In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

March 21, 2008

6. Census Records

U.S. Census

Beginning in 1790, the United States launched a project to perform a complete census of the country every 10 years. The early census results, particularly in 1790, were incomplete - but in the following decades the project became more extensive and resulted in most people in the organized States being included. The unorganized territories were more difficult - but census results became progressively more inclusive over the years. The information included in early census records consisted primarily of the name of the head of the household and the number of other residents of the household collectively in broad age categories for males and females. It was not until 1850 that census records began to include every person by name and age - thus making them a prime starting point for family researchers. The other information included in the records varied over the years. By 1880 the records included the birth places of parents. The 1890 census is noteworthy in that almost all of the original records were destroyed as a result of a fire in the building where they were stored. Interestingly, they were not all burned in the fire, as many people assume. They were, however, seriously damaged by fire, smoke, and water - and the means to recover and restore them on the scale that would have been required didn't really exist at the time. Therefore, Congress decided that it was not worth the effort and expense to attempt to recover them and ordered the remains of the records to be destroyed.

State Census Records & Local Tax Records

While Federal census records are an essential tool in tracking the location, movement, and makeup of families that you are trying to research, they only provide a data point every 10 years. Throughout the 1800s and well into the 1900s there was a rapid migration of the U.S. population westward - and some families moved numerous times over a period of 10 years. Two other potential data sources for tracking families within these 10 year windows are State Census records and county tax lists. A number of States conducted their own census for one or more specific years - in some case on a regular basis for an extended period. Illinois, for instance, did their own census for the year the state was formed in 1818. They later conducted a State census for 1835, 1845, 1855, and 1865. However, these did not include all counties and the returns were not preserved for all counties where they were conducted. But where they do exist they can help to fill in gaps for families that you may be researching. More complete censuses were conducted between the Federal censuses in Iowa and Kansas - and these are more complete and very useful sources. Some of these continued well into the 1900s. Several other states also conducted intermediate censuses or one-time special censuses - so, in researching in any state, you may want to check for the existence of these data sources.

Local tax records are another important source. They do not contain as much information as census records but can be very useful for tracking a specific family's location during years when there was no census. And they may be the only source for census type information prior to 1790. In Virginia, for instance, researchers have used individual tax records to compile something akin to a census. The first records that I've found for one of my, Moses Estes, are the tax records for 1788 and 1789 in the Cumberland River settlement in Tennessee. His parents and siblings had joined James Robertson's group in traveling overland through Kentucky from the Holston River area to Fort Nashboro in 1779.

Some Common Problems With Census Records

In searching for an individual or a specific family in census records you are likely to encounter several common problems. First, realize that the census enumerations were done by many different individuals. Some were very careful - but many weren't. There are the usual issues of legibility of handwriting and deterioration of paper records over many decades before they were microfilmed. But, beyond that, the people doing the enumerations just wrote down what they thought they heard from whomever was available at the household at the time they made their visit. In addition to spelling the names in their own way, they often misunderstood the names. Given names were often recorded by whatever the individuals were called within their family - by initials or nicknames in many cases. Ages were recorded as best the person providing the information could remember - and, if they were working in the fields or elsewhere they were not about to go look up the exact information from a family bible or other source. The result is that when you look at the records for the same family over a period of 3 or 4 or 5 different census records there will almost always be discrepancies - most commonly in ages - but also in names. So, especially for ages, census records are just a starting point - and an individual record should not normally be used as a definitive source record for age of the person.

Problems With Census Index Records

Before you can even begin to look at the census records for a specific family you first have to be able to find the records. That means first finding the name of the "head of household" in an index for the specific State and locality. That's not always as easy as it sounds - even if you know what State and locality to start with. Just as with the enumerators, the people who manually prepared the indices for the early census records varied in the accuracy with which they carried out that function. When you look at the family records, knowing in advance what the names should be, it may be easy for you to immediately recognize the name. But for someone preparing an index by manually going through long lists of names in various qualities of handwriting and not having any way to know what the names were supposed to have been it was often difficult to get them right - even if the enumerator got them right in the first place. For uncommon names there can be a lot of variation. For instance, one line that I have researched quite a bit is McIlravy which, even by the same families had variant spellings including McElravy and McElreavy. But, in census indices, I have found the name rendered, in addition to the above spellings, McRavy, McRavey, McErava, MacElerevey, McElravey, McAlroney, McAlravey, McIlravey, McIlaray, McClravy.

To try to accommodate for the variations in spelling of names, later census records use a "Soundex" index system in which names are indexed based on groupings of letters that have similar sounds. In a search of a Soundex index the results will include a longer list of matches and you will find many names that don't seem to be relevant to the one that you are searching. But you will also find common misspellings of the name you are searching - such as the ones in the example above.

This is an example of a 1900 census record for Joplin Township, Jasper County, MO which was mis-indexed and, therefore, very hard to locate. The head of household outlined in blue was indexed as "Charles Farrie" - and the two sons as John and William Farrie. Charlotte Farris, the widow of my uncle was last previously located in Chautauqua County KS in 1880. Since the sons appeared in later census returns in Jasper County, MO, I assumed that she had also moved there. I found this census record while researching George Page (the listing at the top of the page) who was a nephew of Charlotte Farris - and a son of the person listed below that family, Rebecca Coulton, a sister of Charlotte.

Families in Census Records

Suppose you are trying to determine the parents of your from census records. You find him listed in one or more census records in a family headed by John and Elizabeth Smith. Were these his parents? Not necessarily. Although there is a high probability that they were, you can't use the census record as proof that they were. In their migrations westward, siblings and their families very frequently migrated together. Mortality rates were high for a variety of reasons - and children very often ultimately ended up being raised by aunts and uncles with the same surname, as part of a family along with their cousins. Families formed and reformed so that a blended family group often consisted of siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings, cousins, and even unrelated orphans with different surnames. In some cases, children were raised by their grandparents rather than by their parents. In early census records the true relationships may not be obvious. I know, for instance, in my grandparents family even in the 1920 census the family shows four children with the same surname and little indication that they weren't siblings. But everyone knew that my "Uncle Myron" and "Aunt Mabel" were actually second cousins of my mother and her sister. Someone researching that family just from census records in the future could easily miss that distinction.

My advice is to use census records as a good starting point for family research. But don't accept them as necessarily being accurate or complete. Verify everything with other records if possible.

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries

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