Census Records & City Directories

The United States maintains population census records, which may provide a wealth of information about citizens of the U.S. For example, you can find information about an individual's social and economic status, as well as information regarding citizenship, residence, and trace ancestry.

The United States began keeping census records in 1790 and has taken a census every tenth year since then. Each census, of course, details different information, so the information you may find in once census period may not be found in another. Census schedules are readily available to the public after 72 years from their publication (the 1940 census records will be available in April 2012), thereby allowing you to access information about your ancestors and about the time in which they lived.

The Value of Census Records

Census records can be a powerful tool for genealogists. A census record is an enumeration of the citizens in a given geographic location. Census records usually include the name of the head of household, as well as the names of other household members. In fact, because records were not kept as well in the past as they are today, a census may have been the only opportunity for the government to get a clear understanding of the population and the economic and social standings of that time. In other words, your connection to your ancestors may begin with a search through U.S. census records.

The census record is one of the best tools in a genealogist's research kit. The document can offer a rich treasure trove of information about family members from the past. Although there are some inconsistencies in census documents, they do offer a great starting point. While the information gleaned in census records may not be obvious, there is a considerable amount of information you can obtain by simply "filling in the blanks."

Census Records Unveil Family Histories and Social Backgrounds

Census records document information about the life of people living in particular regions at specific points in times. Therefore, they are extremely helpful for researchers who want to piece together a family history. Just by understanding the regions in which your ancestors your lived, and the socioeconomic conditions of the time, you may begin to truly understand the lives of your ancestors.

These records can divulge interesting information about the social and economic conditions in which your ancestors lived. Even more intriguing is the different sociological phenomena that can be traced through the questions the censuses asked. For example, in 1790, the census asked about the number of slaves in a household, but by 1870, all questions about slaves was obviously gone and other questions were asked, such as ownership status of the family home (whether it was owned or rented). Subsequently, by reviewing the census records from different time periods, you can see how your family members' lives changed over time.

Here is a sample of some of the information you can find in a census record:

  • The family head of household
  • The address, name, and relationship to the family head
  • Birthplace of the individual's parents
  • Occupation
  • Property ownership
  • Gender, race, and sex of household members
  • Disabilities of household members

Where to Locate Census Records

The National Archives in Washington holds microfilm copies of census schedules from 1790 to 1930, and this information can be obtained through most libraries. In addition, there are also comprehensive publications regarding the U.S. Census Bureau that can be quite useful. A number of state and territorial censuses were taken throughout the nineteenth century, thereby providing additional information.

Helpful Hint

Remember that you might run into several inconsistencies when comparing census data. Ages, names and spellings may differ for a variety of reasons. For instance, the census clerk might not have understood the individuals interviewed because of a regional accent, or the family may have been unable to speak English altogether. Also, the clerk might not have been given the correct age of individuals in the household, especially considering that keeping track of one's age has not always been important throughout history. And, lastly, the people might have been illiterate, which would have impacted how names were spelled.

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