North Carolina Genealogy Forum  |  North Carolina Genealogy Newsletter

The Federal Census and its Value to the Family Historian


Sign up for our North Carolina Genealogy newsletter:

The United States Census is outlined by the Constitution as a means of apportioning representatives to the states. According to the constitution it is to be taken every ten years as a way of counting the population. Over the years, however, it has become more than a simple head count and has grown to include a great volume of information that is of particular use to the family historian.

The first U.S. census was taken in 1790. It was very simple in the information that it recorded. This census records the name of the head of household, as well as how many white males are living in the household over the age of 16, how many white males under 16, how many white females, how many “other free persons”, and how many slaves.

As you might guess, this lack of detailed information makes searching for ancestors a little difficult, but fortunately for researchers, the census has become more and more detailed over the years since then. For the years 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830 and 1840, the census held to the same format, the only name listed being that of the head of household. With each progressive census however, the detail is greater. For instance, by the 1840 census, there were age brackets for 0-5 years, 5-10, 10-15, 15-20, 20-30, 30-40, 40-50, 50-60, 60-70, 70-80, 80-90, 90-100 and 100+ for both males and females.

The 1850 census brought a great change. In this year and all of the censuses following, they recorded the name and age of every individual in the household. State or country of birth is also listed in these later censuses. As the years progressed there was even more information included such as occupation, parents birthplace, value of property, whether or not they served in the civil war, and many other important clues to the genealogist. Some of these questions were asked in several or all of the census, while other were only included in one or two.

The 1890 census, is the only one that we do not have to look at. It was mostly destroyed by fire in the early 20th century. A few fragments exist, but unfortunately most of it has disappeared forever. One fragment that does exist is part of a veterans census. This documents Union veterans, their lengths of service in the Civil War as well as physical complaints that they attribute to their service.

The census records have been released up through the 1920 census now. (The details are kept under wraps until 70 years after the fact due to privacy issues.) Indexes are available for all of those that have been released. These indexes will direct you to the correct frame on the microfilm copy of the original census book. Also, many people have published extracts from the census for a county or state in bound form. These have been done more for the early censuses up to about 1880. These are easier to research than the microfilm, (since the microfilm is of the original book, it is handwritten.), but the detail in these extracts is not as complete as the original record.

Next time: How Accurate are all These Records?

Sign up for our North Carolina Genealogy newsletter:

See what happened this day in history from either BBC Wikipedia
Amazon Logo

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.