1790 census took 18 months to administer.  So for consistency, enumerators asked people for their ages and other information as of a particular date – the predetermined “census date.”  So even if the census taker stopped by your great-grandma Mary’s house May 15, 1900, five days before her 7th birthday on May 20, Mary would still be recorded as age 7 in the census – because that’s how old she’d be on the 1900 census date, June 1, 1900.  Likewise if someone died the day of the census date, he will be recorded in the census.  Keep the census date in mind when calculating your ancestor’s birth years based on the census date.


The census date changed from census to census.  For example, the 1940 census date was 12:01 a.m. on April 1, 1940.  We need to note that the enumerator did not always adhere strictly to this date (or the information given was incorrect), so you may find children born or people who died after the date.  In 1940, there were also very explicit instructions on enumerating people who were (1) visiting in the household on the enumeration date or (2) absent from the household on the enumeration date.  Those who were “visiting” were supposed to be recorded in their usual residence, not where they were visiting.  Those who were “absent” from their usual residence were to be indicated in the household with the letters “Ab” after their names.





Enumerator instructions


Besides counting household members, the enumerators were instructed as to what questions to ask and how to record the answers.  The instructions for 1790, 1800, and 1810 were just a paragraph each, leaving how to record much of the information to the enumerator.  In 1920, the enumerators were told to record birthplaces of people born before World War II in Austria, Germany, Russia, or Turkey, according to their postwar names.  They were to use the abbreviations Na for naturalized and Al for aliens, and not to abbreviate US state names.  Of course you will find exceptions – not all enumerators follow instructions exactly.


Keep in mind that if your ancestors didn’t answer the door, the census taker may have talked to a child or a neighbor, who didn’t have direct knowledge of the family, so the information recorded about your family may have been erroneous.  For the first time, the 1940 census takers were to mark the person providing the information with an X in a circle.  Be sure to note that information in your ancestors’ households, as it may explain some anomalies in the responses provided.  In addition, people weren’t as exacting about dates and places as we are today, so you may find different ages and birthplaces for the same person from census to census.  Names can vary – a person might use initials in one census; a nickname in the next.  Even genders could be incorrectly reported.  These factors can make it difficult to identify your ancestors in census records. 


Enumeration Districts


You will hear these two words used a lot as they are important in finding where your ancestors lived.  When the 1940 census first came out you had to know the enumeration district (ED) in order to find your ancestors because there was no index.  Now most of the indexes have been completed.


Enumeration districts are geographic areas assigned to each census taker (enumerator), usually representing a specific part of a city or county. They’re the basis on which census records are organized.


In early censuses, EDs were not well defined, but starting in 1850, descriptions of ED boundaries became very specific.


Each ED is assigned a number, which is written at the top of the census forms.  ED numbers changed from census to census, so your ancestor may live in a different ED in the 1910 and 1920 census, even if he didn’t move.  Original census records are organized by state or territory, county, and then ED.


When beginning your search of the US census, remember that the first year a census was taken in any given area depends when the area was opened for settlement.  Counties and parishes in US states weren’t all formed at one time.  Understanding the development of counties for the places your ancestors lived will help in determining which county’s census you should use if you’re looking in microfilmed or online census records.  A great book to learn about the development of the counties is Map Guide to the US Federal Censuses, 1790-1930 (Genealogical Publishing Co.) by William Thordale and William Dollarhide.


Records availability


For privacy reasons, censuses are closed to the public for 72 years after they’re taken – the average US life span at the time the law was enacted.  Modern census records are stored at the Census Bureau’s processing center in Jeffersonville, IN.  After 72 years, the records are transferred to the National Archives, which makes them available to the public.  Censuses through 1930 were released on microfilm; the 1940 census was released digitally this year on April 2, 2012.  That was a big day for all genealogists.  I am sure it answered questions some genealogists had.  I found out that my maternal grandmother was living with my parents – I had never known this before, no one said anything about that.


A Look At the Census Records


1790-1820 the enumerator had to draw out or plan out his paper.  The head of household is the only name on these records.  People were tallied with hash marks and you pray that the enumerator kept straight lines across the paper so the hash marks were not out of line with the names.  The only women’s names will only mean they were the head of household – by being a widow, single, or divorced.


1830-1840 there were printed forms, still hash marks and hopefully in the straight line across the paper.  Still only head of household named.  Each year more columns had more divisions for the age groups.


1850 was the first census to list full names.  Now we can find families but there is no relationship.

You will notice again that there are more questions with each census.

On the sample sheets I have given you, 1850-1880 have an unnumbered column with “Estimated year of birth”.  These are for your use to show the estimated birth year.  They are not on the regular census records.


There are columns for the month of birth if born in the census year.  This can be very helpful – if the enumerator filled it in.


Also 1850 forward gives you also the occupation of the person, where these people lived.  At times the census taker did not right down the street name or did not continue it from page to page.  There are little marks that are suppose to show where one street ended and the next one began.  This can also give you some idea of the route the census taker used in the neighborhood.

1890 the census that was burned in 1921 at the census bureau.  There are fragments 1% of the census and some have been recreated using tax records.  Military records are used also to rebuild these records.  The result of the fire prompted the government to create the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). This is a form I had never looked at until doing this session.  I find the form very interesting in its makeup.


1900 you can check out the honesty of the birthdays you have been told or heard.  This gives the month and year of birth.


1910 adds the years of marriage, and how many children born and living.  When there is a difference in number born and number living you can become more of a detective and locate an infant or child some of the family knew nothing about.


I am sure you are seeing more columns being added each year.  More information is being recorded.


1920 shows 2 new valuable columns – was your ancestor naturalized and in what year.  Here is another record you can go searching for.  Naturalization papers tell where your ancestor came from and usually the name of the ship.  This is all helpful searching across the waters.  Allen County Public Library has microfilm of the ship records.  All of these different things bring your ancestors alive for you. 


1930 has the big question – does the household have a radio set?  Again there is the question of citizenship and then added at the end about veterans.  All of these questions, well the radio may not, tell you different things about your ancestors and their neighbors.  Another column to look at is “Age at first marriage.”  Here you can sometimes find out the family secret.


Now the last and newest census 1940 with a partial 1935 census, we have a bonus!  If recorded we should be able to tell where these people were in 1935.  I am still getting used to using this myself.  Each time I look at this census I am aware of something added.  There are actually two parts to this census.  We will go through each of the areas.   There are 6 parts to this article on the census including Soundex.     This is a website with interacting maps showing the  formation of every state.  Click on US Atlases and Maps and then on the state you are interested in.  You can click by year or use the play tab and it will automatically take you through the county formation for the state.   A website with blank census forms.  A free sight that has genealogical information for all states.  Browse and see what you can find that could help or be a clue.


 Soundex Years and States


The workers made a filing card for each household and listed every person in the census. Information on the cards include: name, age, location, birthday and relationship to the head of household. Not all of the original census information was recorded on the cards, but enough to identify the members of each household. All surnames were coded by giving a numerical value to each letter of the alphabet. The Soundex lists the census schedule county and page of all persons with the same surname or code.

The census records of 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 have been soundexed and other records will be processed in the future. The 1880 soundex (or miracode) indexes only the households with children 10 years of age or younger. The 1900, 1910 soundexes index only 21 States, mainly in the South. The 1930 census has soundex cards for the following states in their entirety: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. In addition, there are Soundex indexes for the selected counties in Kentucky and West Virginia. Only the following Kentucky counties are indexed: Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Kenton, Muhlenberg, Perry, and Pike. Only the following West Virginia counties are indexed: Fayette, Harrison, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, and Raleigh. Why aren't all the states Soundexed? In the late 1930s, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) prepared the Soundex cards. When the WPA closed down in the early 1940s, no more Soundex indexes were created.

The soundex indexes (and miracode for some 1910 states) by the sound of the surname, instead of the spelling. Vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) and vowel-sounding consonants (y, w, and h) are not coded. The first letter of the surname is used with a three-number code representing the next three consonants of the name. The letters and their corresponding numbers are:

1 -- b, f, p, v
2 -- c, g, j, k, q, s, x, z
3 -- d, t
4 -- l
5 -- m, n
6 -- r

Examples – Sattler     First letter used with 3 numbers.  No vowels.  No double letters together.

  S t l r     S346


Kirkpatrick     K r k p     K621


It is possible to differentiate between people of the same name by studying the other identifying data on the soundex card: names and ages of other members of the household, birthplaces, and county of residence.

Persons with a surname differing from that of the head of house will usually be listed separately in the soundex.

It is possible to differentiate between people of the same name by studying the other identifying data on the soundex card: names and ages of other members of the household, birthplaces, and county of residence.

The 1900 census is completely soundexed, listing all heads of households and those persons living in a household with a surname different from that of the head of household.  part 3.


Census taker Poem