The 1870 – 1940 census information is the official way that the country keeps track of how many people are living in each town, city, county/parish, state, and in the entire country. Every 10 years, the Census is conducted in an effort to record basic data about the people of the United States. Beyond numbers of people, the Census also records age, name, race (or ethnic background), citizenship status of each person, and the total information for each household. This can give a snapshot of what a family looks like in a given year. For individuals doing research into their own family history, using Census data is incredibly helpful, especially for the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
While the Census is meant to collect information from everyone, naturally that is not always successfully accomplished. People can refuse to fill out their Census form, or Census forms get lost, names are misspelled, or records are kept inaccurately. While many pitfalls exist for people researching their genealogy through the Census, it still remains an incredible tool for most. With a little bit of determination and thoroughness, you may find just what you are looking for.
Between 1870 and 1940, a number of changes occurred in the United States. Slavery was abolished and the names of black Americans started to be recorded as part of the 1870 U.S. Census. In 1921, the 1890 Census forms were lost in a warehouse fire. Some still exist but are very limited to a few geographic areas.
In Louisiana, you are in luck if you had “kin folk” in Ascension Parish in 1890 because their census index was not destroyed.
In 1902, the Census Act was signed by Theodore Roosevelt, creating a dedicated census office for the federal government. Before 1902, census forms were collected locally, and there was a considerable amount of fraud involved. Many municipalities were hoping to go from territories to states, and would bump up their numbers with fake people or duplicate names. Others, in an effort to pay less in taxes, would throw out a certain percentage of forms to make their population seem smaller.
With all these challenges, it is important to remember that your search of the census record will not be straightforward or fast. Give yourself time and create a research log, then start your searches. All census records are available up to until 1940. The 1940 census search by name is a great feature. There are a large number of websites that offer family history search capabilities of the census records, and when you search you may find too much or nothing at all.
Just as the spelling of a surname can be spelled differently, so can given names. Remember to try all variations of names, such as Eliza, Liza, Liz, Beth, and Elizabeth, and jot down each search you complete in your research log to keep all those attempts straight. Include a town if you have that information, but remember that the simpler the search, the more results you will receive. Try everything before giving up on the census. While the information may have been lost or destroyed, it’s far more likely that you will find some real gems about your family history if you trace it back through the decades using the U.S. Census.
The Census Bureau’s National Processing Center (NPC) is located in Jeffersonville, IN and houses copies of census records from 1910 to 2000. Because of the “72 years” rule, the census records from 1940 were released on April 2, 2012. After 72 years have passed, personal records are available for viewing or to be purchased through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) can obtained census records online. Visit the National Archives website for invaluable census information to assist in your search.
by Leonard Smith