Genealogical Research – Using the U. S. Census (Part 3)

Click here for part 1 or part 2.

In this installment of our genealogical research series, we are going to cover one of my favorite resources: the U.S. Census! The federal census has been conducted every ten years since 1790 and is a goldmine for the genealogist. The goal of the census is to count every U.S. resident: this data is then used to determine the number of seats a state gets in the House of Representatives and the federal funds located to each community. For the genealogist, census records provide detailed snapshots of the lives of your ancestors during a given time. Like vital records, the census is only made public after a certain amount of time has passed; in this case, 72 years. The most current census that can be accessed is 1940.

Why the Census?

Depending on which census is being consulted, a researcher can find a wealth of information with even basic data like the name of an ancestor, their place of birth and/or residence, and/or the name of their spouse and parent(s). Moreover, the census is relatively easy to use and can be accessed through several different databases and websites.

What Can I Find in the Census?

The information recorded in the censuses taken between 1790 and 1840 was, for the genealogist, pretty underwhelming. Pre-1850 censuses only listed the name of the head of the household; everyone else was recorded as a tally mark in columns based on age, gender, and status (free or slave). From 1850 on it became the standard to include the names and ages of every person in a household as well as a number of other elements based on which census you are consulting. To list all the elements could (and have!) filled entire book chapters, so for the sake of this article we’ll only highlight a few changes that are most relevant to the genealogist.

Breakdown of the Censuses

1790-1840: As mentioned above, the censuses taken between these years are the least helpful to the genealogist as only the head of the household was mentioned by name. Also, as you can likely imagine, the first two censuses didn’t have Virginia at all! These are worth a look if you know you have pioneer ancestors, but otherwise  they may be a bit of a bust.

1850: The 1850 census is when things really get interesting. Not only is more information included than in previous censuses, but this marks the first census in which printed instructions were given to enumerators. This takes some of the guesswork out of deciphering data because it standardized the records.

1860: The 1860 census was the first to include estimates of personal estates, which might give you an idea of your ancestors’ financial standing. This census was also more specific about birthplace which is especially helpful if you are looking for an immigrant ancestor.

1870: A banner year for genealogists, the 1870 census was the first to list citizens who were formerly enslaved by name.

1880: This marks the first census to note street and house number, relationships of occupants and marital status, and the birthplaces of parents (foreign and US).

1890: A considerable blow to the genealogist, more than 99% of the data collected through this census were lost to fire and water at Commerce Department. In our next segment, we’ll look at some substitutional records that can be used to cobble together some of the information that was lost in this census.

1900: A new century marked several changes for the census, including information about immigrants such as year of arrival, years in US, and whether or not they were naturalized. It also indicated how many years a couple had been married, number of children born to the mother, and number of children still alive. (Interesting data to have, but a sad reminder of infant mortality rate.) This was also the only census to include month and year of birth. You can also “learn whether your family owned or rented their home, if it was mortgaged, and whether it was a house or farm” (Smolenyak).

1910: Another important year for immigration information: the 1910 census included the status of immigrants (naturalized (na), alien (al), or had applied for papers (pa)). A column was also added to indicate service in the Civil War and whether a person had survived the Union or Confederate army or navy.

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1920: As with most censuses, the 1920 census had some helpful additions and some unfortunate subtractions. It offers more information about the immigrant ancestor such as year of naturalization and native language, but no longer asked questions about Civil War service, number of children, or duration of marriage.

1930: Veteran status was re-added to the 1930 census and indicated war(s) served; it also included information regarding home values, monthly mortgage, or rent. Interestingly enough, radio ownership was recorded as well!

1940: An important snapshot of American life between the Great Depression and the country’s involvement in WWII, the 1940 census included questions about internal migration, employment, and participation in any New Deal programs. It also contains territorial censuses for Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Panama Canal, Puerto Rico, and American Virgin Islands.

How Do I Access the Census?

Every census from 1790 to 1940 can be accessed through the Ohio County Public Library (OCPL). The OCPL subscribes to three genealogical databases (including Ancestry, MyHeritage, and Heritage Quest) for patrons to use. Ancestry can only be accessed while inside the library, but MyHeritage and Heritage Quest can be accessed from anywhere as long as you have a library card. If you prefer printed resources, the Wheeling Room (mentioned in the previous installment) has bound copies of some of the earlier censuses that can be viewed by appointment. Censuses can also be viewed through the National Archives, but the search is more complicated than what you would find on Heritage Quest. Whenever possible, I highly recommend using the databases provided by the OCPL.

How Do I Use the Census?

Most genealogists find it makes sense to begin with the most current census and work their way back. Thanks to information recorded in the census like a person’s place of birth, nationality, and number of years in the U.S., starting with a later census can help you determine if you can expect to find your ancestor in the previous one. As with other vital records, take information with a grain of salt: it is not uncommon to find names misspelled or mistranscribed, estimated ages and birth years, etc. Consider the names of parents, siblings, and even neighbors to help determine if a record is referring to your ancestor.

For more examples of how to use the census, click here and as always, happy researching!

Click here for part 4.

• Raised in Wellsburg, West Virginia, Anna Cipoletti is a proud alumna of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, West Liberty University and Kent State University. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from West Liberty in 2014 and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from Kent State in 2017. Anna has made a career out of a lifelong love of books and works full-time at Bethany College as a librarian and parttime as a bookseller and book reviewer. She resides in Beech Bottom with her sister and two Siamese cats. A nature enthusiast, Anna often spends her free time visiting one of West Virginia’s many beautiful parks or kayaking along Buffalo Creek.


“About the 1940 Census.” 1940 Census, National Archives, https://1940census.archives.gov/about/

“Online Databases about Genealogy.” Ohio County Public Library,  https://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/genealogy/online-databases-for-genealogy/7148

Smolenyak, Megan. Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History, Penguin, 2010.