Understanding the Census Records


Reprinted from American Genealogy Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4

When we can’t find our ancestors in a census, we often assume they were missed by the enumerators, but diligent searchers will usually find their families. Too often we rely upon indexes that are often inadequate.

It helps to know how the census takers were instructed to take information. For the 1790 census, the enumerators (marshals or their assistants) used whatever paper they had, ruled it and wrote in headings, and then bound the sheets together. For the 1800—1820 censuses they used the schedules of varying sizes and typefaces that the states provided. The 1830 census was the first one where uniform printed schedules were used.

In the “Instructions to Marshals—Census of 1820” the census takers were to insert in their returns all persons belonging to the family on the first Monday in August, even those who may be deceased at the time when they take the account; and, on the other hand, that they will not include in it, infants born after that day. Supposedly enumerators were to list every person as of the family in which he or she resided on the first Monday in August. So it’s possible to find your ancestor listed in the 1820 census, even though he was deceased or was away from home.

The 1820 census presents some other possible pitfalls if you don’t understand the questions that were asked. Under “Free White Males” there is a breakdown by ages: under 10, 10—16, 16—18, 16—26; 45—up. Those listed in the 16—18 column were also included in the 16—26 column. So you may have assumed there were additional young males in the family if you are not aware of this. Persons whose usual place of abode on the first Monday of August in 1820 was in another family were not to be included. The name of every person having no settled place of residence was to be inserted in the column of the scheduled allotted for heads of families in the division where such person shall be on the first Monday of August. In 1830 the enumeration began as of the first day of June.

The 1850 census is, of course, one of the most valuable for genealogists as it listed for the first time the given names and ages of everyone in the family. The date of the enumeration was June 1, and was supposed to include the names of all whose usual place of abode on that date was in a particular family. Ages were to be calculated at his or her last birthday previous to the first of June. If an exact age in years could not be ascertained, enumerators were instructed to insert a number “which shall be nearest approximation to it.” For children, under the age of one year, their ages were to be entered as one- twelfth month for one, etc.

One column in the 1850 census that is often overlooked is No. 10. Enumerators were told to make a mark or dash opposite the name of each person married during the year previous to the first of June, whether male or female. Many genealogists assume those marks or dashes did not mean anything. It can be worthwhile to go back and look at this column for your family in the 1850 censuses and see what was placed in Column 10. In column 12 the question asked was whether a person (over 20 years of age) could read or write. If a person could read and write this column was to be left blank, and if a person could read or write a foreign language, he was considered as able to read and write.

Place of abode meant the house or usual lodging place of a person. Anyone who was temporarily absent on a journey or for other purposes, without taking up his place of residence elsewhere, and with the intention of returning again, was to be considered a member of the family which was being enumerated. The assistant marshals were directed to make inquiries at all stores, shops, eating houses and other similar places, and take the name and description of every person who usually slept there, provided such person is not otherwise enumerated.

Students in college, academies, or schools, when absent from the families to which they belonged, were to be enumerated only as members of the family in which they usually boarded and lodged on the first day of June. Inquiries were to be made at every dwelling house, or of the head of every family. Persons on board of vessels, accidentally or temporarily in port, those whose only habitation was the vessel to which they belong, those who are temporarily boarding for a few days at a sailors’ boarding or lodging house, if they belong to other places were not to be enumerated as the population or a place. Sailors and hands of a revenue cutter which belongs to a particular port were to be enumerated as of such port. A similar rule applied to those employed in the navigation of the lakes, rivers and canals. All were to be taken at their homes or usual place of abode, whether present or absent; and if any lived on board of vessels or boats who were not so enumerated, they were to be taken as of the place where the vessel or boat was owned, licensed, or registered.

Assistant marshals were instructed to make inquiry of the United States and enumerate those who were not taken as belonging to a family on shore. The assistants in all seaports were to apply at the proper office for lists of all persons on a voyage at sea and register all citizens of the U. S. who have not been registered as belonging to a family.

The 1870 census included many more questions of greater interest to genealogists. Because few of these have been indexed many researchers skip them. But this census provides excellent data for the family historian. For the first time you may discover whether or not your male ancestor was a citizen of the U. S. at that time. The enumerators were told that to be considered a citizen for persons who were born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the U. S. it was necessary that he had been declared by judgment of court to have been duly naturalized, by having taken out BOTH “papers.” This census also asked if father and mother were of foreign birth, which can be of great value to researchers.

Enumerators were instructed to be specific as to occupations. They were told to be very particular to distinguish between farmers and farm laborers. The term “housekeeper” was to be reserved for such persons who received distinct wages or salary for the service. Women keeping house for their own families or for themselves, without any other gainful occupation, were to be entered as “keeping house.” Grown daughters assisting them were to be reported as without occupation. If you have overlooked abstracting all the data found in the census records, you should re-examine them. The answers to some of your genealogical questions may be found there.