Census Records! Tips for Looking Deeper Into the Story

The United States federal census has been taken every ten years since 1790. Federal population schedules through the 1940 census exist and are available to the general public online. Only fragments of the 1890 schedules remain since they were badly damaged by fire in 1921.

Each census offers slightly different information, depending on what Congress was interested in enumerating for that decade. Earlier census schedules name only the head of household and number of males and females in different age categories. In 1850, they started listing the names of all members of the Household.

Except for the earliest census that were sometimes alphabetical, the order of households listed is usually the result of door-to-door visits by the census takers. This allows us to look at neighbors.

This post will provide you with information for the various United States Federal Census years and specific differences for many of them. I have also included below a list of Other Federal Schedules that you may want to add to your search.

The Factfinder for the Nation: Availability of Census Records About Individuals lists what can be found on each census from 1790-2000. Only 1940 and earlier are public at this time. Scroll down below to find some of the information for each census that you’ll want to make sure you don’t miss. Keep in mind some of the censuses had more than one page, so check for that. Also check the bottom of each page for the codes. There is a lot of information you can miss if you just scan the page and move on.

As an example, let’s look at the 1930 census index for Theodore P Doerr, my paternal grandfather:

In the Index to the right, you can see his approximate birth year, birthplace, home in 1930, town, county, state, that he’s married to Anna M and that his father and mother were born in Iowa. You can also see listed the household members and their ages. In this case, Theodore P, Anna M  and their five children. Also note the spelling errors (in looking at the original, it’s very clearly spelled Doerr but looked like Doler to whomever transcribed it).


What additional information I found looking at the actual record?  (Click on the graphic to get an enlarged view):

  • The street name and number are not listed. (This census taker did not list the address, but they were supposed to, so be sure to check)
  • Relationship of household members and their sex.
  • They are renting for $15 / mo.
  • They did not own a radio.
    They did not live on a farm.
  • He was 29 and grandmother was 19 for age of first marriage. (validates neither had been married before and marriage date)
  • They could all speak English.
  • He is a Carpenter in the Building Industry.
  • Class of worker was “Working on Own Account”.
  • He was working previous work day.
  • He was not a veteran.
  • It was Enumerated on April 7, 1930.
  • District 41-9
  • Township: Britt Township (see my article on Township Plat Maps.





So how can you use this information?

  • 91003Census data can help you narrow your search for other records. Steve Morse’s Unified Census ED Finder is a tool I frequently use when I know where they were, but can’t find the census by searching their names (frequently spelled incorrectly on the census or by the person transcribing).  Using his site I was able find this map which shows ED 11-9 in the Township they lived,
  • It may give clues that will help you better understand your ancestors. At the time of this census, my grandparents were raising 5 children. Later that year, their daughter Helen passed away, but was alive when they took the census.
  • Put the records in the context of their lives, what is their story? Grandfather had his own construction business and Grandmother was home raising the five children, from 6 months to 12 years old.
  • Translate dates into ages and ages into dates, and dates into history. This was the year after the stock market crash and the beginning of the recession. Grandfather was working the previous work day, so maybe they hadn’t been impacted yet.
  • Check for males (immigrants and native born) who were born between around 1872 and 1900 and living in the United States in 1917-1918. They may be included in the WWI draft registration cards. My grandfather fit into this range and I indeed did find his draft registration, although he never served, he did have to fill out the draft registration.
  • Dates and locations from censuses can help us track the family’s moves. They lived in Wesley, Iowa in the 1920 census, so moved to Britt between 1920 and 1930. Although I was also able to use their children’s birth dates and locations to narrow this down further, the census helps validate what we are learning.
  • Review the names and see if they match up with the family as you know it. I found it interesting to find my father listed as L. Erwin but all his adult life he went by Luke and was nicknamed “Duke”. Apparently, his family called him Erwin when he was growing up. This was a fun bit of information for me to learn and helped in future research.


Can you tell who answered the questions?

  • The 1940 census marked the person who answered the questions with a circled X. Who is the person who gave the information? It could have been a neighbor. Depending on who answered the questions can help you to evaluate the accuracy. How much did they know about the family? Could they communicate with the enumerator (could they speak English?).


Look at the neighbors

  • Sometimes you can find relatives among the neighbors. Families were often close knit in those days.


Marriage information on census records

  • 1900 and 1910 censuses asked for the number of years of present marriage.
  • 1930 asked for the “age at first marriage”. Do the math for both husband and wife for clues to prior marriages.
  • The 1870 and 1880 Federal Censuses asked whether “married within the year” and if so, what month.


Death Clues

  • For women of child bearing age in 1900 and 1910, look for number of children living in those census years to see if there are any unaccounted children.



  • Look for historical websites that will include more background information.
  • Search for records on institutions on ancestry.com and familysearch.org.
  • Check local histories and historical newspapers for more information.


Collect Addresses

  • Beginning in 1880 censuses recorded house numbers and street names. Use these addresses along with addresses found in other records.
  • What churches were in that area?
  • What cemeteries?


Immigration Clues

  • 1900-1930 Federal Censuses all asked for year of immigration (this was one of the clues that helped me find the immigration information on my maternal grandmother).
  • 1900-1930 Federal Censuses all asked for naturalization status and 1920 also asked for the year of naturalization.


The 1840, 1910 and 1930 Federal Censuses included questions about Military Service (May be codes at bottom of page).

  • 1840 lists names and ages of military pensioners or their widows.
  • 1910 asked whether a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy.
  • 1930 asked whether a veteran of the United States Military or Naval forces mobilized for any war or expedition.


Some State censuses included military information and other valuable information. Many were done in between Federal Censuses. Not all states did state censuses, but it’s important to check what may be available.


Pre-1870 Censuses

  • Just knowing where they are is a big deal
  • Don’t discount families with extra people in the Household. These could be children who died young or extended family living in the Household. (e.g. in-laws, nieces, nephews, etc.)


The 1840 census had two pages. be sure to check the second page.

Other federal schedules usually taken at the same time as the population schedules include 1

  • Mortality – Persons who died during the 12 months prior to the census, from 1850 to 1885.
  • Veterans – Mostly Union veterans and their widows in 1840 and 1890. However, some confederate veterans were included and possibly lined out (may still be readable). 1890 lists the residence, unit and years of service of Civil War soldiers or their surviving widows.
  • Slaves -Salve owners and the number of slaves they owned, in 1850 and 1860.
  • Agricultural – Data on farms and the names of the farmers, from 1850 and 1860.
  • Manufacturing – Data on businesses and industries, 1810 (fragments only), 1820 and 1850 to 1880.
  • Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent – handicapped, paupers, or criminals in 1880
  • Indian Schedules – Special questions after the 1910 county population schedules.
  • Institutions – jail, hospital, poor house, or asylum usually after county population schedules.
  • Merchant seamen – on U.S. flag merchant vessels in 1930.
  • Military and Naval Forces – forts, bases, and Navy ships after population schedules, or from 1900 to 1930 on separate films for overseas.
  • Social Statistics – real estate, annual taxes, cemeteries, school statistics, libraries, newspapers, churches.
  1. Familsearch.org - United States Federal Census https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/United_States_Federal_Census.

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