Introduction To The
U.S. Federal Census Records
1790 - 1930
Federal census records contain a lot of valuable information
for those researching their family's roots. Often listed is
information on people's ages, sex, place of birth, relationship
to the head-of-household etc. They can also contain the
evidence needed for proving citizenship.
Terms used in the census records
- A counting of the population and the actual pages of the
- Another word for taking the census.
- A census taker.
- Enumeration District
- Abbreviated as ED, it is the area assigned to one enumerator
in one census period (2 to 4 weeks in 1930).
- Institutions, Hospitals, schools, jails, etc.
- Were given separate EDs for the 1930 census.
- NP or nonpopulation
- An ED where no one lived. Noted as "NP" in the catalog.
- The limits of an officer's jurisdiction or an election district.
- Specific geographic places or features such as streets, towns,
villages, rivers, or mountains.
- The pages that the enumerators filled out when taking the census.
- An indexing system based on the way a name is pronounced rather
than how it is spelled.
- An ED that was combined with another ED. Noted as "void" in the
Information Found in the Census Schedules
As a rule the information gathered in each successive census
is progressively more detailed. The records for the period
1790 - 1840 show the names of heads of families only. Other
members of the family are simply listed as statistics by age
group, sex, and race (white or negro).
Beginning in 1850 and after, the censuses list each individual
in a household by name. One exception is the slave censuses
for 1850 and 1860, which show the name of the owner and the
number of slaves he owned by age, group and sex. Unfortunately,
the vast majority do not show the names of the slaves. However,
a few schedules have been found which do list names. If
researching Black ancestry it is worthwhile to check these
The 1850 census was the first to record each person's age,
occupation (if over age 15), and place of birth. If the parent
of a person listed in the 1870 census was of foreign birth, that
fact is indicated. The 1880 census adds the relationship of each
individual to the head of the family, and gives the place of
birth of the parents of the person listed.
Disaster Strikes the 1890 Census
Most of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire. The few surviving
fragments were microfilmed and are available on Series M407 Rolls
1, 2, and 3. The few that remain cover the following areas:
- Roll 1
Perry County (Perryville Beat 11 and Severe Beat 8)
- Roll 2
- DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:
Streets Q, R, S, 13th, 14th,
15th, Riggs, Johnson Ave.
- Roll 3
Muscogee county (Columbus)
McDonough county (Mound Township)
Wright county (Rockford)
- NEW JERSEY:
Hudson county (Jersey City)
- NEW YORK:
Westchester county (Eastchester)
Suffolk county (Brookhaven Township)
- NORTH CAROLINA:
(South Point and River Bend Townships)
Cleveland county (Township No. 2)
Hamilton county (Cinncinnati)
Clinton county (Wayne Township)
- SOUTH DAKOTA:
Union county (Jefferson Township)
Ellis county (Justice Precinct No. 6, Mountain Peak
and Ovila Precinct), Hood county (Precinct No. 5)
Rusk County (Precinct No. 6 and Justice Precinct No. 7)
Trinity County (Trinity Town and Precinct No. 2)
Kaufman County (Kaufman).
Luck and the 1890 Census
Due to a bit of fortuitous luck, an additional census for 1890
was conducted. The 1890 Special Census of Union Veterans and
Widows was also taken in 1890. It's existence helps to partially
fill what would have otherwise been a huge 20 year gap in the
Federal census records.
The 1890 Special Census of Union Veterans and Widows of Union
Veterans of the Civil War gives information about the military
service of each veteran named and the post office address of
each listed person who was living at the time of the census.
The 1900 census consisted originally of 7 schedules. Two
population schedules were prepared, one for native Americans
and one for all other residents. These are the schedules that
are Reproduced as microfilm publication T623. The five remaining
schedules, containing information on agriculture, manufacturers,
mortality, and crime, are not available from the National
Archives at this time.
The 1900 census gives for each person: name; address; relationship
to the head of the household; color or race; sex; month and year
of birth; age at last birthday; marital status; if a wife is
listed within the household, then the number of years married,
number of children born of that marriage, and the number of
children living; places of birth of each individual and of the
parents of each individual; citizenship; if the individual is
foreign born, then the year of immigration and the number of years
in the United States; the citizenship status of foreign born
individuals over age 21; occupation; whether or not the person can
read, write, and speak English; whether home is owned or rented;
whether or not home is a farm; and whether or not home is
The 1910 census schedules record the following information for
each person: name; relationship to head of household; sex; color
or race; age at last birthday; marital status; length of present
marriage; if a mother, number of children and number of living
children; place of birth; place of birth of parents; if foreign
born, year of immigration and citizenship status; language
spoken; occupation; type of industry employed in; if employer,
employee, or self-employed; if unemployed; number of weeks
unemployed in 1909; if home is rented or owned; if home is
owned, free or mortgaged; if home is a house or a farm; if a
survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy; if blind in
both eyes; and if deaf or dumb. The forms used to survey
Indians also recorded the tribe and/or band.
The 1920 census format and information closely resembles that
of the 1910 census. The 1920 census, however, did not ask about
unemployment on the day of the census, nor did it ask about
service in the Union or Confederate army or navy. Questions
about how long a couple had been married were also omitted. The
bureau modified the enumeration of inmates of institutions and
dependent, defective, and delinquent classes.
The 1920 census includes four new questions: one asking the
year of naturalization and three about mother tonque.
Because of the changes in some boundaries following World War I
enumerators were instructed to report the province (state or
region) or city of persons declaring they or their parents had
been born in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, or Turkey. If a
person had been born in any other foreign country, only the
name of the country was to be entered.
The instructions to the enumerators did not require that
individuals spell out their names. Enumerators wrote down the
information given to them; they were not authorized to request
proof of age, date of arrival, or other information. People
were known to change their ages between censuses, and some
people claimed not to know their age. The race determination
was based on the enumerator's impressions.
Individuals were listed as residents of the place in which they
regularly slept, not where they worked or might be visiting.
People with no regular residence, including "floaters" and
members of transient railroad or construction camps, were
enumerated as residents of the place where they were when the
census was taken. Enumerators were also to ask if any family
members were temporarily absent; if so, these were to be listed
either with the household or on the last schedule for the census
subdivision. Thus, the user should always check that page.
The official census date was April 1, 1930. After filming
the census in 1949, the Bureau of the Census destroyed the
originals. The 1930 population schedules are reproduced as
National Archives Microfilm Publication T626 (2,667 rolls).
An oddity found in the 1930 census is that there are only
2,667 rolls but the last roll number is 2,668. During filming,
the Bureau of the Census accidentally skipped from roll 1601
to 1603. Because of the error, there is no roll 1602.
Rolls 1601 and 1603 include Queens, New York. National
Archives' staff have verified that every enumeration district
for Queens was microfilmed.
Though Farm Schedules, Unemployment Schedules, Supplemental
Indian Schedules were taken, none of these records have been
located with the exception of the farm schedules for Alaska,
Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Those schedules are in the process of being microfilmed.
The Supplemental Indian schedules were destroyed but Native
Americans are found in the general population on the population
What's different in the 1930 census from the earlier census records?
In 1930, Native Americans were enumerated in the general
In 1920, the census asked "if naturalized, year of
naturalization." In 1930, the Census asked only if the
person had been naturalized.
The 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses asked if a person owned
or rented a house. In 1930, the schedules also included the
value of the home or the amount of rent paid each month.
The 1930 census asked if the home had a radio. It also
asked a person's age at the time of his or her first marriage.
In 1930, the census asked which specific war a man fought in.
ED numbers for institutions are listed at the end of the Soundex
indexes for each state, except for Georgia, which does not
include institutions. Institutions are distributed throughout
the schedule microfilms.
SOUNDEX: Index to the census records
Produced by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the
Depression, Soundexes are an index to the families listed in the
1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 Federal census records. Basic
information about each family was written down on 3 x 5 cards.
Each family's surname was coded according to the "Soundex Rules"
and then each card was hand sorted by the code and thereafter by
the given name of the head of household.
The result was that families whose surnames sounded alike were
grouped together on the microfilm, even though the alphabetical
spelling might normally have placed it elsewhere.
Example: SMITH vs SMYTH
Both of the above surnames use the soundex code of S530, so you
will find them close to one another on the microfilm.
Soundex films are organized by year, state, soundex code and
thereafter by the given name of the head-of-household.
It should be noted that soundex microfilm rolls exist for many,
but not all states and years. They are also on 16 millimeter
film; whereas the Federal census microfilms were filmed on 35mm.
When searching for a family it is essential to know the E.D.
(enumeration district) number and county where the family
resided. Without this information, finding the correct census
microfilm roll is still possible, but you will find that in
some cases you will need to search many rolls in order to
cover an entire county or state. One way to reduce the amount
of time it will take to locate the family is by learning the
E.D. number and county of residence through a "Soundex Search."
Soundex Searches can only be done for the census years 1880,
and 1900-1920. For 1910 only 21 states have Soundex microfilms.
They include: AL, AR, CA, FL, GA, IL, KS, KY, LA, MI, MS, MO,
SC, NC, OH, OK, PA, TN, TX, VA, and WV. The 1880 Soundex picks
up only families with a child in the household under the age
Soundex (indexes) exist for the following states:
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi,
North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
In addition, there are also Soundexes for selected counties
in Kentucky and West Virginia.
For Kentucky only the following counties are indexed:
Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Kenton, Muhlenberg, Perry, and Pike.
For West Virginia only the following counties are indexed:
Fayette, Harrison, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, and
The Soundexes for 1930 were prepared in the 1960s, by the
Bureau of the Census, however, only the aforementioned
Southern states were done.
Important Note on the Soundex
The Soundexes have fallen into disuse; since printed and digital
census indexes are now available for most Federal census
records. One word of caution: Errors have occurred in the
printed and digital census indexes. If you fail to find your
ancestor, a search of the Soundex microfilm might help locate
The Soundex films are available from the National Archives
and at most major research libraries in the U.S.