Wednesday, December 9, 2009

U.S. Census Records Overview

In 1790, the United States enacted that every ten years there would be a Federal Census of all the inhabitants, beginning with 1790. At that time, the census was just a means of counting the individuals in the country for tax reasons and to provide information on men eligible for military service. The census has been taken every decade of the year ending with a zero, although most states have taken their own state census from time to time between the federal census. That information is also helpful to genealogists and family historians trying to track down their ancestors.

These valuable resources can be consulted online or at your local library or at your local family history center. Most libraries have census records available to the public on microfilm for their local area, or they can request them on your behalf by inter-library loan.

What Census Records Are Available?

As stated, the local library usually holds microfilm copies of the census for your local area as well as indexes of census returns. As always, you should check what has been published for the area you are interested in before trying to go through hundreds of pages of microfilm. Perhaps there is an index to the area that your ancestor lived that you can review. Also, check online to see what is available. You can save valuable time with a little research rather than trying to wade through hundreds of reels of microfilm.

The federal censuses were taken every year in the USA from 1790 to the present day. Unfortunately, some years are spotty, or lost, but most of what is available is quite useful. The census returns themselves are kept private for 72 years after they are taken. That means that the 1930 returns are the most current returns that are available, with the 1940 returns scheduled to be released April 1st, 2012.

The 1850 census was the first U.S. census to attempt to collect every member of each household, including women, children and slaves. In the censuses held previously, only the name of the head of the household was provided, with the number of males and females in a given age range provided. Those early records are still very useful and should be consulted even though the names of everyone in the household may not be named.

After the 1850 census, the Federal census became more elaborate and new categories and questions were asked each time the census was taken, with more valuable insight provided into the lives of those enumerated.

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