The Basics of Using Federal Census Records

The Basics of Using Federal Census Records

By George Morgan  


Census records are among the most frequently used materials of genealogists And family historians. The United States government has conducted population enumerations every ten years since 1790, and these records provide milestones for us by helping us physically locate our ancestors in those years.

I visited the public library in Largo, FL two weeks ago. It has an impressive genealogy collection, including printed indexes and microfilm for many of the federal censuses. While there, I watched several patrons struggling to use and understand these resources. I quickly realized that some of them did not know the basics for using census materials. Therefore, in "Along Those Lines . ." this week, let's discuss some basics for using U.S. federal census records.


The U.S. government began conducting a census every ten years, beginning in 1790 and continuing through to the most recent census in 2000. Censuses are conducted to understand the density and geographical distribution of the population. They are also done to help understand the makeup of the population in terms of age, sex, race, occupation, and a variety of other criteria. At times during the past two centuries, special census schedules have also been used with or in addition to the standard population schedules. These have included slave schedules, industrial schedules, agricultural and manufacturing schedules, mortality schedules and special schedules for military veterans of some wars and their widows. Census data has also been used to determine legislative representation, allocation of federal funds, and for planning purposes of all sorts.



 As a genealogist, you can be grateful for census records. From the first federal population enumeration in 1790, the names of the heads of households have been listed on the census, along with other information. Beginning with the 1850 census, the names of all other members of each household were listed as well, along with other detailed information about them. In successive decades' censuses, more and more questions were asked and more information was included.

For example, in the 1900 census, the birthplace of each individual--as well as that of the individual’s father and mother--was listed, an invaluable tool for tracing the location of persons in previous censuses in other locations. Federal census records for 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 were microfilmed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and are available for viewing there, at larger Libraries and archives with genealogical collections, and at or through LDS Family History Centers™ (FHCs). (The 1890 census has been almost completely lost, with only a few exceptions, as a result of fire and water damage. However, other materials can sometimes be used as a census substitute.) The 1930 census has also been microfilmed and will be released to the public in 2002, seventy-two years after it was taken, and all subsequent censuses will be released seventy-two years after they were taken--all to protect individuals' privacy.

You must be very careful when using census records, however. They can be at

once informative and helpful, as well as misleading or downright incorrect. There are four caveats you should always remember when working with census records:

1. Census records' content is only as good as the person who enumerated the people and recorded the information. Your ancestral family may have been the victim of a lazy or uncommitted enumerator. The enumerator may have been tired and may not have wanted to trudge down the road to your great-grandfather's farm or up five flights of stairs in your urban great-grandfather's apartment building. Instead, he may have asked a neighbor, "Hey, do you know the people who live there?" If the answer was yes, the enumerator might have then asked this person (and not a member of your ancestor's family) all the questions required to complete the schedule form.

2. Census records' contents are only as good as the person who provided the information. Even if the census enumerator visited the family, he may have been greeted by a child or other family member, or even a servant, who wasn't the best source for providing the information. As a result, the data may be incorrect.

3. People were seldom counted twice, but many were not counted at all.

Enumerators sometimes missed homes, people were sometimes away, some people avoided being counted, and some refused outright to participate.

4. Census enumerators recopied their work onto fresh forms and, in some censuses, made copies for state, county, and/or local governments too. During the transcription process, errors may have been made. A birth date or an age miscopied, a ditto mark (or the abbreviation "do" or "dto") used in the wrong place, an incorrect state of birth--all these errors can conspire to point you in the wrong direction.



Census records should be approached with some organized research plan. The following can provide a basic methodology for your research. Let's break the process into three parts: locating the records, reading the records, and recording the information you located.


If you know where your ancestors lived at the time of a given year's census, you may be ahead of the game. If you know the state, you can use a published census index for the state. The index usually includes the surname and the first name of all persons in the state census, followed by the county in which they were enumerated and the page in the census schedules where that person is listed. (In older censuses where only head of household is listed, that will be the only name appearing in the index.)

Knowing the county where your ancestors lived can help you by narrowing your search for a perhaps common name to specific county census records. Further, if you know the precise location of your ancestors' property or the address of their home, you may be able to use records that describe and define the outline of the census enumeration district to quickly home in on records from one district among those of an entire county. has made searching for ancestors in U.S. Census records easier by putting census indexes for every state, created by Accelerated Indexing Systems (AIS), online for site subscribers at:

To view what indexes are available for each state, go to:

Although the indexes only include the head of the household, they can aid researchers by placing a family in a particular location, and they provide the necessary information for finding the original census entry. It should be noted that, as with any index (online or off), there are errors in the index, and should users not find the ancestor they seek, it does not mean that he or she does not appear in original census records. Ancestry is working to improve the accuracy of these indexes by allowing users to submit corrections. If you find an entry that you know is wrong, you can submit changes at:

(Another type of finding aid for 1880-1920 censuses are the Soundex or Miracode microfiche, which will be the topic of a future column.) If you do not have access to a state index for the specific census year, you may end up spending hours scrolling through microfilm for an entire county (or state) looking for a specific name. Be sure to check for alternate spellings and don't be surprised if your ancestor was living in someone else’s home at the time of a census. He or she may have been indentured or employed elsewhere, or may have been on a protracted visit.

Next, you must locate the microfilm itself. The census index will tell you which county to look in for a specific person's record. You must determine the correct roll of microfilm. NARA publishes a complete catalog of their census microfilm publications, and information about the catalog and census materials can be found on its Web page at

As I mentioned above, NARA, larger libraries, archives, LDS FHCs, and some other facilities may have microfilm as part of their collection, or might be able to provide you with access to microfilm. In addition, you can rent census microfilm from various entities, and you can even purchase CD-ROMs of digitized census records from Heritage Quest ( Make note of the reference number of the census and the roll number, because this will be important later in your source documentation.



Reading microfilmed or digitized census records can be a challenge. The quality of the microfilm image can be faint or dark, or the enumerator's penmanship can leave much to be desired. Most important, though, is that you understand what is being recorded in each census schedule. For a list of the questions asked on each census form (as well as research tips for each), see Also, the Cyndi's List Web site at several links to printable census forms, which can be a great help in reading column headings on the microfilmed census records. Use these tools to help you understand what to expect on each census. NARA's Genealogy Page at contains additional information.



Once you have located the census records and have begun reading and understanding the content of the records, you need to record the information. Some facilities have microfilm printers that allow you to print the record images. In some cases, you may be able to print a clear copy of an entire census page. In others, the image may be more readable if you enlarge the image in the reader and print the census page in two halves. On each and every census page, record the following information:

  1. Microfilm reference number and roll number (Example: The Ninth Census of the United States in 1870 has a reference number assigned by NARA of M593 and consists of 1,748 rolls. The reference for the Talladega County, AL, 1870 census microfilm is M593 Roll 41.)
  2. County and township/district
  3. Page number of the census on which you found the individual (This should be the number stamped in the upper right-hand corner of each page.)

If you cannot print a copy of the census page, be prepared to transcribe the information. You may want to use the printable census forms mentioned above, make copies of them, and carefully transcribe the information--exactly as it is written on the census form, spelling errors and all--onto one of the forms.

An excellent piece of advice passed among genealogists is, "When copying census records for your ancestors, also copy all the information for six families living on either side of your ancestors." This has served me well many, many times and has saved me trips back to libraries and archives to reexamine census records. Why? Because families often lived adjacent to or near other family members, such as parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, etc. My great-great-grandfather Holder's next door neighbors seemed, at first glance, unrelated to him. I didn't know his wife's maiden name at that time, but later found that the Langleys next door were, in fact, his father- and mother-in-law and their children! You never know where that link will come in.

Finally, when you are entering information into your database that you found on the census, you will want to input a source citation. The one for the Talladega County, AL census material I mentioned above will look like this:

Alabama, Talladega County. 1870 U.S. census, population schedule. Micropublication M593, roll 41, page 167. Washington: National Archives.

This is a standard bibliographic citation for microfilm. I have added the census page number to indicate where the record for a specific individual might have been found, and you could also include the line number of the page. The source citation format for other census records may vary, especially if you were using a local or state copy of the census record, in which case you would also add the name and location of the repository where you accessed the copy. (Elizabeth Shown Mills' book "Evidence!" provides complete source citation formats for these and all other common genealogical materials.)


You may be lucky in your census research and easily locate your ancestors, or you may have to examine every line in an entire county's census schedules. Use the census indexes and the enumeration district records to help locate your ancestors, and remember to also investigate alternate spellings. An organized approach, proceeding through each of the censuses through an ancestor's entire lifeline, may provide the details you need.

Happy Hunting!



Mills, Elizabeth Shown. "Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian."


Copyright 2000, All rights reserved.

George G. Morgan is a proud member of the Council of Genealogy Columnists. He would like to hear from you at, but due to the volume of e-mail received, he is unable to answer every e-mail message received. Please note that he cannot assist you with your individual research. Visit George's Web site at for information about speaking engagements.

George is also the author of "The Genealogy Forum on America Online," which is available in the Ancestry Online Store at:


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