Genealogy: Where to find clues in the 1850-1940 U.S. Federal census records

Census CluesBy 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 Description185018601870188019001910192019301940
Names of all individualsYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Relationship to family headYesYesYesYesYesYes
Year of birthYes
Month of birthYes
Month of birth that yearYesYes
Place of birthYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Deaf, blind, insane, idioticYesYesYesYesYes
Marital Description185018601870188019001910192019301940
Married that yearYesYesYesYesYes
Marital statusYesYesYesYesYesYes
No. of years present marriageYesYes
Month of marriage that yearYes
Number of Children185018601870188019001910192019301940
Number of children livingYesYes
Mother how many childrenYesYesYes
Attended school that yearYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Highest grade completedYes
Read or writeYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
Months attended schoolYes
Real Property185018601870188019001910192019301940
Value of real property (Land)YesYes
Owned or rented home/farmYesYesYes
Owned property with mortgage or mortgage freeYesYes
Value of home or monthly rentalYes
Real estate valueYesYesYesYes
Personal estate valueYesYes
Military Service185018601870188019001910192019301940
Revolutionary War VeteranYes
Civil War Survivor
Military ServiceYes
Immigration & Naturalization185018601870188019001910192019301940
Year of immigration to USAYesYesYesYes
No. of years in USAYes
Male citizen over 21 yearsYes
Male over 21 denied voteYes
Naturalization statusYesYesYesYes
Year person naturalizedYes
Foreign-Born Parents185018601870188019001910192019301940
Father of foreign birthYes
Mother of foreign birthYes
Father’s birthplaceYesYesYesYesYesYes
Mother’s birthplaceYesYesYesYesYesYes
Profession or occupationYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
No. of months unemployedYesYes

Content for the chart is sourced to

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.