As we noted previously, studying census records plays another key role in searching for ancestors. Census records track families as they grow, move to new frontiers, into the cities, or perhaps just stay put on the family farm with family members scattered within walking distance nearby.
Study the old handwriting, compare unknown names or words to letters and words which you clearly know. But, know that the old fancy cursive is different from what we’re familiar with in today’s handwriting. I became familiar with it when researching and copying old deeds as a young secretary years ago, learning the old language of legal documents in the process.
I use two methods for keeping census records – one is to write all data on 4x6 lined index cards, and the other is using blank 8x10 census forms. I eventually acquired several hundred index cards filed alphabetically in a handy shoebox. I find them easier to refer to than the large census forms which, admittedly, are the more accurate. The large blank forms are also used as a guide to what data to include on index cards from each census.
Before searching census records, you should also know they, too, may contain errors. At times, the enumerator may have been given wrong information, or misspelled first and last names depending on his own abilities. When copying data, be sure to include the way names were misspelled, along with the known correction.
For example, I tracked a McNeill descendant whose father had removed his family from Carlisle to Decatur, New York and later to the state of Maine. I knew his daughter, Appolonia Livingston McNeill, by baptism record. She married William Smyth(e) and lived in Bangor, Maine. By census records, her unmarried sister, Sarah McNeil(l), lived with them. I followed the Smyth(e) family in Bangor by census, and the family’s billiard hall by city business directory. I could not locate Appolonia in the important 1900 census, assuming she died after 1880. Searching for her sons, I was surprised to find Appolonia as a widow, listed on the 1900 census by her middle name as Livingston A. Smyth. She then resides with her twin sons in Portland, Oregon where she dies and is buried per death record I purchased. Wondering what brought them to the far side of the continent, I can only speculate that perhaps they later enjoyed Portland’s 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition. I have not had time nor funds to pursue further research on the family among Maine or Oregon records, though I did obtain a few free cemetery records online.
Every ten years since 1790, our federal government has gathered a national census. Very few records remain of the 1890 census as most were destroyed by fire and water damage in 1921. In 1934, rather than make attempts to restore the balance of records, they were destroyed by the U. S. Department of Commerce despite a public outcry. The 1890 census was different from previous with in-depth questions about each family member and Civil War service, and would have been invaluable to researchers!
State censuses are equally as important. Taken randomly, they are a little-known or seldom-used resource. Typically collected by states every ten years, in years ending in “5,” New York did so in 1790, 1825 through 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925.
For privacy reasons, census records are not available to the public until 70 or so years later, the 1940 census being released in April 2012. Records available to the public from 1790 through 1940 are found at a county clerk’s office, online by subscription at Ancestry.com, on microfilm through the Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with some census records transcribed and placed online at county genweb sites. As a way to pay back other generous contributors, I transcribed the 1810 census for Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York. I’ve wanted to do more, but have not had time to go back and transcribe additional census records for online usage. And that was back when I had the slow dial-up internet, not my fast click’n-go high speed!
Initial census records provide limited data. The 1790 census includes city, county, state, page, date, name of head of household, males under and over age 16, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves.
The 1800 census begins to break down age groups by years, with 1820 including occupations in agriculture, commerce, manufacturing. The 1830 census includes the deaf and blind, but no occupations. The 1840 again includes age groups for males, females, free colored persons and slaves, but also occupations of mining, agriculture, commerce, navigation of ocean, canals, lakes and rivers, learned professional engineers; pensioners for Revolutionary or military services; the deaf, dumb, blind and insane; data regarding one’s education, and those who cannot read or write.
The 1850 census is also a key census as it’s the first to list the name and age of every household member along with numbering the dwellings/houses and families of a town. From 1850 through 1940, data may include the name of each household member, age, sex (which helps when a given name is not gender specific or is illegible), number of children born to a mother, marital status, years of marriage, state or country of birth, birth places, year of immigration, street address, occupations, value of the home, etc.
The 1880 census is free at both Ancestry.com and the LDS Family Search website. The census for 1900 gives month and year of birth along with other family and professional data. The 1910 through 1940 censuses are more in depth than previous. Regardless, all census records contain a wealth of vital information on your ancestors!
COMING NEXT – Military Records
Original blog post at: Homespun Ancestors - Your Family Tree #8