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During the Colonial period, the British instituted the first censuses in America so as to better tax colonists. Consequently, the colonies took almost forty censuses of their populations between 1600 and 1789. In 1790, the federal government administered the first official U.S. census to gauge the country's military power in the event of war. And since then, the government has administered a new census every ten years.
For a genealogist, the most common way to use census information is to start from the most recent data and work backward, trying to trace your family line as far back as possible. You should record all information available about your ancestors, because you can never be quite sure what prove useful later on. You should also always be on the look out for families in the same town or county and sharing the same last name as your ancestors, and you might find some relatives you never knew you had. Also, don't forget to consider alternate name spellings in these cases, as spelling was generally more flexible in the past than it is today.
One limitation census data is that you simply can't get access to it all. The Privacy Act of 1974 stipulated that no federal records less than 75 years old should be released to the public. Furthermore, some census records have been lost over the years because of war, fire and other causes. Additionally, some census records may contain mistakes. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, census data is an extremely powerful tool in the hands of the genealogist, and one that you should definitely exploit.
In addition to the federal census, most states also have instituted their own censuses. Whenever possible, you should inspect the census of the state in which your ancestor lived if only to verify the information from the federal census.
Below are the federal censuses themselves, including their contents:-
1790: Name of family head; free white males 16 and older; free white males under 16; free white females; slaves; and other persons, which may include workers, friends, or boarders who were not actually family members. When the British attacked Washington, DC during the War of 1812, the schedules for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, Virginia, and parts of Maryland and North Carolina were burned, although many of these lost records have been restored with the help of state tax lists.
1800: Name of household head; free white males and females under the age of 10, and between the ages of 10 and 16, 16 and 26, 26 and 44, and over 44 years old.; race; and slaves. The schedules for Georgia, Indian Territory, Kentucky, Mississippi Territory, New Jersey, Northwest Territory Ohio River, Tennessee, and Virginia are entirely missing. Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina schedules are partially missing.
1810: Listing the same information as the previous census, this census lacks the schedules for District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana Territory, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Ohio. Those for Illinois Territory, Maine, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia are partially missing.
1820: Name of the household head; free white males and females under 10 years old, between the ages of 10 and 16,16 and 18,18 and 26, 26 and 45, and over 45 years old; naturalized aliens; work in the agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing industries; free blacks; slaves; and people (with the exception of American Indians) not taxed. Schedules for Alabama, Arkansas Territory, Missouri, and New Jersey are entirely missing. Those for Georgia, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee are partially missing.
1830: Name of household head; free white people under 5 years old, 10 years old, 15 years old, 20 years old, 30 years old, 40 years old and over; professions; the city, county, town, parish, district, etc., where the census was taken; military veterans who received pensions; deafness, dumbness, and blindness; unnaturalized aliens; free blacks; slaves; and schools.
1840: Name of household head; age; sex; race; slaves; deafness; dumbness; blindness; insanity; idiocy; employment; literacy; and pensioners for Revolutionary or military service.
1850, 1860: By 1850, federal censuses began to include more information. For every free person living in the household is a record of name; age; sex; race; occupation; value of real estate owned; birthplace; marital status; school attendance; literacy; convict status; and slaves set free. For each slave there is a record of the slave owner; slave's age, sex, and race, as well as whether the slave was a fugitive or not. The 1860 census includes the number of slave houses and value of personal estate.
1870: This census contains the same information as 1860, as well as month of birth or marriage if occurred within the year; denial of vote for reasons other than rebellion; and whether parents were foreign born.
1880: Indexed alphabetically by name, this census records the name, age, sex, marital status, race, sickness or disability, months unemployed during the year; school attendance, literacy, relationship to the head of the household, and birthplace of person and parents.
1890: The 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by fire and only portions exist.
1900: Address; name; relationship to household head; sex; race; age; marital status; foreign birth; year immigrated to U.S.; naturalization status; school attendance; literacy; birthplace of person and parents; native language; ability to speak English; occupation; home ownership or rental; and original amount of mortgage, balance due, and interest rate.
1910: This offers all the information included in previous censuses, as well as each female's number of children born and number living; language spoken if not English; survivor of Union or Confederate army or navy. It also lists the Indian tribe or band when applicable.
1920: Same as the preceding years, it does not have a separate American Indian listing as the 1910 census did, nor does it indicate how many years married or whether a person served in the Confederate or Union forces during the Civil War.
1930: Address; name; relationship to household head; home ownership or rental; rental fee; radio ownership; farm residence; sex; race; age; marital status; age at first marriage; school attendance; literacy; birthplace of person and parent; native language; year of immigration; naturalization status; ability to speak English; occupation; industry; worker class; veteran status; and for American Indians, whether of full or mixed blood and tribal affiliation.
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