By Barry J. Ewell
In this article you will find an overview of some of the important clues you will find in the 1850-1940 census records. In addition, I have created a chart that will help you know in which census to find topic related information.
The earliest census records contain information on people born well before the American Revolution, while the 1940 schedules — the most recent ones open to public inspection — contain information on many people who are still living. Using these records, a researcher might conceivably trace a family line from a living person down to an ancestor born more than 250 years ago.
Where to find clues in the 1850-1940 census records
The following chart outlines the topic related information you will find in the 1850-1940 census records.
|Name & Personal Description||1850||1860||1870||1880||1900||1910||1920||1930||1940|
|Names of all individuals||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Relationship to family head||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Year of birth||Yes|
|Month of birth||Yes|
|Month of birth that year||Yes||Yes|
|Place of birth||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Deaf, blind, insane, idiotic||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Married that year||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|No. of years present marriage||Yes||Yes|
|Month of marriage that year||Yes|
|Number of Children||1850||1860||1870||1880||1900||1910||1920||1930||1940|
|Number of children living||Yes||Yes|
|Mother how many children||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Attended school that year||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Highest grade completed||Yes|
|Read or write||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Months attended school||Yes|
|Value of real property (Land)||Yes||Yes|
|Owned or rented home/farm||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Owned property with mortgage or mortgage free||Yes||Yes|
|Value of home or monthly rental||Yes|
|Real estate value||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Personal estate value||Yes||Yes|
|Revolutionary War Veteran||Yes|
|Civil War Survivor|
|Immigration & Naturalization||1850||1860||1870||1880||1900||1910||1920||1930||1940|
|Year of immigration to USA||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|No. of years in USA||Yes|
|Male citizen over 21 years||Yes|
|Male over 21 denied vote||Yes|
|Year person naturalized||Yes|
|Father of foreign birth||Yes|
|Mother of foreign birth||Yes|
|Profession or occupation||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|No. of months unemployed||Yes||Yes|
Content for the chart is sourced to www.archives.gov.
Searching the 1850 to 1940 census records
From 1790-1840, only the head of household is listed, along with the number of household members in selected age groups. Beginning in 1850, the name of every household member was recorded, along with their age, color, occupation and place of birth. As other census were taken, additional questions were added.
From the 1850 census on, the names, ages, occupations and birthplaces (country or state only) of each member of a household were included.
The 1870 census gave, in addition to previous information, the month of birth if born during the year, the month of marriage if married within the year, and whether the father or mother of each individual was foreign born.
The 1880 census (and later censuses) added two valuable pieces of information: the relationship of each person to the head of the household and the birthplace of the father and mother of each person.
The 1885 census was a special census, with population and mortality schedules conducted by the federal government to help five states or territories — Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico and the Dakota Territory.
The 1890 census was largely destroyed by fire in 1921 and only fragments of it are available.
The census 1900 and 1910 asked the questions on the 1880 census, but also include the age of each individual, how many years he had been married, his year of immigration, and his citizenship status. The 1900 census also gives the month and year of birth. For mothers it lists the number of children born and surviving. The 1910 census identifies Civil War veterans.
The 1920 census includes the same information as was found on the 1910 census. It gives ages but not the month and year of birth. It also lists the year of naturalization, the only census to do so.
The 1930 census asks questions on the 1920 census and also asks for marital status and, if married, age at first marriage. If the individual was an American Indian, it asks whether he or she is full blooded or mixed blood and for tribal affiliation.
The 1940 census included several standard questions, such as name, age, gender, race, education and place of birth. But the census also introduced some new questions. The instructions ask the enumerator to enter a circled x after the name of the person furnishing the information about the family. It also asked whether the person worked for the CCC, WPA or NYA the week of March 24-30, 1940; and asked for their income for the 12 months ending Dec. 31, 1939.
The 1940 census also has a supplemental schedule for two names on each page. The supplemental schedule asks the place of birth of the person’s father and mother; the person’s usual occupation, not just what they were doing the week of March 24-30, 1940; and for all women who are or have been married, whether this woman had been married more than once and age at first marriage.