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The United States Census…for Genealogists

Do you have a little time on your hands? Try going over your genealogy research to see if you can break down one of your brick walls. A great place to start is with the U.S. Census.

The United States census is taken every 10 years, and responses to the census questions are made public 72 years after each census was taken. The 1940 census is the most recent census available to us today.

The purpose of the census is to count every person living in the United States in order to distribute government funding and determine the number of seats per state in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Happily for genealogists, the information collected in past censuses is very helpful for family research. Names, ages, marital status, immigration and occupation are just some of the information that can be gleaned from the census for your genealogy research. I highly recommend finding each of your ancestors in every census in which they would have appeared. Each census has a slightly different set of questions, so you can glean different information from each one. For instance, the 1900 census asked people the month and year of their birthday while the other census years just asked for their age. In the census snip below, you can see the birth month and year of each person in the household. You can also see that the head of the household, John Graf, immigrated from Germany in 1889 and his wife in 1882. John is a naturalized citizen (“Na”). There is no citizenship notation for his wife because, at this time, when a husband was naturalized, so was his wife. She did not become naturalized on her own.

1900 U.S. Census, West Chicago, DuPage County, Illinois

Here’s another census example with  several clues:

1910 U.S. Census, Princeton, Bureau County, Illinois


The mother, Anna, has had 6 children but only four of them are living. Who were the other two? Checking earlier censuses and church records for baptisms might answer this. Also, notice “Charles J.” at the end of the list. He is the “Father” of Theodore, the head of the household, and he is a widower (“Wd”). Looking for Charles in earlier censuses may reveal his wife’s name and an estimated date of death. Next you can search for death records and obituaries, which would hopefully lead to parents’ names, place of birth, and other relatives.

If you don’t have a subscription to, no worries. All of the censuses (except for the 1890 census which is not available at all, due to fire) can be accessed at the FamilySearch website. Click on “Search,” then choose “Records.” on the bottom right of the screen, click on “Browse all Published Collections.” On the Historical Record Collection screen that comes up, type “United States Census” in the Filter by Collection Title box. This will bring up all the United States Census years and you can search your ancestors in each one. Go over each census with a fine-tooth comb and see what hidden clues you can uncover. Then share with us in the comments to keep in touch!

Categories: Genealogy

Tags: Genealogy

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