What Can U.S. Census Data Tell Me about My Family?

September 27, 2018  - by 

Juliana Tate, a young genealogist, and Sunny Morton, accomplished blogger and author, both contributed to the writing of this article.

United States census records can reveal more of your family history than you may think! Learn where your relatives lived and with whom, about their work and schooling, when immigrant ancestors arrived and more. Here’s what U.S. census data might tell you about your family.

Is Your Family in the U.S. Census?

If your ancestors lived in the United States after 1790, chances are they were counted in each U.S. census taken during their lifetime. Before U.S. government offices created birth, marriage, and death records for U.S. residents, the federal government took censuses every 10 years. These are some of the most important genealogical sources for U.S. ancestry. Following the American Revolutionary War and beginning in 1790, U.S. federal censuses captured basic information–and sometimes a lot more–for every qualifying household.

Who doesn’t generally appear in old census records? From 1790–1840, census takers listed only the names of each head of household. Other family members were simply counted. In the 1860 census and before, enslaved people were generally not listed by name, only as tick marks in the households of their slaveholders. (Read more about finding African Americans in censuses before 1870.) Native Americans were not generally included on the main part of the census before 1900, but special census schedules do exist for some. (Read more about Native Americans in U.S. censuses.)

What Can You Learn about Your Ancestors?

U.S. Census data since 1880 often reveals exactly the kind of information you need to reconstruct your family tree. It also offers a window into your ancestors’ everyday lives, as 16-year-old Juliana Tate learned when she began searching for her ancestors’ names in census forms while doing genealogy.

Juliana found her relatives John William Tate and his wife, Elizabeth, listed in Tooele, Utah, in the 1900 census. “They had 13 children, ages 41 to 1, all living there,” she says. As she looked at each column in the census record, Juliana could see:

  1. Each family member’s name, relationship to the head of household (John), race, sex, birth month and year, age, marital status, and years married.
  2. How many children Elizabeth had given birth to (14), and that all were still living. (One child was no longer living at home.)
  3. Each person’s birthplace and the birthplaces of their parents.
  4. Whether they immigrated to the U.S. (which was not the case for John’s family).
  5. The occupation of each family member, including some of the children, and any time they spent unemployed.

1900 US Census, how to use US Census, US Census data

Utah, Tooele County, 1900 U.S. census, population schedule. Digital image from FamilySearch.org.

When Juliana took time to digest this information, she could start to see the shape of this family’s busy daily life. “John was a merchant, and his second-oldest son was likely his assistant. His oldest and the third oldest were farm laborers, and his daughters, ages 10–17, were all enrolled at school.” A final column on the census record, not shown here, indicates that the family lived on a farm, possibly run by those 2 sons.

Juliana notes that the family appeared to value hard work and schooling. “John had a career which probably required an education. His daughters were attending high school. The older boys appeared to be welcome to live at home until they got onto their feet.”

What Should You Do With U.S. Census Data?

As Juliana did, it’s a good idea to note every detail in a census form in your family records. First, extract all the genealogical information you can from the census form, and add it to your family tree, whether it’s an online tree like the FamilySearch Family Tree or a tree you keep in your own software. You can add details pertaining to the entire family, not just the ancestor from whom you directly descend. Their stories and documents may shed more light on the ancestors in whom you’re most interested. Note the source for each family record, and, if possible, attach an image of the census page to each person’s profile.

United States Census data, Families in U.S. Census

Next, look for the stories told by the information in the census. What do you notice about the family structure, the kind of work they did, their education, their neighbors?

Once you have this recorded, look for each relative that you found in that census (including all of their household) in every other U.S. census taken during the person’s lifetime. U.S. censuses are available for every 10 years between 1790 and 1940. (The 1950 census will become available to the public in 2022.) Each census year contains slightly different information. Censuses taken across a person’s lifetime will tell you much more about him or her. For example, 10 years after the above census, 7 Tate children still lived with their parents. The second son had become a store manager, and a daughter was working in a store too. Doing this thorough search can add rich context to a family’s history and helps you find interesting insight into an ancestor’s life story.

Finally, use what you learn in census records to locate other records about your relatives–both to confirm various pieces of evidence and to expand the story. For example, Juliana discovered John Tate’s parents’ immigration records from England in 1853–the same year John was born in Wyoming. “Ann must have been pregnant during immigration, and they must have stopped first in Wyoming,” Juliana guesses. “I imagine how hard that journey must have been for her: getting on a boat pregnant, feeling double the nausea every time the boat tossed, making the pioneer trek from New York to Wyoming to Utah with their children.”

Additionally, in an article about the history of education in Utah, Juliana learned that in 1910, just over half of Utah’s 16- and 17-year olds attended high school. “I can imagine 10 years earlier, it was even less,” she said. “This makes the census entry even more meaningful. John ensured that his girls were educated and could take care of themselves.”

She concludes, “I know that when you look at a census, it seems drab, perhaps even useless. But look at the stories that can be told in just those 15 lines of the 1900 census!” She’s right–census entries can reveal your family history in meaningful and unexpected ways.

historic images, US Census

Try Searching U.S. Census Records Yourself:

Visit FamilySearch.org (or another favorite genealogy website), and search for your relatives in U.S. census records. If you have a tree on the site, search from a relative’s individual profile (so you don’t have to enter all their information) and limit your search results by record type to census records. Otherwise, enter a relative’s name in the main search box, and again limit search results to census records. If you need help, you can also read more about navigating U.S. census records and the differences in each census. FamilySearch also makes it easy to add historical records as sources to your respective ancestors as you discover each record.

For more on how to use U.S. census records:

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  1. Another bit of information one can sometimes extract from Census reports is a house number and street address. Often the census-taker records this along the left margin of the form. I then enter the address into Google maps and go to the street view. I can then see the house (current incarnation) of my ancestor’s house. I capture a picture and append it to my ancestor’s record in my tree. While I’m there, I navigate up and down the street to gain a flavor of the neighborhood making notes of anything significant.

    A different thing – learned from experience – is that it is always useful to examine several versions of the digitized census record. Some images are much more legible depending on which of the several available services you are using. Also, while in these alternative service census files, redo your search. The index may be different having been recorded by a different indexer than the other source you were using. Handwriting interpretation may vary (often significantly) from one service to another. I have found “lost” families in this way where the popular service had misinterpreted the handwriting and therefore indexed them incorrectly. But the competing service had them indexed correctly.


  2. For any American ancestors, the U.S. censuses are the first place I start my family research. Thank you for an excellent article.