I can see my friends and family members shaking their heads in disgust. They like listening to books on tape, scuba diving, skiing, doing yoga, playing golf and playing cards. I like doing those things too, but I’m the weirdo in my family who likes reading death certificates and poring through census records. I have a group of friends who enjoy the same pursuits, so I know I’m not alone. This post is not for my friends who do genealogy, but for those of you who don’t.
Some genealogists/wanna-be genealogists hate the census records. Why would someone feel that strongly about data? I’ve been given a few reasons: 1) Census records were never meant to be genealogy tools: they are designed to allocate resources and shuffle the 435 members of the House of Representatives based on population shifts; 2) Some people didn’t or don’t complete them; and 3) Some people lie. Yes, really.
I know it too, but the records are useful in helping me research people. I use them as a tool to supplement my research, not stand alone. When they are available, I like them. Why? 1) The census places people in a location at a specific point in time; 2) I can see the profession and determine if I’ve got the right family. If I know my 2nd great grandfather was a farmer, but I find a William Dunn in Mount Comfort, Indiana, with a different profession, it’s probably not the right guy; and 3) Depending on the decade, they can provide so much more information. Fun fact: I’ve been working on my future son-in-law’s ancestry. His mother’s side is 100% Italian and his father’s is 100% Irish. His mother’s people were primarily bakers; his father’s people ran the gamut. There were a few priests, lots of laborers and one snake keeper at the Bronx zoo! In all the records I’ve seen, the snake keeper was my first and probably my last.
I can’t change the fact that sometimes my wandering ancestors were in between a move. I can’t change the fact that people-especially women-lie about their age (no, I don’t find it amusing to watch a person progressively lop off a few years each decade). I also can’t change the fact that there were several decades where women AND men identified as widows/widowers instead of divorcees (shameful!). I just choose to focus on the stuff I can see and use.
Before I embarked on this hobby, I had never seen a census record before. I’ve completed them personally and for business, but I hadn’t thought about them beyond the mundane task it tends to be.
Before 1850, the federal census only named the head of the household and listed age groups of the members of the household. Researching women prior to 1850 can be very frustrating, if not impossible. The 1850, 1860 and 1870 census records do not identify the relationship of the people living in the household; that didn’t happen until 1880. But they do ask for birthplace and age, so that’s helpful.
In 1880, the federal census became extremely useful in my research. It not only listed the relationship of the members of each household, but also enumerated the birth place of the parents as well as marital status. If a family member is sick, the illness is stated as well. My definition of sick and the instructions for the census taker are different, though. They considered being blind a sickness.
Census records are subject to the 72 year rule per federal law. That is, they are protected from public release for 72 years for privacy reasons. The 1950 census will be released in April 2022. To people who complain about that, I say be happy we aren’t in a country where the 100 year rule is invoked.
The 1890 Federal Census is lost forever: Part 1 and Part 2. It is the bane of my existence and my friends and I periodically lament this huge loss. There was so much that happened between 1880 and 1900 and that demographic record is lost forever. Sigh. The saddest part about it is that most historians feel that had they moved the damaged records to offsite storage and held off on the destruction of the records, technology could probably have saved many of them. Thanks, Congress.
The 1900 census is one of my favorite tools to use. It contains so much useful information, including the birth month and year, how many children the woman has had and how many are still alive, whether or not the person can read, write or speak English, and still states the birthplaces of the parents. Understanding our immigration was important for a long time. Keeping in mind that many states did not issue birth, marriage or death certificates until about 1907ish, this census can be helpful in searching for children who might have come to adulthood (or died) between 1880-1900.
Some things that I didn’t know when I started doing this work, but learned from other people or on my own: In the 1800s, many people (especially women) were illiterate. The Federal census was recorded by census takers, who visited the households. Some of the handwriting is atrocious and difficult to read; some of the records are written in pencil and are faint; and often the census taker phonetically spelled names. You might be surprised at how those names are mangled. Visualize their spelling of Surrepta or Tremilious… and yes, those are names in my extended family tree. Then there are the records that only have initials for the first and middle names.
You just never know what surprises await you. And for some reason, I find this as fun as playing golf or going to the movies.