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Census Day 2020 has come and gone. Are you breathing a sigh of relief? Were you disappointed by the survey questions asked? I confess that after years of researching my family history and looking at historical census records, I was thoroughly disappointed by the 2020 census.

None of the questions I was accustomed to were to be found!

So today for the letter “C” of the 2020 A to Z Challenge, I want to direct your attention to the historical CENSUSES available for public research and address WHY you would want to read CENSUS records.

History of CENSUS Taking in the United States:

Censuses have been taken in the United States since 1790.

Aside from the 1890 records that were burned in a fire in 1891, almost all the rest of the censuses have withstood the test of time.

Did you know that the last state census was in 1985 for the state of Massachusetts?

Key Dates:

  • In 1790, only the head of the household was recorded.
  • In 1850, all members of the household were recorded.
  • In 1880, relationships to the head of the household were recorded (eg. “Daughter’, “Servant”).
  • In 1900, recorded naturalization dates and status.
  • In 2010, the government started using a short online questionnaire.

The 72 Year Rule:

To help protect the identity of people enumerated in past censuses, there is a 72-year rule. Only records that were recorded at least 72 years back can be made available to the public for family research. Currently, that would be the 1940 censuses.

In 2022, the 1950 censuses should become available to the general public.

What a Census Can Tell You About Your Ancestor:

Are you looking for confirmation who your grandmother’s mother was? Or want to make sure your grandfather’s brother was really “Joe Smith”? By looking at records dating from 1880+, you should be able to find and confirm relationships, professions, religious preferences, etc.

Of course, there is always the issue of human error but a 1910 census helped me enormously when researching my paternal great-grandfather’s family.

1910 Austin Census Records

In the records, I was able to safely deduce that my great-grandfather was the same one as the young boy listed in the 1910 census thanks to his hometown, age, relation to his half-brother, mother, etc., and then I could safely deduce that he was also related to the head of the household – Kate Moore, his grandmother. #WINWIN

This same census also confirmed the theory that my great-grandfather’s father had passed away beforehand. Unfortunately, we’ve never been able to trace his death certificate or records of burial but according to family history, my 2nd great-grandfather had passed away at the turn of the century. And while this census does not give us any specifics of when, why, or how, it does confirm our hunches.

Another very helpful piece of information you’ll find on a historical census will be a religious preference. When your family name is common, there is a good likelihood that your ancestor will share the name with several others and how do you know for certain which is which? By seeing what religious house they follow, you can narrow your suspects. For instance, many of my family’s ancestors were Roman Catholic. So if we see someone was listed as Lutheran that might raise a red flag.

Other fascinating details you might gather from the census records include:

8 Interesting Things You Can Learn From Reading a CENSUS #atozchallenge #census

How many children did a lady have (both living and deceased)?

How much money did someone possess?

How much was the rent on someone’s home?

Was your relative in prison or hospital during the census taking?

Could your ancestor read or write English?

Did your relative serve in the Union or Confederate Army?

Did other family members live on the same street?

Did your ancestor go by a nickname?

If we were to look up President Abraham Lincoln – here are just a few of the results that’d pop up.

looking up abraham incoln in us census records

Would you automatically stop when you saw “Abram Lincoln”? Likely you’d be looking for “Abraham Lincoln”. However, if you notice – there are 3 major clues that this is worth taking a second look:

– Place of birth, Kentucky

– Place of Residence, Springfield, Illinois

– Year of Residence/Census, 1850 (a decade before his presidency began)

If you looked at the ACTUAL census, you’d see three more clues that this would be your man:

– Name of wife, Mary

– Name of a son, Robert

– Perhaps you’d even recognize the name “Catherine Gordon”, one of the live-in domestics. [this is a fine example of the fact that before 1880, no relationships were listed.  Thankfully we know Catherine Gordon was a domestic but otherwise you’d be left to wonder “who is Catherine?” Remember – don’t make arbitrary guesses. Best to list someone as a “maybe” in your notes then to add them to your family tree erroneously and have to fix it later.]

– Profession, attorney at law

Where to Access Census Records: (provided by the Mormon Church; Free) (membership required – see my post for information about how you can access these records through your local library.) (membership required)


quick tips for navigating a CENSUS #ancestry #census #atozchallenge


Which of the original census questions do you wish they’d kept in modern times? And why?