What Can You Learn from Each U.S. Census?

Have you received your invitation to complete the 2020 Census yet? In 1790, about one year after George Washington was inaugurated, the United States conducted its first census. Since that time, the government has conducted a census every ten years. These decennial census records provide a historical snapshot of families and are key records for genealogical research. Check out some of the headlines surrounding the census over the years and find out what made each census unique!

News From the First Census – 1790

1790: Enumerators gathered the name of head of household; number of free white males 16 years and older; number of free white males under 16; number of free white females; number of all other free persons; number of slaves; and sometimes town or district of residence. 

1800: Name of head of household; number of free white males and females broken down into age categories; number of free white persons except Indians not taxed (Native Americans are referred to as Indians throughout these early records); number of slaves; town or district and county of residence.

1810: Name of head of household; number of free white males and females broken down into age categories; number of free white persons except Indians not taxed; number of slaves; town or district and county of residence.

1820: Name of head of household; number of free white males and females broken down into age categories; number of free persons except Indians not taxed; number of slaves; and town or district and county of residence; number of free white males to be naturalized; number engaged in agriculture, commercial, or manufacture; number of “colored” persons; and number of other persons except Indians.

1830: Name of head of household; number of free white males and females broken down into age categories; the name of a slave owner and the number of slaves owned by that person; the number of male and female slaves and free “colored” persons by age categories; the number of foreigners not naturalized; the number of deaf, dumb, and blind persons; town or district, and county of residence.

Census Marshall Says Those Who Take The Newspaper Make His Job Easier – 1830

1840: Name of head of household; number of free white males and females broken down into age categories; the name of a slave owner and the number of slaves owned by that person; the number of male and female slaves and free “colored” persons by age categories; the number of foreigners (not naturalized); the number of deaf, dumb, and blind persons within a household; town or district, and county of residence. For the first time, the 1840 census asked the ages of Revolutionary War pensioners and the number of individuals engaged in mining, agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, trade, and the navigation of oceans, lakes, and canals. Questions relating to education and learned professionals were also included.

1850: For the first time in 1850, enumerators recorded the name of every person in the household. Also included were: age; sex; color; birthplace; occupation of males over 15; value of real estate; whether married within the previous year; whether deaf-mute, blind, insane or “idiotic”; whether able to read or write for individuals over age 20; and whether the person attended school within the previous year. In addition, the 1850 and 1860 Federal Censuses included Slave Schedules that recorded age, sex, and color, and whether the slave was a fugitive, freed, deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic. However, the name of the slave was often omitted.

1860: Names of every person in the household; age; sex; color; birthplace; occupation of persons over age 15; value of real estate; whether married in previous year; deaf, dumb, blind, insane, a pauper, or a convict; whether able to read or speak English; whether the person attended school within the previous year. As noted above, 1860 also included Slave Schedules.

1870: Names of every person in the household; age; sex; color; profession; occupation or trade of every male and female; value of real estate; place of birth; whether mother or father were of foreign birth; whether born or married within the year and month; those who could not read or write; whether deaf, dumb, blind, insane or “idiotic”.

Residents Prepare for Census – 1870

1880: Name; address including name of street and house number; relation of each person to head of household; sex; race; age; marital status; ability to read and write; birthplace; birthplace of parents; occupation; whether blind, deaf, dumb, crippled, maimed, idiotic, insane, bedridden, or disabled.

1890: Most of the 1890 census records were destroyed in a fire. You can read about it here. There are very few surviving fragments. If you’re lucky enough to find your family, you’ll see that each family has an individual page. Enumerators gathered information including name; surname; relationship; race; gender; age; birthplace; birthplace of father and mother; and a Veterans Schedule that included information about military service.

1900: Name; address; relationship to head of household; color or race; sex; month and year of birth; age at last birthday; marital status; number of years married; total number of children born of mother; the number of those children living; places of birth of each person and parents of each person; if individual is of foreign birth, the year of immigration and the number of years in United States; citizenship status of foreign-born individuals over age 21; occupation; whether person could read, write, and speak English; whether home was owned or rented; whether the home was on a farm; whether the home was mortgaged.

Definition of a “Census Family” 1910

1910: Name; name of street; house number or farm; number of dwelling in order of visitation; number of family in order of visitation; relationship to head of household; sex; color or race; age; marital status; number of years married; for mothers, number of children born and living; place of birth, place of birth of father and mother; year of immigration; whether naturalized; whether able to speak English, or if not, language spoken; trade or profession, industry, employer, employee, or working on own account, whether person was out of work during 1909; whether able to read or write; farm or house, whether survivor of Union or Confederate Army or Navy; whether blind, deaf, or dumb. There were also separate Indian population schedules for 1910 in which the tribe and/or band was recorded.

1920: Name; name of street; house number or farm; number of dwelling in order of visitation; number of family in order of visitation; relationship to head of household; whether home owned or rented and mortgaged; sex, color or race; age; marital status; year of immigration; whether naturalized or alien; near of naturalization; whether attended school; whether able to read/write; place of birth; mother tongue; father’s and mother’s place of birth; whether able to speak English; trade or profession; industry or business; employer, salary or wage worker; number of farm schedule.

1930: Name; address; home owned or rented and value; whether home has a radio; sex; race; marital status; college attendance; ability to read and write; birthplace, birthplace of parents; language spoken before coming to the US; year of immigration; naturalized or alien; ability to speak English; occupation; military information.

It’s Census Time Again – Los Angeles Times 1940

1940: Name; address; home value and rented or owned; relationship to head of household; sex; race; age; marital status; education; place of birth; citizenship; residence in 1935; employment status; occupation; income in 1939; birthplace of father and mother; native language; veteran status; social security details; occupation; industry; class of worker; marriage information; number of children.

Genealogists are eagerly awaiting the release of the 1950 census which is scheduled for April 2022. To learn more about each decennial census and to see how newspapers reported on the census over the years, search Newspapers.com today or visit our Topics Page!

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70 thoughts on “What Can You Learn from Each U.S. Census?

  1. Doing genealogy has sharpened my appreciation for the census and determination to be thorough. Happy with the change for the 1850 census in adding names; happy for the 1900 census in including month and year of birth; happy for any year where the enumerator wrote clearly and with dark ink; looking forward to the 1950 census.

  2. I have been working on my genealogy and the previous census records have given me alot of information about my ancestors. I enjoy reading the records of the past and have gained more knowledge of how life was before I was born.

  3. Whoever is still alive when their census records are released have much of their personal information exposed to the ID thieves. Seems like we should cease giving out information that could be used to help them steal ID’s. I wonder how many seniors have had their IDs compromised due to this?

    • Not long ago…. we’ll say 10 years ago…. all the thieves needed (and genealogists! Lol) was two of these: name, mother’s maiden name, SSN, or address. I don’t think this is true anymore, mostly because the thieves use other methods now. Phishing. Credit card skimming. Ordinary Facebook searches. Etc. So while I agree that a lot of info gets released, it’s ‘not dangerous’ purely because so many other ordinary activities are dangerous.

      • Honestly, its held for 72 YEARS! I don’t think modern thieves could be bothered spending the time trolling through it. There are other sources to get information that gives far more up-to-date data.

    • Why does there always have to be a curmudgeon involved in one of these posts. I am one of those Seniors that can be found in the 1940 Census, and the ID thieves can compromise me as a 3 year old all they want. C’mon lighten up!

      I find the Census Reports very useful

    • Personal information is not released for 72 years. You will find more on Facebook. I am working for the census now.

    • Mr. Collins,
      I’m not sure what kind of information you’re referring to. I can look up anybody and find their name, address, and age on Whitepages.com or other similar websites. I filled out my census this month and that’s all it was. Perhaps there is a longer form that I’m unaware of that would request more information. It’s not good to scare people about sending in their Census. Especially if it’s just name, address, dob, race and ethnicity.

    • The U.S. Census records are confidential and not released to the public for many years to protect their privacy and identity. For example, the 1940 Census was just made public a couple of years ago.

  4. When using the US Census Records for genealogy research please remember that not all the info is accurate. Depending on who gave the info to the enumerator may mean incorrect ages, birth years, naturalization years etc. Use the info as a base and follow up with other documentation such as birth and marriage certificates, naturalization papers etc. for more accurate dates and places.

    • Amen to saying that census data may not always be correct! Even surnames can be totally wrong. The census taker would write down what he thought he heard, spelling it as best he could and with whatever scrawl he had mastered for handwriting. And rather than go back to talk with a family that was not home, he would ask the neighbors.

      • My grandfather was “missing” from the 1910 census. I had given up on ever finding his record. I found his 1920 record, and he was rooming with his childhood friend “Uncle Earl”. Curiosity had me start searching Earls family, and I found his 1910 record. Scrolling up the list I saw the name of my grandfathers foster family. Lo and behold, my grandfather WAS listed in the 1910 census, but the enumerator never filled in his last name! Foster children were listed in the census as “servant”, and everything else matched. I’m not sure if the terrible info in those old census records was more due to language barriers or educational barriers.

        • Thank you for that info! I never knew that foster children were listed as “servant”. That actually answers a question in my family genealogy!

    • YES. In the 1940 Tuscaloosa Alabama census, I think the enumerator was drunk, high, or just plain lazy He had the info for my g-uncle and his sister (my grandmother) totally wrong. He showed my mother as living there although she had been married for 10 years and was living, and counted, in Gadsden AL where she and my father were living and working

      • Indeed… I thought the same thing about the enumerator for the 1940 Alabama census records when researching family maternal genealogy around Talledega, Pell City, Ragland, Ashville, and Rainbow City. Too many errors. Definitely need to cross reference other official records.

        • I am an untrained enumerator for the Census 2020. My training was last week but was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I am a photojournalist and was laid off in 2018 with other photogs. One of the things I learned in 30+ years in the business is to not get information from other people. You can use it as a reference but you have to dig to get the correct spelling. Today, this means accessing social media. But before the internet, it was very difficult to do that. Especially when you are dealing with immigrants. My family came from Poland. Poland was torn apart in the early 1900’s. Russia, Ukraine and Austria had taken control over portions of Poland. Its fascinating to read census and military documents that have my great grandfather listed as his nationality as Russian and his ethnicity as Polish. So much turmoil. I have been told that you may have to visit some homes six times.

          I remember photographing a man cutting grass in an apple orchard. I asked him for his name. He said…”no hablo ingles.” I called the orchard and asked for his name. The person who answered the phone got a chuckle. He gave me his name and said he was in this country legally. He said he probably thought I was from OSHA.

          Before you say the enumerator was drunk or high, put yourself in the position of the enumerator. Go knock on a door, any door and ask someone for their name? See what you get!

        • My wife had an uncle named Lovic. I found him in another’s genealogy as Louis. I saw where the census takers handwriting was easy to misread.

  5. My great great uncle claimed my born out of wedlock grandfather as his own son. Reading the 1920 Census would totally lead a researcher in the wrong direction. How many others just lied to the census taker?

  6. Of note, the 2020 census does not seem to ask anything about parents, where they were born, or lots of things genealogists like to see in a census.

    • That is what I observed also and is such a shame for future genealogists. In my years of delving into my family’s history the censuses have always been a rich source of information and inspiration.

  7. Personally, I believe genealogy research will be more difficult in the future. How many years of census since they have added place of birth? If a family moves from Tennessee to California the trace is lost. Seams to me that genealogy will be difficult.

  8. I hope whoever does these census will make sure they write the person’s name down properly. And even the correct date of birth. Doing Ancestry research of past family members I can’t believe how poorly these were done. If you don’t know how to spell their names, ask them. For birthdates, get them exact. Back then they were off at times by even two years. These are important documents. You’d think they would do them correctly.

      • Not completely true. I have been hired as an enumerator for Census 2020 by the U.S. Census Bureau. Enumerators are still an important part of the Census. Remember this, every ten years, the U.S. Census Bureau has to hire a new staff with no previous experience. I assume some census employees return.

        Many people do not complete the census and that is where an enumerator comes in. I have heard as an enumerator, you need to be very persistent because you may be visiting some homes 6 times. What do you do if someone doesn’t respond. I suspect many citizens do not understand what the census is and it’s importance. You have an option of filling out your census online, by paper, by phone.

        If you do not choose the above, a census enumerator will come knocking on your door.

    • census records are not collected for genealogical purposes. Tho they are useful for that,they shouldn’t be considered authoritative.

  9. The purpose of the census was to be able to determine the nuimber of Representatives in the Legislature and how to determine the boundaries of district “fairly”. Having the census for Ancestry purpose is a special benefit, despite the problems of misspelling, creative spellings, inaccurate ages and birthdates, handwriting styles, etc.

  10. The 2020 Census basically gives a genealogist no information except the number and sex of a person living in a household, and a broad age range. This year’s census is worthless.

  11. The 2020 Census basically gives a genealogist no information except the number and sex of a person living in a household, and a broad age range. This year’s census is worthless.

    • The purpose of the census is not for genealogy. It’s for apportioning representatives in congress.

    • Not so. Name, gender, individual’s birth date, relationship to head of household, status of the living quarters (owned with mortgage, owned free and clear, rent, occupy w/o having to pay rent) are asked for. Yes, it’s bare bones but not worthless.

  12. … I basically agree with Lavern Andrews! But this year’s Census does also give the family relationship – brother, etc. And that was not included in some of the very early Census surveys, so that in my genealogical research, I’ve had to wonder just who others in the household were. Too much information or too little are both a problem!

  13. This years census is asking for all of the above plus sexual orientation… I really don’t see why that is relevant?

    • All of the questions besides number of people are to provide statistics. They may not be relevant to you, but they are to someone.

    • I did not see a question on sexual orientation. The question asks about an individual’s gender identity, not about the person’s sexual attraction or preference. There’s a difference.

  14. I have already mailed my information to them. I was disappointed that they didn’t ask whether I was single, married, divorced or a widow.

  15. Some items in some of the later censuses not mentioned. The wife of a household would be asked how many children she had delivered and how many were still alive. There was also an indicator, usually an “x”, to show which party provided the information. The occupation was often broken down into two parts, “Salesman”, “Insurance office”, or “farmer”, “general farm”.

  16. Future genealogists won’t find much if any useful information on this year’s Census to help identify their relatives. I am certainly appreciate of all the info I have gotten from the older census collections. Still wishing for those 1890 records.

  17. Please provide the full citation for the 1790 Philadelphia paper newspaper article. Thank you.

  18. How do I get the older census, looking for relatives? Doing family history. What is the best way to do this? Please help anyone. It sounds like the newspapers are best, how do I get them?

    • Another source is FindaGrave.com. Create a free account to search for names. This site is dedicated to memorials of those who have passed on. They are created by individuals who may or may not be relatives. The info comes from obituaries and is supposed to be copied directly from them – no other commentary. If “preceded in death by…” relatives are mentioned and there is a memorial for them, they will be linked. Also photos of headstones and cemetery entrances if available. Very useful for genealogists.

      • I especially like Obits that state those that died before them and the ones that give the town the survivors were living at the time. If you know that a person’s sister was living in a distant town when they attended the funeral, it gives you a place to research for them when you believe they have passed.

        On Find a Grave.com, they will often allow you to look for the same surname within the same graveyard, town, county, state, country and all of Find a Grave. You can search by many criteria. If a person has been previously researched well, there would be links to the parents, siblings, spouse(s) and children. If I see a FaG Memorial where the family members are known to me from other research but not listed, I will search for an hour or more to locate these links.

  19. I have been doing family history I’m grateful for the info from past census it has helped me find family and is still helping to find family that has gotten lost from years of not talking and moving to other parts of the U.S.A. The 2020 census is not going to give much to help people in future searches for family I’m disappointed in the lack of questions to help with information for the future. SAD

  20. This information is valuable to any genealogist and the source of many leads. We have had some lazy Census takers at time who did not list full names, some even just showed initials. Then too, some did not show the relationship to head of household. Thankfully, most were diligent and produced much valuable information

  21. As we know, before the 1870 Census, African Americans were only counted on Slave Reports as property, listed by Gender and Age. For this group of Americans, tracing their family history is difficult before that particular year.

  22. The government’s hiring practices of census takers leaves a lot to be desired…
    In 1910 my grandfather’s name was recorded by the hearing impaired census-taker as “Herald” In 1920 the census-taker scribbled and the name appeared as “Carl” Finally, in 1930 they got it right and showed his name as “Earl” . We still haven’t figured out how Mom’s cousin Charles ended up with his sister’s middle name “Gertrude”

  23. My mother is not listed on the 1930 census and she was 6 years old then. Other sisters had names misspelled. It helps that you already know enough info to correctly enter information into your genealogy family tree.
    The census takers back then may have never been educated beyond those they were getting information from.

  24. I completed the 2020 Census. I was truly unhappy about scarcity of information and lack of questions. I understand the purpose of the census. Its secondary tracking of history is important. I am appreciative of older years and the questions asked. It has been an imperfect science/learning experience. I am thankful we have the detail we do. It must be taken with a grain of salt, due to errors and incomplete data.

  25. The Enumerators of the past made many mistakes. My Fathers Sister was once listed as a “Half Sister” Another census she was listed as “Adopted” perhaps they would ask the neighbors if no one was home? However, those of us that do Ancestry research know about these errors and we move on. Much of their writing skills sucked.

  26. I have also found many errors in earlier Census records. In one case the Place of Birth, had everyone on the page as “dittoed” from tthe top of the page. I knew that it was an error for the person I was researching, because I knew where he/she was born. So, be careful when using any census records. Also “Ancestry” , in most cases has a photocopy of the original census page, with the ability to zoom in for a closer look

  27. I generally dislike filling out questionnaires, but the census is important to all and in particular to genealogists in the future. So, this time I was appalled by first the useless questions asked, i.e. gender orientation related, and second by the lack of historical content like places of birth for individual and parents. Genealogy is like a borderless jigsaw puzzle, you need to find the pieces that fit together.

    • I think the gender orientation is important. This information will be historical in the future. My son was dating a girl who had two sisters. The younger sister was transitioning
      to male. This is a popular trend with our youth. There is a television show called I Am Jazz that has chronicled a young person’s life transition from male to female. I will be curious to see if this trend continues and if in ten years, a person who was born a female, transitions to a male, transitions back to female or vice a versa. Only the census will tell us.

  28. I believe the Census takers in former times may bear some responsibility for erroneous information. However, I know of quite a few of my relatives who fudged their ages inconsistently (one age in one Census and in the next Census their age was not 10 or so years more) — so much so that their families did not know when they were born and on death certificates estimated the person’s age.
    A good number of my ancestors were immigrants who were just learning English and had “foreign” names. I know a number of them could not spell their names if asked to. Quite a few of them came in 1910 right before the Census.
    So far no one has mentioned that on Ancestry often there is the option to have correct information included. After searching for a long time I found that the transcriber spelled my California Sauer family’s name Lauer. A search for Sauer in that area gave me no results. Once I found them, I was able to add correct information. After that point Ancestry eventually added my information to the search.
    Ancestry always keeps the original, but eventually includes the corrections. (I have occasionally had to take back a “correction” that I made in error — so good the original is not lost.)
    Also, I know that in 1940 and probably years before people were told that all information they gave would be confidential. Well, I guess it was at that time — but 70 years after the 1940 Census I learned what people reported as their salaries and highest level of education. I found some ancestors that reported a much higher level of education than I knew they had.
    In 1940 did they ever think that people like us would be looking at what they were told was confidential information?
    I do look forward to seeing the 1950 Census.
    I doubt that information given in the 2020 Census will be very revelatory to future generations. So perhaps this is the closest the Census can come to not revealing confidential information.

  29. I too feel the 2020 census will not offer much info to future geneologists. I do appreciate an enumerator who clearly knows how to write and uses dark instruments so we can read them. My question is – what is the difference between a persons naturalization and when someone immigrated?

    • Immgration means relocation to a new country whether or not the individual becomes a citizen of the new country. Naturalization is the legal process for becoming a citizen. On the sparse information in the current census: at least nowadays we have millions of other information sources, recordings, photographs, and other evidences of our lives for future genealogists to study. If concerned we could also write a diary or an autobiography.

  30. I think that given how difficult it was to travel 150+ years ago, the Census takers did a marvelous job. Yes, there are some errors, but I think that I wouldn’t be able to handwrite a census and have it be 100% accurate.

  31. The census used to be very invasive. Like, how many slaves, what political party, how much you make, his much you have, worth of home, number of livestock, etc,etc. Today’s census is very brief and needed to see what kind of services need to be provided. How many hospitals, fire Dept., police etc, etc.

  32. Census records are released 72 years after the Census is taken. The 1940 Census was released in 2012. So we can anticipate delving into the 1950 US Census in 2022.

  33. I do hope those of you who have found errors in the Census make corrections to the information. It will help others who are looking for the same individuals. Just click on the people figures at the bottom of the screen and an Index appears. Locate your ancestor and double click onthe wrong info. A dialog box pops up where you can update the info.

  34. I’ve been doing Ancestry for awhile and I think that the 72 year mark is crazy. They should lower that number. If someone wants to get someone’s information in this day and age, it wouldn’t be hard with computer hacking. As far as the census’s information being incorrect, that is so true. I am looking for where my grandmother was born and the census from different years say different places. Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can find information from other countries or in the last state she lived? Thanks

  35. As someone else said I appreciate the information on the census starting in 1850. it has helped a lot in the Ancestry research. I was surprised employment information was not included in the 2020 census.

  36. The big controversy about the 2020 Census was about the inclusion of Citizenship. This administration was more interested, I believe, in getting less people to fill out the Census than discovering how many people needed new representatives. The Republicans believe that immigrants will vote Democratic. Get less new people counted, you increase the chance of GOP candidates getting elected. Mitch McConnell spent more time getting Conservative Judges confirmed on the Federal Bench that anything else. Any bills passed by the House that Trump might not like, never saw the light of day in the Senate.

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