Census records, which are a treasure trove of information, have been compiled in our country every 10 years since 1790. Only the 1890 census is missing because of a fire in 1921 at the Commerce Department building where those records were stored.
Researchers must keep an open mind when checking census records. The family may have not been home or the census taker may have failed to stop at the home. A source of error may be that the person who provided the information was an older person who was senile or a younger person who was confused. The census taker may have misunderstood the names or misspelled names.
Each census varies in the types of data collected. In 1790, only the name of the head of the household was recorded. That census included the number of free white males who were under 16; the number of free white males over 16; the number of free white females; and the number of slaves.
By 1850, the census included the names of all people in the home, their ages, color, sex and birthplace. The census also asked if they could read or write, and whether they had been married or attended school that year. The 1900 census had 30 categories of questions. By 1940, two worksheet pages were needed to record the details.
The best website to learn about census records is census.gov. That site, sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau, states that census records are not released to the public for 72 years from the date they are collected. The latest set of records released is the 1940 census. The 1950 census will be released in April 2022.
When the site opens, scroll down to the section “Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000.” To learn about each census year, click on the blue square that has a map of the U.S. The website also includes the directions that were given to census takers each census year.
A family’s records may be awkward to interpret if their entry is not near the top of the page near the headings for the data. Another problem is that the headings are sometimes small and blurred. Blank census worksheets are useful because they have the column headings in the same order as each census. When an ancestor is found in a census, genealogists can transfer details to the worksheet, which has large, clear print. From that point on, the information can easily be studied. Familysearch.org provides free blank worksheets for each census year that can be downloaded and printed.