The Federal census records are, in effect, snapshots of American history. For historians and genealogy experts, they can be valuable tools for family research and general knowledge about how people lived in different time periods.
Census records date back much further than 1850, but the records from 1850 onward contained much more accurate information, including birthplaces, residence changes, relationships, occupations, citizenship information and other important details.
It is often possible to do some genealogy research at home using relatives and family records to get you started. However, when those resources run out, you should move on to the next logical tools at your disposal, which are the US census records.
Of course, not all census records are accurate, but they can certainly help you to verify or cross reference other sources. The census records may also give you a clue as to where to search next, such as in military, immigration or court records.
In fact, census records may be the only way to replace other lost or missing records, such as vital statistics, family records or religious records. Vital records were not recorded officially in the United States until 1920. Since then, some official government records and many other forms of family, religious and vital records have been lost or destroyed in fires or natural disasters.
So, census records are not just valuable for the sake of fun family history research, but can also be used to claim insurance or social security benefits, get passports or prove citizenship.
Returning To The Census – When you are doing genealogy research, you may find yourself returning to the same census information more than once. In fact, you should return to it more than once. That’s because, as you unearth more and more family history, you may come across new names, dates or information. So, you may need to go back to the various Federal census reports to check and expand upon that information.
Inaccuracies – There are, of course, several inaccuracies within US censuses. One of the biggest problems, which has persisted throughout the years, is that some people just don’t trust the government in the least. So, those people may have lied or refused to answer certain questions, especially questions regarding citizenship, taxes or service in the military.
Boundary Problems – Years ago, there was no regular US mail service. So, the early census information was obtained by individuals who had to canvass their area and go door-to-door to collect the data. Not all boundary areas were clearly defined, however. So, some areas of wards, townships, precincts or districts may not have been covered properly. Therefore, some people are listed in certain censuses more than once and others may have been completely skipped over altogether. It’s also important to note that the boundaries have further changed over the years. So, you cannot always focus your census search on a certain area based on that area’s boundaries today. Instead, you have to look back at how the area was defined at the time at which the census was taken.
Restricted Census Information – Obviously, Federal census records contain a lot of personal information about individuals. Therefore, census information is restricted for a period of 72 years after each census is taken. If you wish to access census information taken in the last 72 years, you need to contact: The Personal Service Branch, Bureau of the Census, P.O. Box 1545, Jeffersonville, IN 47131. You will have to pay a fee to access the more current census records. You will also only be allowed to access information pertaining to yourself or, if you are an heir or authorized representative, for the person you are heir to or representing.
Missing Census Information – Over the years, several portions of the various Federal censuses have gone missing or been destroyed. For example, several portions of the 1790 census information are believed to have been destroyed during the War of 1812. That included census schedules for Virginia, Tennessee, New Jersey, Kentucky, Georgia and Delaware. However, many of the Virginia records have since been reconstructed using tax lists and other documents. The 1890 census information is also incomplete. Most of the schedules for that census were in the Commerce Department when it caught on fire in 1921.
Falsely Adjusting The Census – Census information can also be inaccurate because of people falsely adjusting the census. That is known as “padding the totes.” The object of padding the totes was most often to manipulate things to achieve statehood or other political goals. For example, Minnesota listed completely false information for seven counties in 1857. Another good example was in Utah in 1880, when they changed census information in order to escape prosecution for polygamy.
Under Counting – Under counting has been one of the biggest ongoing problems in US census records. Some families lived in remote areas and were missed. Other families just didn’t want to answer the questions on the census. Over the years, millions of people have been missed entirely when Federal censuses were taken. So, although the censuses can be quite valuable during genealogy research, you should always use all other historical records and resources that you can find to back up your information as well.