The Use of State Censuses in Genealogical Research

by John K. Maniha | Jul 2, 2009

Most people beginning genealogical research learn quickly how indispensable the federal census is for finding out about ancestors. It is, however, not as widely known that the several colonies, states and territories also conducted censuses of their own during years not on the decades, and frequently without pattern in relation to the federal census.

These state and local efforts can be useful in ways that will be explored below. But first, what do we mean by a "census"? Ideally, a census is a systematic count of all entities of a named population. This differs from special purpose lists such as for taxpayers, jurymen, voters, militia members, where inclusion occurs simply because one lives in a jurisdiction, regardless of other special self-selection criteria based on gender, color, property, privilege or other factors. In genealogical usage, there is a census when there is an intention and attempt to enumerate and record all of the class of "heads of household" and persons living therein within the boundaries of the United States, divided up by legally defined civil jurisdictions (states, counties, cities, towns, wards, etc.). Special purpose lists of various kinds, while not censuses, often function as such, but are mere poor substitutes for a real census.

Just as federal censuses increased in complexity (and therefore genealogical usefulness) over time, so did the state censuses. A major limitation of early federal censuses is the lack of specific information about enumerated households. It was not until 1850, that federal censuses began to include specific information about every member of the household, by name. It is at that point that the genealogical usefulness of the census leaps ahead exponentially as a research tool. State censuses generally follow the format of the nearest in time federal census, and like the latter, the state counterparts also began to include more information. There are, however, exceptions. New York's state censuses are far more informative about the state of a household than the comparable federal census. By 1845, the New York state census gave a comprehensive portrait of a household's economic status listing crops, acreage, farm animals and manufactured goods and giving social statistics on household members.

There were several purposes for collecting state sponsored data, primary reason being the distribution of political representation. In rapidly growing states it was sometimes the case that state government wanted to keep tabs on an expanding population and settlement pattern. There was also probably interest in the number of taxable household heads, and the pool of military eligibles. In fact, one of the early household enumerations was done in Virginia, 1787, listing eligible taxpayers. This comprehensive tax list, though not a real census, substitutes for the lost 1790 Virginia federal census schedules. The 1787 tax listing is the closest thing available for the lost 1790 schedules. In fact, such sub-federal efforts at listing the population have more than once ended up as supplements to defective or lost federal censuses. The New York City Police Census of 1890, resulted in a virtual universal count of the whole town, undertaken because city officials believed the federal effort there had been defective. The Police Census resulted in a higher population count, as expected - a particularly fortunate occurrence given that all of New York City's 1890 federal schedules were destroyed by fire.

Even less known than state censuses are the every-household enumerations taken in U.S. territories throughout the nineteenth century. The Northwest Ordinance set up a system whereby territories were defined by "organic acts" with the purpose of eventually becoming fully participating states. The process was generally staged, whereby the territory assumed greater responsibilities and privileges as its population increased. At a certain growth point, the territory would establish limited legislative self-government, send an elected non-voting delegate to Congress, and so on to statehood. It was deemed necessary to keep tabs on population growth to assess progress. There exist some territorial census schedules useful for keeping track of pioneers as they settled westward and southward in land that would eventually be carved out as states. Thus, a political process generated by expansion and absorption into the Union produced some potentially valuable early records. Increasingly these territorial censuses are being digitized and put on the internet.

Focusing more explicitly on the value of state censuses, the most obvious one is statistical. It was unfortunately not uncommon that a family went through its entire life cycle without ever encountering census enumerators. It stands to reason that if, as in the case of New York, there were ten censuses between 1814-1925, in addition to the federal ones, then an elusive family's chances of avoiding enumeration are significantly reduced. The more chances for enumeration the better the chances of being included in a count by census marshals. Bear in mind, however, that all of the pitfalls that beset the federal census are true also of state censuses, the most frustrating being lost schedules for some counties and years. Also, mere household head listings characterizing early state censuses have the same limitations as pre-1850 federal censuses.

Time intervals, if large enough, can conceal huge changes in family structure and economic status. A decade is a long time in the life of a family or individual. A lot can happen and then "un-happen" in that stretch of time. A five year cycle reveals more subtle changes in a family's trajectory through time. State censuses can be the means for revealing these more subtle changes.

How can these resources be found? Many of the colonial era censuses are published, as are some of the territorial ones. Others are to be found in searchable formats on the internet. Two convenient on-line finding aids are: ResearchGuides.net and CensusFinder.com, which will give a good accounting of the location of censuses, federal and state, for all states. However, use Google to find state records by entering "state census" and name of state. This will turn up interesting state archives sites that will be informative and helpful. Happy hunting!


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