African Americans in the U.S. Federal Census, 1870-1890 (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Researching the late nineteenth century, from Reconstruction immediately following the Civil War to the eve of the twentieth century, can be both a blessing and a curse for many African American families.

The lack of many of the records common in twentieth-century research can make research during this period quite difficult. Many records for African Americans were kept separately from other records and maintained with less vigor, leading to some record loss. Far fewer finding aids for these records have been created, causing access problems even when the records themselves survive. Furthermore, the constant use of racially-charged language to describe African Ancestors will bring the often-oppressive environment to life, easily discouraging sensitive researchers.

Even worse, during this period, many African Americans—some using surnames for the very first time—changed their surnames once or even several times. The same family may appear with different surnames in the 1870 and 1880 federal census records, and may appear in other records with either, both, or a third surname altogether. Full-blooded siblings may bear different surnames, and they may be the same as either of the parents. A full exploration of how slaves decided upon the surname by which they would become known as freedmen has never been completed.

On the other hand, the period immediately following the Civil War—called Reconstruction—witnessed the creation of a treasure trove of records containing unique information about African Americans. The records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands are voluminous, focusing primarily on African Americans in the southern states. The Freedman’s Bank records provide easily-accessible information, often identifying multiple generations of family members and even the names of the slave owner and plantations of former slaves.

Overcoming the missing 1890 census[edit | edit source]

The majority of the 1890 census no longer survives. This census serves as a sort of “gatekeeper” between our families in the twentieth century, and their nineteenth-century antecedents. Unless your family was lucky enough to have lived in one of the few counties that survived, you will need to find an alternative means to trace your family.

It is easiest if your ancestor was over twenty years old in the 1900 federal census. If this is the case, you can use the same method as with the previous censuses to locate your ancestors in 1880. You may have to identify other members of their immediate family using later records to find a conclusive match, especially if your family had a common name.

Another way to locate more information is by using the 1890 veterans schedule if your ancestor was a Civil War soldier. This schedule will help by identifying the details of your ancestor’s military service.

Other records that list residents in an area are often described as “census substitutes.” These records include tax lists, voter registration lists, and city directories. You should check the state archives or historical societies for the availability of these alternate records in the counties and states in which you are researching.

Some states also produced their own state censuses in the period between the surviving 1880 and 1900 federal censuses. These include:

  • Colorado, in 1885 (special federal census);
  • Florida, in 1885;
  • Hawaii, in 1890;
  • Iowa, in 1885 and 1895;
  • Kansas, in 1885 and 1895;
  • Michigan, in 1884, 1888 (Union veterans), and 1894;
  • Minnesota, in 1885 and 1895;
  • Nebraska, in 1885;
  • New Jersey, in 1885 and 1895;
  • New Mexico, in 1885 (federal territorial);
  • New York, in 1892;
  • North Dakota, in 1885;
  • Ohio, quadrennial censuses in 1883, 1887, 1891, 1895, and 1899 (availability varies by county);
  • Oklahoma, in 1890;
  • Oregon, in 1885 and 1895 (only a few counties survive);
  • Rhode Island, in 1885;
  • South Dakota, in 1885 (federal territorial) and 1895;
  • Tennessee, in 1891;
  • Washington, in 1883, 1885, 1887, 1889, 1891, and 1892 (availability varies by county);
  • Wisconsin, in 1885 and 1895.

Using the 1880 census to identify families[edit | edit source]

The same methods for locating your family in the twentieth century census records will help you locate your family in the 1880 census. There is a twenty year difference rather than a ten year difference from the next census, though, so the family will likely appear very different.

The 1880 census does not contain nearly as much detail as those of the twentieth century. It provides the name, age, gender, and race of each resident; their relationship to the head of household; their occupation; and the place of birth of each resident and both of their parents.

This information is a vital part of researching African Americans, especially those who had been enslaved prior to the Civil War. Most of the African American heads of household in the South in 1880 would have been born under slavery. Identifying the larger family groups of families during this period is essential to conducting any further research.

The birthplace of each individual’s parents is also important, as it will help to establish migration routes. These families may have moved between 1865 and 1880, or they may have been forcefully moved through the migration of slave owners. Again, this information can be used to identify slave owners.

1880 U.S. Census - Calvin Kelly household

1880 U.S. Census, Navarro County, Texas, population schedule, enumeration district 127, page 15, dwelling 123, family 123, Calvin Kelley household; digital images,, NARA microfilm publication T9, FHL Film roll 1321.

1880 Census10G.jpg

The 1870 census: the first after emancipation[edit | edit source]

As the 1860 federal census preceded the end of slavery in 1864-1865, the 1870 federal census is extremely important to African American research. It is the first census to name all former slaves.

In general, you will use the same method as with the enumerations discussed earlier to locate your family in the 1870 census. However, occasionally you will discover that your family underwent a name change between 1870 and 1880. If you cannot find your family in 1870, try looking for their given names rather than just the surname.

Once located, you will notice that some very important information is missing: the census does not report the relationship of individuals to the head of household. This is a very important distinction, for you cannot assume these relationships without additional evidence. The census itself only constitutes indirect evidence. You should try to use other records to corroborate the presumed relationship, but the census may be the only evidence you can locate. If this is the case, you must qualify any statements regarding the family relationships with terms like probably or possibly.

Once you have traced your ancestor back to the 1870 federal census, the next step would be to confirm whether your ancestor was free or enslaved in 1860. Use the now-familiar process to attempt to locate your ancestor by name in the 1860 population schedule. If you can find them here, try again in 1850. If you find your ancestor by name in both census years, identified as a free African American, you are quite likely to be able to locate additional county records to provide more information.

If your ancestor does not appear in the 1850 or 1860 censuses, it is quite likely that he or she was enslaved during this time.Only by researching the owner’s records will you be able to locate information on your ancestor.

1870 U.S. Census - Calvin Kelly household


1870 U.S. Census, Navarro County, Texas, population schedule, Beat 1, Corsicana post office, page 1, dwelling 3, family 3, Calvin Kelly household; digital images,; citing NARA microfilm publication M593, FHL Film roll 1600.

1870 U.S. Census - Calvin Kelly household - Enlarged 1870 U.S. Census, Navarro County, Texas, population schedule, Beat 1, Corsicana post office, page 1, dwelling 3, family 3, Calvin Kelly household; digital images,; citing NARA microfilm publication M593, FHL Film roll 1600.



Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.