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Research With the U.S. Population Censuses

Research With the U.S. Population Censuses


Census population schedules, compiled every decade since 1790, are a survey of American households by the federal government.

The earliest census records contain information on people born before the American Revolution. The 1940 schedules contain information on many people who are still living. It is possible to trace a family line from a living person back to an ancestor born more than 250 years ago.

Genealogists use censuses to learn personal information about ancestors and to track them from place to place. However, the censuses are not conducted for genealogical purposes. The censuses are used to apportion legislative districts for the House of Representatives, and they influence the distribution of federal dollars. They also provide the raw data for statistics that genealogists can use to add details to family stories.

Due to privacy laws, census schedules are restricted for 72 years after the census is taken. The most recent one available for research is 1940.

To obtain information from censuses after 1940, you can request an "Age Search" from the Bureau of the Census, PO Box 1545, Jeffersonville, IN 47131. You can download the request form from the census bureau's website. There are several restrictions involved in this search. You can ask for searches for entries for yourself, a deceased person who was your spouse, a parent, or a deceased person in your direct ancestry. You only get an extract of the census entry - not the whole page. There is a search fee for this service.


For the years 1790 through 1840, you find only the name of the head of the household. These censuses do not give the names of other people living in the house. The number of other people living in the household, grouped by age and sex, is listed.

Beginning in 1850, the name of every household member was recorded. The 1850 census lists the name, age, sex, color, occupation (of those over 15), birthplace (country or state), married within the year, attended school this year, cannot read or write, and whether deaf, blind, insane. Additional questions were added to later schedules. The 1860 census asks the value of each head of household's personal estate. The 1870 census indicates if the parents of the individual were born in a foreign country and asked about the U.S. citizenship of every male aged 21 years or older.

The birthplace (country or state) of the parents of each individual was added this year. Relationship between the head of household and other members of the household is identified. This is the first census to be indexed by Soundex, but only for those households in which a child under ten was living.

A fire destroyed the 1890 population census in 1921. A separate census of Union veterans and widows of Union veterans is available.

The 1900 census requested the number of years the individual had been married, the year of immigration, citizenship status, the month and year of birth, number of months not employed, number of months attended school, can't speak English, home owned or rented, mortgage status, farm or house, and for married women, the number of children born and the number of children then living.

The 1910 census is similar to 1900. Survivors of the Civil War are indicated.

The year of naturalization is added to this census. Also included is the 'mother tongue' of the individual. Deleted items are: number of years of present marriage, number of children, survivor of Civil War, weeks out of work, and if blind, deaf, or dumb.


Published Indexes
Most census years are indexed by state or county through 1870. The Forum has a complete set of published indexes for Oregon and Washington. Indexes for other states are found with the collection for that state. Use the Forum catalog on the patron computers to search for the state you are researching.

CD Indexes
A number of index books have been entered into electronic form. The Forum has CD-ROM's available for scattered states for most census years through 1870. The 1880 census index, on CD-ROM, is a fantastic research source. Every person is indexed.

Indexes to Federal censuses from 1880 to 1920 were prepared by W.P.A. crews to assist individuals in proving their birth date for Social Security applications. These were indexed by a system called "Soundex". To learn how to code a surname by soundex, click here.

The 1880 census is indexed by Soundex for households with children less than 10 years of age. The 1900 and 1920 censuses are completely Soundexed. The 1910 census was indexed for those states not having a Department of Vital Records in 1910. The states indexed are: AL, AR, CA, FL, GA, IL, KS, KY, LA, MI, MS, MO, NC, OH, OK, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV.

The Forum has the complete Soundex sets for Oregon. The Oregon 1910 census was soundexed by members of the Forum.

Census schedules have been microfilmed by the National Archives. They are arranged by census year (1790, 1800, 1810, etc.) Within each year they are arranged by state. (Alabama, Arkansas, etc.) Then, they are organized alphabetically by county. Each county is divided into districts or precincts.

The arrangement of the families on a page of the schedules is in the order in which the census takers wrote them down as they went door to door. Searching for a particular name on the schedules involves scanning each page from top to bottom until the desired name is located.

The Forum's microfilm collection is located outside the microfilm viewing room door. They are arranged alphabetically and then by year. So, you will find "Oregon" in alphabetical order. Then, you will find censuses for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920. Within each year, the counties are mostly in alphabetical order.

You can browse the cabinets or you can search for censuses in the library catalog on the patron computers

Some censuses have been abstracted and published. These are usually done by genealogical societies in a county. The Forum has all of the published censuses for Oregon. It has many other censuses for other counties in other states. Search the catalog on the patron computers.

FOR FURTHER READING - books at the Forum Library:
The 1790-1890 Federal Population Censuses. Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1979, 1993. Library number 973/A000/Repos

The 1900 Federal Population Census. Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1978. Library number 973/A00/Repos

The 1910 Federal Population Census. Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1982. Library number 973/A000/Repos

The 1920 Federal Population Census.Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1991, 1992. Library number 973/A000/Rep

Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of the Census. Thirteenth Census of the United States taken in the Year 1910, Abstract of the Census Statistics of Population, Agriculture, Manufactures, and Mining for the United States, the States, and Principal Cities with Supplement for Oregon. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1913. Library number 973/A000/Census

Department of the Interior, Census Office. Compendium of the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1897. Library number 973/A000/Census

Dollarhide, William. The Census Book, A Genealogist's Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules, and Indexes. Bountiful, UT: Heritage Quest, 1999. Library number 973/A000/Census

Compiled by Connie & Gerry Lenzen
February 1997, revised June 2006