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Counting Heads - The Census

For beginning Genealogists, the quickest route to learning about elusive members of your family tree is to check the available census data. You can do this for free at or at the US National Archives at

To begin your search of the censuses, you will need to know a family member's name, their approximate birth date, and where you think they lived. You can start with the people that you know in the most recent census you think they may be found in.


The first US census to determine how many people were living in which states was taken in 1790 at the direction of Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and has been done every 10 years since then. The details of the census are kept secret until 72 years after the information is gathered. The most recent census currently being transcribed and published is the one taken in 1950.

They only collected the names of the heads of households until 1850. For example in 1790, they only wanted to know:

  • Name of family head, free white males of 16 years and up

  • free white males, under 16

  • free white females; slaves

  • other persons (????????)

Make it easy on yourself, and don't START any further back than 1850 until you have more details about the family like the names of children and wives. When you have more info, you can work backwards and you can narrow down whether or not this is your ancestor by counting the ages of the children and the adults in the household.

extended family

In fact, I would recommend that you start with the 1880 census if you have further back to go. Before 1880 there is no indication of how the inhabitants of the houses may or may not be related. We may assume or infer that these are parents and children, for example, but this vital information is not added until the 1880 census. They could just as likely be nieces and nephews or children in guardianship. The 1880 census also includes the street names and the house numbers for the first time.

Slaves and "Freed Colored People" were counted but not named until after the Civil War in the 1870 census. In that census they differentiated people by these colors in column 6:

"Color- White (W); Black (B); Mulatto (M); Chinese (C); Indian (I)"

If you click on the form it will take you to the National Archives site where it may be a little easier to read. Look at all of the information we are getting! Age at last birthday, Profession, Value of Real Estate Owned, Place of Birth, were the parents born in the US or are they foreign, Education level, and the very last columns relate to their voting rights, "Male Citizens of U.S. of 21 years of age and upwards where rights to vote is denied on other grounds than rebellion or other crime."

The US also began to keep Mortality Schedules (1850-1885) which showed people who had died in the past year and their cause of death with the census info for the living, and they did Agricultural Schedules from 1850-1890 which identified land ownership and how the land was being used (crops, livestock, etc.). If you have farmers in your ancestry, be sure to use these tools as well!

Only the 1890 census is unavailable for review due to a fire that destroyed the records in 1921.

world map

The US is obviously not the only country that took censuses of its inhabitants. If you would like to research the records of other

countries, is a great place to start. Remember, you don't have to pay for this site, but you do have to open an account. If you click on the map here it will take you to this page where you can select the part of the world you would like to research in and find out what records they have available. The records extend beyond censuses, and include Civil Registrations, church records, etc. that you will find on the membership genealogy sites.

I hope this has given you some ideas of different sources to look at for your family history. Where else do you like to research? If you have any questions I would be glad to try to help you. Remember, you can always get a free quote to look at your tree to help you break through your brick walls.

Thank you, again, for sharing your time with me,

Leslie Ryan

Still not receiving compensation from any of these sites


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