The most frequently referenced genealogical document is the United States Federal Census. If you are over the age of 10, you’ve probably participated in one (or at least I hope you did). Federal Censuses are taken in the United States every 10 years. The first one was taken in 1790 and the most recent in 2010.
For us family historians, the Federal Census contains a ton of valuable information that we can use to connect families to families. It’s a fringe benefit, of course. The real intent is to allow the government to help the government. Census results determine how many seats each U.S. state receives in the House of Representatives, and how many Electoral College votes each state is allocated for the purpose of electing the President.
Be that as it may, let’s leave Uncle Sam out of it. We’ll take our fringe benefit and we’ll be happy about it.
The Federal Census between 1790 and 1840, inclusive, provide minimal information. For those decades, census takers only recorded the names of the heads of household. All other family members were counted by quantity. This makes finding women and children by name impossible. When 1850 rolled around, the government decided to make a big change by listing everyone by name.
The Federal Census is not the only census we genealogists can use. Over the course of the last 214 years, many states enumerated their own population. With the exception of a very few, they were taken outside the normal ten year rotation. This is good for us because it adds yet another layer of history. Although people had a tendency to stay in place for decades at a time, sometimes they didn’t. These interim censuses can fill in some gaps.
The other census type is the United States Slave Schedules. These were only taken in 1850 and 1860. If you have African-American descent, these may be helpful in narrowing down a particular region of the country where your ancestor may have lived. Unfortunately slaves were not named until they were freed. This explains why many African-American families can only trace their relatives to the 1870 census. This was the first taken after the end of the American Civil War. Nevertheless, these schedules may be useful. Some slaves retained the surnames of those that held them captive.
Census records are valuable sources. For example, the 1940 Federal Census – released in 2012 – is the most current. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, I know nothing about my mother other than her name, her birth year, and where she grew up. In this case it’s Judith Ellen Cole (nee Hinton), 1939, and Derby, New York.
Since she was born before 1940, she appears in the census. Let’s see what we can learn from this single document.
Click here to see the 1940 Federal Census.
We find my mother on line 52. She is the grandchild of the head of household. As a grandchild of the head of household, I now know that her grandfather was George Habicht (line 48) who born in New York State. He is 58 years old in 1940 so his birth year is about 1882. I use “about” because I don’t know the exact date. George is married to someone named Bertha (line 49). However, we don’t know if Bertha is my mother’s grandmother. For all we know, he was married ten times before her. Anyway, let’s set Bertha aside for the moment.
Judith is listed immediately below Raymond Hinton (line 51). Raymond is the son-in-law of the head of household. This tells us that Judith is the daughter of Raymond. Since Ruth Hinton is listed above him, we know that she is Raymond’s husband, the mother of Judith. As the daughter, we know her surname is Habicht. Further, we know that Raymond was born in Canada and was born about 1914. His wife Ruth Habicht was born in New York State about 1920. These pieces of information can be used to look up birth and death certificates later on.
Now that we have some basic information, what else does the census tell us?
Column 1 and 2 are Location. Normally the name of the street will be listed. You’ll notice that there isn’t one on this example. That’s because it’s not the first page. If we were to thumb back through the records, we’d find that the census taker was on Lake Shore Road.
The next columns, 3-6, focus on the home itself. From this census, we see that George owned his home and that its value was about $2,400.
We’ll skip columns 7 and 8 since we talked about them. Columns 9-12 address the gender, age, and whether the person is married or single.
Columns 13 and 14 talk about the educational level of the person counted. We see that George, his wife Bertha, and daughter Ruth only completed 8-years of schooling. Raymond, on the other hand, completed 1 year of high school.
Column 16 is citizenship. Raymond, being a Canadian by birth, was considered a naturalized American – most likely due to his marriage to Ruth.
Columns 17-19 ask where the family members lived 5-years earlier. George and his family lived in the same house on April 1, 1935. They hadn’t moved. NOTE: This column does not appear on all census records.
Columns 21-30 are important because they indicate what job the person had that year. George was a horseman on an estate. Raymond was a gardener. Both received wages from a private source (as opposed to government or employer – in other words, they did not work for an industry). Since it’s blank for Bertha, Ruth, and Judith – they were not working.
Rounding it out, columns 31-33 give salary. Both George and Raymond worked all 52-weeks in the preceding year. Raymond, however, made more money than his father-in-law.
When we put it all together, we can create a biography of the family.
“Judith Ellen Hinton was born about 1939 in New York State. She was the daughter of Raymond Hinton and Ruth Habicht. Raymond was born in Canada about 1914 but was most likely naturalized when he married his wife. Ruth, also born in New York State about 1920, was the daughter of George Habicht and Bertha _____. George was 58-years old in 1940 and ten years senior to his wife. Both George and Bertha were born in New York State, too. Although nearing 60, George remained active and had a job as a horseman on a local estate. He earned $600 the preceding year. His son-in-law, a gardener, exceeded George’s salary by $300 and probably used some of that extra money to support the entire family. Both had a very sound work ethic since both worked all 52-weeks in 1939. However, it would be interesting to know whether their educational level hindered their income. Neither George nor Raymond completed high school.”
Not bad for a single source of information, huh?
 Wikipedia.com, United States Census, retrieved January 18, 2015 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Census
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