With the release of the 1940 US Census on April 2, 2012, genealogists were given a tool that doesn’t come along very often. Every ten years since 1790, the United States has taken a census that enumerates the population. Genealogy and family history were not the purposes of the census, but it contains very valuable genealogical information. The problem is that this information is confidential until 72 years after it was recorded and is not publicly released until that time has passed. Unless you are over 72 years old, you will not find yourself in the census.
Three pieces of information make any record valuable for genealogical research. These pieces are names, places, and dates. The census is valuable because it contains each of these information pieces. There are some limitations, however, on even these bits of data. For instance, until 1850, the census only contained the name of the head of household. Family members were enumerated only by numbers marked in the age range columns showing others in the household. An example would be Charles Flowers listed in the 1830 census in Greene County, Tennessee. Under the broad category, “Free White Males,” there are the number “1” in the columns, “under five years of age” and in “of thirty and under forty”. These would be Charles’ young son and himself. The “1” marked in the “Free White Females—Of twenty and under thirty” would probably be Charles’ wife. The “2” in “Free White Females—under five years of age” and the “1” in “Free White Females—of five and under ten” are his three daughters. The only name we get is Charles Flowers himself. We must analyze the numbers in the age columns and the names in other records to determine who the others are. After 1850, all subsequent censuses listed each family member by name.
Another piece of data we must be careful with is the location. Because county lines change over time, what may be a small county in the corner of the state today, may have been a large county that covered a quarter of the state in the year of the census. You may need to consult maps from the period on a website or in a guide such as Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by Thorndale and Dollarhide. For our example this time we will use Charles’ grandson, also named Charles. This time we find Charles Flowers in 1900 living in Francis, Greer Co., Oklahoma. Ten years later in 1910, Charles is living in Erick, Beckham Co., Oklahoma. How far had Charles moved in the ten years between 1900 and 1910? Actually, he had not moved at all. In 1900, Greer Co. was much larger. One of the small towns in Greer in 1900 was Francis near the border of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. Charles lived a few miles from Francis. By 1910, The county of Greer had been divided into four counties. Beckham county was created from the northern part of Greer and the southern part of Roger Mills county. The town of Francis was now a ghost town and Charles Flowers and his neighbors had incorporated the area where they settled into the town of Erick, Okla.
One other fact about the U. S. Censuses must be given to you. If you are trying to locate your ancestor in 1890, you will need extra researching skills and perhaps a little bit of luck. In Jan., 1921 a fire in the Commerce Building in Washington, D. C. almost completely destroyed the original schedules from the 1890 Census. Only about 6000 names from that census survived the fire and water damage. Efforts are being undertaken to compile records that can substitute for the 1890 Census. Some states compiled censuses in 1885, 1892, or 1895, that may prove useful. Other records like city directories, voter registration records, or land records may also provide information to substitute for the destroyed 1890 census.
Names, dates, and places are usually found if you find your ancestor in the census, but there may be other information you may find interesting in the census. Depending on the year of the census, you may also find occupations, birthdates (at least an estimated year), or the value of his property. If you are just beginning the search for your American ancestors, the US Census records are a great place to start.