Last week, we started our family history research by recording what we already know. The next step is to start verifying and adding to that information. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by looking at census records.
Census records are one of the most well-known sources of genealogical information. They are an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to know more about their family’s history.
About the Census
The first U.S. Federal Census was taken in 1790. Since then, a census has been taken every ten years. The only census that is not available is the 1890 census which was largely destroyed by a fire in 1921. After the 1930 census, the government put a 72-year restriction on census data to protect the privacy of living individuals. This means we must wait 72 years after the census was taken to be given access to the information it contains. The most recent census available to the public is the 1940 census, which was just released this year.
In addition to federal census records, many states took censuses of their own. In Indiana, state censuses were taken in 1820. 1825, 1830, 1835, 1840, 1845, 1850, 1853, 1866, 1871, 1877, 1873, 1889, 1895, 1901, 1913, and 1919. Unfortunately, only fragments of these documents remain.
Accessing Census Records
Federal census records for all available years are accessible online through a variety of subscription sites. Luckily most libraries provide access to several of these sites to their patrons free-of-charge.
Ancestry Library Edition, a limited library version of Ancestry.com, can be accessed onsite at IMCPL, the Indiana State Library, as well as many other area libraries. It provides fully-searchable census records and includes scanned images of the original census pages.
HeritageQuestOnline.com is another valuable source of census data. Like Ancestry Library Edition, it provides fully-searchable census records and scanned images. Heritage Quest can be accessed from the Indiana State Library, as well as many other area libraries.
Surviving census records for the state of Indiana are a bit scattered. Some of what has survived can be accessed at the Indiana State Library, at the Indiana State Archives, or by contacting the auditor’s office in the county you’re researching.
What You’ll Find
The information recorded in the census varied from year to year. For instance, before 1850, only the head of household is listed by name. The other members of the household are noted only by age range and gender.
For census years 1850 and after, you can expect to learn the name, age, and place of birth of each member of the household, as well as the place of birth of their parents, their year of immigration, their occupation, and their marital status.
Certain years provided other valuable information, such as the number of children a mother has given birth to or the number of years a couple has been married.
A Few Tips
- As with all research, it’s important to record as much information as possible about the sources you use. For the census you should take note of the year, the location (city, county, & state), the page number, the line number of your family, and the website or other source you used to access it.
- Keep in mind that the information provided on the census sheets is not always 100% accurate. There are often errors in dates and in spelling made by both the census taker and the family member he or she spoke with. Always record information as it appears and never disregard information that is different than what you expect to find.
- If you have trouble finding your relatives in a particular census year, try altering your search terms. Old handwriting can be difficult to read, and there are sometimes errors made in the indexing process. Try searching for just the last name and location or some other combination of information. You can also try searching with the first initial or any spelling variation you can think of.
- Ancestry.com provides blank versions of all the censuses for your reference. You can use these to keep track of what you’ve discovered, or just as an easier way to read the column headings (they can be difficult to read on the scanned images).
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