Southern California Genealogical Society
SCGS RESEARCH ASSISTANCE - Articles

Getting Started #4: Census Records
By Beverly Truesdale

Now that you have all the vital records that you need, the next item to collect is census records. The census can be a vital tool in your research. The information on the census can sometimes be inaccurate, however, so use it only as a guide in your research.

The first United States census was taken in 1790 and one has been taken every ten years since then. The 1890 census was destroyed by fire and water, with only a few fragments saved.

Start with the 1930 census and work your way back as far as you can go with a given family. Pay particular attention to the neighbors on either side of your family. Some of them could be relatives. When families moved, they tended to move in groups with other people, so they tended to stay together.

Up until 1850, only the head of the household was listed.

There are many printed indexes, with some even on CD now. The SCGS Library has the earlier census indexes in book form and also on CD, and the Library has the entire 1880 census on CD.

The later censuses are available at Laguna Nigel, at L.A. Public Library, via interlibrary loan and at the Family History Center in West Los Angeles.

Sometimes the states took their own censuses, usually in the fifth year in between the Federal Censuses. Some states will have an 1865 or even 1885 enumeration.

Learn to use a census form when taking notes from a census. You will find that you can do it more efficiently and will know what your notes mean. We have census forms available at the SCGS Library. I like to make a photocopy of the census page I need and then I transfer the information to the census form. I can then carry the printed form with me when I go to the library, so I will know which censuses I have checked. Each census is a little different and every ten years the census form contains a little more information.

On the 1900 census, it lists the person’s birth month and birth year. It also asks how many years a couple had been married and how many children the wife had and how many are still living. These can be important clues. Also it asks the year of immigration and if they are a naturalized citizen. On the 1930 census, it asks if the husband was a military veteran.

Be careful when using censuses, as there are mistakes, especially in spelling names. Since many of our ancestors could not read and write, they didn’t know how to spell their name and the person recording the information wrote it down like it sounded.

There are also mortality schedules available for 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880. Any person who died in the twelve months previous to the enumeration as of June first is listed. On the mortality schedule, it will list the name, age at death, date of death and state or country of birth.

Sometimes an ancestor will not be on the census due to the fact that he or she may have been away from home or the enumerator may have been sloppy. Maybe your family lived outside of town on a farm and the enumerator didn’t want to travel that far. Some people had a great distrust of public officials and did not want to give the information to anyone. A final tip: If you can’t find your ancestor, look for his or her siblings.


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