Using the US Census

I’d like to make some of the tips and tricks involving the United States census that I have learned available for others. I’ll break them down with headings.


The United States has conducted a census every ten years beginning in 1790. At this time, the records for 1790 through 1940 can usually be found on line, at and at other sites.

The images are not all perfect. With millions of pieces of paper to scan, problems do occur. And, in the decades or centuries that have passed, some of the records have been damaged. I would say that 99.9% are readable but do not be surprised if you find an image that is not.

Some of the viewers for these images allow you to adjust various aspects of the image

, contrast, sharpness, invert, and adjusting can sometimes make all the difference in reading the item. Please note that the written description of the record on these sites is provided by folks who sometimes make mistakes in spelling or include the wrong people in the family list. Do not rely upon the description if you can look at the original image.

1890 Census

A 1921 fire resulted in the loss of many 1890 census records. This can be frustrating as it leaves a gap of 20 years that a great many members of our family were born, married, moved or died in. Some records exist and there are ongoing attempts to fill in the blanks with state census data. The surviving 1890 census records are listed at the Census Bureau site.

Censuses of 1790 to 1840

These records list only the names of the heads of households. Other than that

, they list the number of males, females, and slaves in a number of age groups. With so many names common in a family, such as John Ferris, it can be very difficult to determine which family is referred to in a given record.

Censuses of 1850 to 1940

These censuses list all of the members of a household by name

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, including servants or boarders. They do not necessarily list the proper name, especially in the case of children. Willie is likely, but not guaranteed, to be William. Liza may be Liza, or it may be Elizabeth.

72 Years

Census records are not publicly released for 72 years, in order to preserve the privacy of those still living. That means that the 1950 census will not be released until at least 2022.

I’ll discuss some special points with respect to specific year censuses in a future post.

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