Monday, November 13, 2017

What Is The Federal Census And How Is It Used


Have you ever wondered why every ten years you have to fill out a census report for the United States government? What is this information used for?

The census was established in the original writing of the Constitution for the government to count how many voters there would be in each state. This information was used to determine how many representatives were needed in Congress for each state based on their population. 

The first Federal Census was taken in the year 1790 and would continue to be taken every subsequent 10 years. 

Example: 1790 Federal Census from Pendleton, South Carolina

The 1790 census only listed the names of the head of household. The names of wives and children were not listed; only given a number or tick mark. Naturally, the lack of names in a household does not sit well for a genealogist as they want more information than that. Keep in mind, however, the census was never taken for the purpose of genealogy, so that much needed information like finding your 3rd great grandmother's name, for example, was not needed in determining the representation for the state.

So what do the columns on the census mean? As previously mentioned, The first column lists the head of household. The next set of columns are as follows:

  • Free White Males of 16 Years and Upward
  • Free White Males Under 16 Years
  • Free White Females
  • All Other Free Persons
  • Slaves

So how can a genealogist use this information? Besides the basics of the name and place of an ancestor, you can also look to see who is living near them as these people, especially if they share surnames, could possibly be related. You can also find out how many children, brothers, or sisters an ancestor had at the time of the census enumeration.

I know, that's not a lot to go on. Sometimes it's not much help especially if your ancestor has a common name like John Smith. Determining which John Smith in a census is the John Smith you are looking for could require more information from other sources such as birth, marriage, land, and probate records.

There is good news, however. Census records started to change by 1850. Now the government wanted more information for statistical purposes. Now the census gives us, the genealogist, more information such as: names of everyone in the household, age, gender, occupation, value of real estate, place of birth, etc.

Example: 1850 Federal Census from Gadsden, Florida

I will go over the 1850 census in a bit more detail in a future post.

You may wonder, can I look myself up in a census? The answer is possibly, but you would have to be born before 1940 as this is the most recent Federal Census available to the public. The next census (1950) will be made available to the public on April 2, 2022. That's less than 5 years away! I can't wait!

In closing, this is just the tip of the iceberg in using a census to discover ancestors to place in your tree; and even though the 1790 census doesn't give a lot of information, it is still an invaluable resource in your research.

For a great book regarding the Federal Census click here

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