Genealogy: 1920 U.S. federal census tutorial

 

1920 masthead 2By Barry J. Ewell

This is a comprehensive tutorial for researching the 1920 U.S. federal census. You will be introduced to what I have used and shared with thousands to successfully find generations of family. Begin by learning how to use the census as a foundation to effective research, identify, map, and follow family through generations.

The tutorial will expand your knowledge and skills of how to conduct an exhaustive search to find genealogical and Family History records, repositories, resolve research problems and connect with resources researching similar lines.

The tutorial is divided into the following sections:

  • 1790-1940 U.S federal census resources
  • Introduction to 1920 U.S. federal census
  • How to effectively use the 1920 U.S. federal census
  • Expand your census research with military records
  • Defining the U.S. federal census
  • How to use the 1920 U.S. federal census
  • Questions asked on the 1920 census

1920 resources
Click on any of the following years and you will be taken to that years’ census tutorial:

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  • U.S. census learning aids. Throughout the 1920 U.S. federal census tutorial find links to resources that I have specifically prepared to help you. In addition, I have written and assembled 190+ articles and resource aids to provide you a more in-depth understanding of the census research process.  I have tried to cover every possible question and angle that you are likely to face in your U.S. census research.  I would encourage you to use the resources often.  The category headings are as follows:
    • 190+ U.S. federal census articles and resource aids
      • U.S. federal census tutorials
      • Census and genealogy forms
      • Census research skills
      • Follow ancestors through the census
      • Researching names in the census
      • Defining ancestor age
      • Expanding census research to other resources
      • Expand your census research with military records
      • Census research best practices

1920 introduction
The following are a few of the details that are important to understand about the 1920 U.S. Federal census:

1920 Census MapNumber of persons included in the 1920 census: 106,021,537 people were living in the United States.

1920 census day:  January 1, 1920
1920 census duration: 1 month for rural districts or two weeks for populations over 2,500+
1920 census geography:

  • States and territories enumerated:  48 states and eight territories were included in the census.
  • Territories included: Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Panama Canal Zone, Philippines, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands
  • The available states include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

A few important facts about the 1920 census include:

  • Numeration date. The numeration date is January 1, 1920 with one month to complete the census which resulted in less people being missed as in prior census periods.
  • President during census. William H Taft
  • Census privacy. The 1920 census were ordered to keep the answers to the census strictly private and could not share the information with anyone.  This was the beginning of 72 year privacy rule.  The general public would not be allowed to view the content of the census for 72 years.
  • Birth and death records.  By 1920 most counties had started recording vital records (birth and death).  By 1925 vital records were recorded in all U.S. counties. Most persons who are recorded in this census will have a birth/death certificate.
  • Social Security Death Index.  If your ancestor is listed in this census, make sure you check the Social Security Death Index. See the article:
  • Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. This is the first census after WWI.  Following the war, many boundaries changed in Europe.  When persons were asked to where their parents were born, Enumerators were instructed to spell out the name of the city, state, province, or region of respondents who declared that they or their parents had been born in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. Because of the questions that were asked of these immigrants many researchers will be able to discover the exact towns or regions from which their families emigrated.
  • Soundex.  I have found the Soundex to be very helpful in searching for names that sound alike such as Ewell and Yule or Steward and Stuart but are spelled differently.  It uses a numbering system for letters which allows the name to be indexed by the way it sounds and not the way it is spelled.  I have used Soundex for parts of the 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 United States federal censuses. If you are not able to find your family through online search tools/engines, turn to the Soundex.  Tools such as Ancestry.com and MyHeritage feature the Soundex for their database.  The 1920 Soundex includes all states included the population schedules and overseas military and naval forces. See the article:
  • Institutions and military records.  Institutions are normally found at the end the enumeration sections. Servicemen were to be listed as members of their duty posts, not in their family’s enumerations
  • Questions omitted.  The 1920 census did not include questions on the number of children, years of marriage, military service, and unemployment that were found in the 1910 census.
  • Indian schedule.  Unlike the 1900 and 1910 census which had separate Indian population schedules, the 1920 census included Native Americans in the general population schedule.
  • 1923 statistical study on coal miners.  In 1923 a statistical study was conducted on coal miners listed in the 1920 census.  Codes related to the occupation would be as follows:
    • MH – coal miners who were also the heads of their households
    • BD – coal miners who were boarders in a household
    • BWF – coal miners who lived in their parent’s household
    • USC – “colored” coal miners who were born in the United States (for African American miners)
    • USW – “white” coal miners who were born in the United States (for Caucasian miners)

1920 Use
Learn how to use the census to effectively find generations of family.  Use the information and clues provided to build out your family tree and expand your research. I have provided a comprehensive review of each question that includes research insights, tips and tricks, and must know information to aid your research.

  • Location and Dwelling number (Col. 1 -3). We are provided with the city/town/village/borough, county, and state where the family resides. This can help in defining geographic areas to search for family and records.
    • Counted in order. The dwelling was the number of houses that were counted.
    • Cities only. The census taker recorded the following for those living in the city: Name of street, house number, dwelling number in order of visitation, and family number in order of visitation.
    • Top of the form. At the top of every census form we are provided with the following information: State, county, township or division of county (e.g., township, town, precinct, district or other civil division), name of institution, ward of city, supervisor’s district number, enumeration district number and enumeration date and enumerator.
    • Name of street and number in urban areas. This census provides the name of the street and house number in urban areas.
    • Websites. Search online for genealogy related websites that are hosted by historical and genealogical societies, city, county,  and state libraries/archives, civic and state government see the articles on searching the internet:
    • Societies. Search for a historical and/or genealogical society in the county to learn about community, records developed at the time you family lived in the area, connect with other genealogists who are researching the same surname, groups (i.e., church) to which your family belonged.
    • Use the location. Use the location to look for resources such as churches, cemeteries, courthouses, schools, funeral homes, libraries and much more.
    • Modern day repositories. Use the location to identify locations of modern day record repositories that are near the place you family lived (e.g., historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries, archives, court houses.)
  • Family Number (Col. 4). This was the actual number of families counted.
    • Order of household visited. The census is recorded in the order of households visited. Take special note of the dwelling location versus the family number. For example, you could have dwelling 1 and dwelling 2, but for dwelling two you could have families 2, 3 and 4 living in the dwelling 2.  This could be an apartment building or several families living in the same home.  If you have people living in the same building, we need to be asking how they are related.
    • Circle of influence. You can begin to build the circle of influence for your ancestors by seeing who the neighbors were.
    • Search the neighbors. Often neighbors move with neighbors.  Are they the same family? Members of the same congregation? Friends?  If you can’t follow family or find the family in the census, see if you can follow neighbors. Are the given names similar among the neighbors and your family? Similar names run in families.  This might be a clue that they are more than just neighbors. It has been my experience that neighbors, even when they don’t share the same name are related.  Look for the neighbors being the wife’s parents, sister of the husband, siblings of the wife, aunts and uncles and so forth.  When I couldn’t find my ancestors in location, I have searched on the names of know neighbors to find my family. Make sure you include the names of neighbors in your family profile.
  • Composition of the household (Col. 5). Provides members of the household by name.
    • As of January 1920.  List the persons who lived in the home as of January 1920.
    • Individual names. Individual names for those in the household.
    • List order. As a general format family members are listed in the following order: husband, wife, children by age, parents, brothers, sisters, and so forth.
    • Death or birth after January 1, 1920. Individuals who died or birth of children born after Aprils 15, 1920 were not included in the census.
    • Military records.  Make sure you search all the males in our family over of 1 year old for military records associated with possible service in the U.S. Military service.  Yes you read right when I said 1 year old.  Individuals who are 1 will most like be involved in the WWII.  The military service periods can include: Civil War (1861-1865), Indian Wars (before 1890), Spanish American War (1898). Search out the military records on not only your direct line but also male siblings, uncles, brother-in-laws, and cousins.  I have found important information about my direct line when reviewing the pension files of extended family. See the category “Search military records.”
    • Follow family through the census. Make it a priority to follow your family through censuses during their lifetime (e.g., federal, state, territorial, and local censuses) as well as census schedules if they exist (e.g., population, agriculture, manufacturing, social statistics, crime, mortality, veterans, slave.) The following articles will provide you a detailed example of following a family through the census.  See the articles:
    • Check original census. Always seek to see the images of the original census to compare against the transcription.
    • Search same surname. Look closely at persons with the same surname. Could they be a relative? Does the individual show up as a child in earlier census?  Search other records such as deeds, wills to see if the person shows up. Could individuals be in-laws? Check marriages of entire town, neighboring towns and county for husbands of sisters, aunts, and mothers.
    • Search pages before and after the listing of your ancestors. I have found it important to search for the surname several pages before and after the page where you find your family. This can also help in suggesting relationships between neighbors. Look for added clues such as given first names, occupations, places of origin.  When I contact the genealogical/historical societies, I have often sought to find the genealogists who are researching these surnames to compare research.
    • Extract all with same surname. Make it a practice to extract all the persons with the same surname living in the same county.  Are they family? They could be family connection or related connection such as where they came from.  If your family lives near a state our county border, go ahead and extract the persons with the same surnames from neighboring counties.  I have usually found important clues and connections among those with the same surname that has enhanced my research.
    • Nicknames. If you ancestor use a nickname, check to see if you can find the alternate names.    See the articles:
    • Ages of children.  I will always look carefully at the ages of the children and associate them with parents.  For example, if the mother is 28 and there are children who are children who are 10-14, you have to ask the question, “Is this the mother, or a second marriage?”  If a woman lost her husband and remarried, she will be listed as a wife, not a widow.  This census unlike the 1900 and 1910 census does not ask how long a couple has been married.
    • Birth and death records.  By1920 most counties had started recording vital records (birth and death).  By 1925 vital records were recorded in all U.S. counties. Most persons who are recorded in this census will have a birth/death certificate.
    • Social Security Death Index.  If you ancestor listed in this census lived past 1935, make sure you check the Social Security Death Index.
  • Relationship (Col. 6).  The census that asked for relationship to head of household.
    • Family relationship titles.  In this census you will be seeing titles such as husband, wife, son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, niece, nephew and so forth. When you see titles such as niece, nephew, uncle, aunt, you will still need to some investigation to understand which side of the family they belong. As you connect research from other census years, this will become clearer.
    • Non family titles. If the family isn’t related to the family, you will see titles like none, hired, servant, and so forth.
    • Wife many not be the mother of children.  Take special note of the wife as to whether she really is the mother of the children. Look at age gaps between children.  Is the age cap normal? For example, every two years.  Are the age gaps larger than expected? This could be a clue that there was another child or spouse that had passed away.  Look at age of husband and wife.  Are they about the same age? Is one spouse much older than the other?  If yes, this could be a clue that there is second marriage. Look at the ages of children and the place of birth.  This might provide clues of where the parents were married or from where the family migrated.
    • Discovering unknown surnames. The relationships column has been helpful in discovering previously unknown surnames for married daughters, mother-in-law, cousins, and other relatives living with the family.
    • Research all relationships. Make sure that you research all the relationships of your ancestors which include the siblings and their families (i.e., spouses, children), aunts and uncles, grandparents and even cousins.  As you build out the family tree, you will discover key pieces of information about your direct line when searching extended family.  For example, when I couldn’t find information about who were the parents of my direct line in the late 1800’s, I was able to learn the information from research I did on siblings.
  • Renting/ownership of home (Col. 7-8).  Answers to these questions can be clues to searching for land and tax records.
  • Sex (Col. 9). You will either see (M) for male and (F) for female.
  • Color or race (Col. 10) In this census these were the choices enumerators used for color White (W), Black (B), Chinese (Ch), Japanese (JP), Indian (IN), Mulatto (Mu), Other (Ot).  This information may be helpful in determining the person’s origins.
  • Age at last birthday (Col. 11). This is not exact date of birth, but it will provide a “ballpark” number that you can use in the help you track the person in the next census and search for birth event records of the time period.
    • Children under the age of 1. Children under the age of 1 were represented months as fractions such as 1/12 meaning 1 month, 4/12 meaning for months.
    • Search other records. There are good chances that many individuals listed in this census did not have civil birth records. I would always first check to see if there are birth records, and then look for church records. Start your search for these types of records at the genealogical/historical society.
    • Age gaps. Look at age gaps between children.  Is the age cap normal? For example, every two years.  Are the age gaps larger than expected? This could be a clue that there was another child or spouse that had passed away.  Look at age of husband and wife.  Are they about the same age? Is one spouse much older than the other?  If yes, this could be a clue that there is second marriage. Look at the ages of children and the place of birth.  This might provide clues of where the parents were married or from where the family migrated.
    • Children with same age.  If you find children who are the same age, don’t just assume they are twins. Make sure they are not cousins who are being raised in the same home.
    • See the article: 1920 U.S. Census birth year reference chart
  • Marital status (Col. 12).  In this series of columns we are told whether the person is single (s), married (M), widowed (Wd) or divorced (D).
    • Married one or more times. Look for enumerator marks such as M1 (first marriage), M2 (second marriage) M3 (third marriage) and so forth.  If you have marks such as M2/M3, you will need to look carefully at the family composition and build a strategy of the documents you will search for that are related to multiple marriages (e.g., marriage, divorce, death).  You will also need to compare the questions related to years married and the number of children associated with the mother.  Does the composition of the family match what you are finding?
    • Widowed.  If the person is widowed, consider looking for wills and probate records, military pensions, death event records of a spouse.
    • Divorced. If the person is divorced search court records for divorced proceedings.
    • Number of years in present marriage. This census unlike the 1900 and 1910 census does not ask how long a couple has been married.
  • Additional questions.  This is the first census after WWI.  Additional questions were asked of immigrants from Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, & Turkey. Some were even asked specific questions about town of origin for those born in other countries. Enumerators were instructed to spell out the name of the city, state, province, or region of respondents who declared that they or their parents had been born in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. Because of the questions that were asked of these immigrants many researchers will be able to discover the exact towns or regions from which their families emigrated.
  • Education (Col. 16-18). This identifies if the person had gone to school since September 1, 1919. This will provide clues to look for school records that can associate children with parents.  Look for records such as school census.
    • Cannot read and write. Use this information to confirm that you have the right person when searching other records. For example, you are searching wills of individuals with the same name of as your ancestor. The census records said that your ancestor could read and write. You find the wills of two persons with the same name. One marked his will with an X the other signed his name on the will.  The person using the X most likely couldn’t read or write. Since you are looking for a person who could read and write, the X should raise caution flags that this person may not be the person you are looking for.
  • Place of birth and mother tongue (Col. 19-24). This census provides the birthplace of each person along with the mother tongue. If born in the United States, they were to give the state or territory. If the individual had a foreign birth, they were to give the country.
    • Place of birth. This information is critical to helping you develop scenarios of where to search for family.
    • Narrow search. Use this information to narrow your search for records to geographic area even town. Also very helpful with clues to immigration and/or migration.
    • Mother tongue for mother and father. The enumerator was to record the first language the individual spoke.  If the language is other than English, also look carefully at the immigration columns.
    • Numerator code. When the enumerator recorded place of birth they could have used a two letter code for a state or they could have written the name of the state out or another abbreviation.  For example North Dakota could have been written as ND, North Dakota.  If you see a code that is only one letter such as O, could mean Oklahoma, Ohio, or Oregon.  Make no assumptions.  You will need to check the 1900 and 1910 census to see if you can find clues to help your resolve the limited information.
    • Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. Enumerators were instructed to spell out the name of the city, state, province, or region of respondents who declared that they or their parents had been born in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, or Turkey. Because of the questions that were asked of these immigrants many researchers will be able to discover the exact towns or regions from which their families emigrated.
  • Speaks English or other (Col. 25). If a person cannot speak English, it may be a clue that the person is an immigrant.  Look closely at the census columns 13-15 as they are related to citizenship.
  •  Occupation (Col. 26-28). This indicates the person’s occupation and related information can help one search for employment records.
    • Over age 15. The occupation was recorded for persons over age 15.
    • Professional directories. When occupations are mentioned, search for occupational directories. Directories can list as little as a name to entire profiles of families.
    • Occupation/trade. Look carefully at the person’s occupation/trade and define what types of records that might exist. You will see answers such as spinner, salesman, and laborer. I had an ancestor who was a merchant which led me to look for a business license, business/professional directory, ads for his business in the newspaper and related documents all of which I found. Another genealogist, had ancestor who was a member of the clergy which led them to search and find church records.
    • Enumerator codes.  You may see the letter E, or Emp, or Empl or the full word, Employer.  OA (on account), W (wage worker).
  • Number on farm schedule (Col. 29). If there is a number listed for a “Farm Schedule,”  look for the farm schedule associated with the 1920 census. When I have such information, it has helped me gain a better understanding of the family.

1920 military
Even though there is no information in the 1920 census that identifying veterans of war, there are still men living who served in one or more military wars and conflicts.  The records available for these veterans vary but can yield important clues and knowledge about the individual and their family. For example:

  • Pension applications. Search for pension applications and records of pension payments for veterans, their widows, and other heirs. The pension applications usually provide the most information and can include supporting documents such as marriage, birth, and dead records/certificates, pages from family Bibles, family letters, dispositions of witnesses, affidavits, discharge papers and other supporting documents. Even if you ancestor did not receive a pension, look to see if his pension request was denied.
  • Search family photographs and artifacts. Family photographs can be a great source for identifying which persons were involved in which war or military conflict they may have served.  It is rare to individuals serving in the military not have their photograph in their uniform. You may also find cards, letters, and related military memorabilia. I have also found the local newspaper to be a rich source information about family during periods of war.

Start your search by looking for these military records:

Early Indian Wars 1815-1858. Look for military records of men serving in the Early Indian Wars who are 80+ in the 1920 census. These men would have been born prior to 1840. See the article:

Mexican War 1846-1848. Look for military records of men serving in the Mexican Wars who are 90+ in the 1920 census.  These men would have been born prior to 1832. See the article:

Civil War 1861-1865. Look for military records of men who would have served in the U.S. Civil War who are 70+ in the 1920 census.  These men would have been born in 1855 and earlier.  Keep in mind that many young men lied about their age and served with their father, brother (s), or other family members.  If your ancestor lived in the Union or Confederate states that they could have very easily served in their army. Many men who were in the Union served in the Confederacy. And there are many men from the South that served in the Union Army. Make sure that you search for all male members of the family (i.e., father, sons, brothers, uncles, and nephews.)  The Civil War enlistment card will give you clues of your ancestor’s location and place of residence. See the articles:

Later Indian Wars (Before 1890. Look for military records of men serving in the later Indian Wars who are 50+ in the 1920 census. These men would have been born prior to 1880.

Spanish American War 1898. Look for military records of men serving in the Spanish American War who are 40+ in the 1920 census. These men would have been born prior to 1880.

World War I 1917-1919. Be aware that many of the males who are between the ages of 20-40 in the 1920 census were most like be involved in the most recent World War I. These men would have been born in 1900 and before. See the articles:

World War II 1917-1919. Be aware that many of the males who are under the age of 30 years old in the 1920 census will most like be involved or register for the draft in the future World War II. These men would have been born in 1910 and before. See the articles:

Researching military headstones. Military headstones have evolved through time. See the following articles for details:

1920 defining
A census is a government-sponsored enumeration of the population in a particular area and contains a variety of information — names, heads of household (or all household members), ages, citizenship status, ethnic background, and so on. Here are some different types of census records you are likely to come across in your research.

U.S. federal census is also called a population schedule. Federal census records provide the building blocks of your research, allowing you to both confirm information and to learn more. Compiled in the United States for every decade since 1790, census population schedules are comprehensive, detailed records of the federal government’s decennial survey of American households. Information from the schedules is used by the federal government for demographic analysis.

The schedules themselves, of interest primarily to genealogists, contain the personal information of the survey respondents. To protect the privacy of the people whose names appear in each schedule, census records are restricted for 72 years after the census is taken and are not available to researchers during that time.

1920 using 2How to use the 1920 U.S. federal census
I’ve effectively used the 1920 census to conduct find and use the following information:

  • Identify head of household
  • Identify members of household by name
  • Identify relationships—surnames of married daughter, mother-in-law, cousins, other relatives
  • Indicate that wife may not be mother of kids
  • Identify ages of individuals by name
  • Begin to establish family relationships (e.g., spouse, children, siblings, parents)
  • Identify people of color: White (W), Black (B), Chinese (Ch), Japanese (JP), Indian (IN), Mulatto (Mu), Other (Ot).
  • Begin to identify possible remarriages and step relationships
  • Identify birthplace of parents-immigrant information
  • Supplement birth/marriage info. Due to relationship info.
  • Locate and identify birthplaces
  • Identify month of birth
  • Identify year of marriage
  • Determine year of immigration
  • Identify occupations
  • Locate and identify real estate
  • Locate and identify family who are neighbors
  • Identify spelling variations
  • Locate and identify family in other census substitute records (e.g., probate inventories, tax lists)
  • Locate and identify children not yet known
  • Locate and identify possible parents
  • Locate and identify possible children not listed in later censuses
  • Differentiate between families of the same name
  • Locate and identify possible neighbors who might be family
  • Give clues to genetic symptoms or diseases

See the article: Build a family profile

1920 questions
The following are the questions found in the 1910 United States Census.

PLACE OF ABODE
Col. 1: Street, avenue, road, etc.
Col. 2: House number (In cities)
Col. 3: Dwelling Number
Col. 4: Family Number

NAME
Col. 5: Name of each person whose place of abode on January 1, 1920, was in this family.

  • Enter surname first, then the given name and middle initial, in any.
  • Include every person living on January 1, 1920.
  • Omit children born since January 1, 1920.

RELATIONSHIP
Co. 6: Relationship of this person to the head of the family

TENURE
Col. 7: Home owned or rented
Col. 8: If owned, free or mortgaged

PERSONAL DESCRIPTION
Col. 9: Sex
Col. 10: Color or race
Col. 11: Age at last birthday
Col. 12: Single, married, widowed, divorced

CITIZENSHIP
Col. 13: Year of immigration to the United States
Col. 14: Naturalized or alien
Col. 15: If naturalized, year of naturalization

EDUCATION
Col. 16: Attended school since 9/1/1919
Col. 17: Whether able to read
Col. 18: Whether able to write

NATIVITY AND MOTHER TONGUE
Place of birth of each person and parents of each person enumerated.  If born in US, give the state or territory.  If foreign birth, give the place of birth and mother tongue.
Col. 19: Person—Place of birth
Col. 20: Person—Mother Tongue
Col. 21: Father—Place of birth
Col. 22: Father—Mother Tongue
Col. 23: Mother—Place of birth
Col. 24: Mother—Mother Tongue

LANGUAGE
Col. 25: Able to speak English

OCCUPATION
Col. 26: Trade, profession, or particular kind of work done as spinner, salesman, laborer, etc.
Col. 27: Industry, business, or establishment in which at work, as cotton mill, dry goods, store, farm, etc.
Col. 28: Employer or employee

MISC
Col. 29: Number of farm schedule