Making Sense of the Census

U.S. Census records can be invaluable. In addition to providing names, family relationships, ages, occupations, and other particulars, they place people geographically, but census records contain errors—for various reasons which I’ll go into at another time.

More reliable sources are individual family records and family Bibles, if available.

The type of information collected by census takers over the decades varied. Free African Americans are enumerated in the 1790 census. The 1870 census holds special importance to researchers because it was conducted five years after the Civil War ended. That means, in many cases, freed slaves were still living on their former masters’ land or nearby. Prior to 1870, slaves were listed as property, not people.

Here are some interesting facts about the U.S. Census, as outlined on the government web site,

The 1790-1820 population schedules were nearly all handwritten; the Government started using printed schedules in 1830. With each census, the forms asked for additional information.

The 1790-1840 schedules furnish only the names of the free heads of family, not of other family members. These schedules totaled the number of other family members, without name, by free or slave status. Also, the sex and age categories that the schedules first used only for free whites from 1790 through 1810 eventually applied to other persons, and the age categories increased after 1790.

The 1820 census first asked about naturalization status. The 1840 census included a special inquiry regarding pensioners for Revolutionary or military service. This section named persons who were either family heads or members and specified the pensioner’s age, not just a range of ages.

The 1850 census was the first to record each person’s name, specific age, occupation of those over age 15, place of birth, and value of real estate. The slave schedules, however, name only the slave owner and indicate only if a slave was black or mulatto, and his or her sex and age.

The 1860 schedules were almost identical to those for 1850, but the 1860 census was the first to inquire about the value of each free person’s personal estate.

The 1870 schedule asked if a person’s father or mother were foreign born. Columns 19 and 20 cover “Constitutional relations.” The enumerator checked column 19 if a male was a “citizen of the U.S. of 21 years of age and upwards.” In column 20 the enumerator marked if a male citizen 21 years or older had his “right to vote denied or abridged on other grounds than rebellion or other crime.” In other words, was the person denied the right to vote in violation of the 14th amendment, which guarantees citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law for men regardless of race?

The 1880 schedule was the first to ask about the relationship of each individual to the head of the family, specifying what could only be assumed in earlier censuses. Moreover, the 1880 census was the first to inquire about the birthplace of each person’s parents, including the country of those who were foreign born. The census gives the state or country of birth, not the city or county. A fire destroyed many 1890 population and special schedules, and water used to extinguish the blaze damaged many more. As a result, the Government disposed of most schedules. The few remaining 1890 population schedules or fragments are indexed.

Many free resources are available to anyone who wants to access them. That includes online genealogy sites like,, and Some sites are not free, but if you access them at one of the National Archives facilities, there is no charge.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) operates As the site explains: its worldwide records “span billions of names across hundreds of collections—including birth, marriage, death, probate, land, military, IGI extracted, and more.”

The Mormon Church also operates Family History Centers across the country. They are described on the site as “branch facilities of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.”

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as The Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in the War Department in March 1865. The Bureau supervised all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen, including issuing rations, clothing and medicine. The Bureau also assumed custody of confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate States, border states, District of Columbia, and Indian Territory.

A National Archives brochure details the availability of records left by The Freedmen’s Bureau through its work between 1865 and 1872, noting that “historians have used these materials to explore government and military policies, local conditions, and interactions between freed people, local white populations, and Bureau officials.”

 The National Archives has microfilmed the Bureau’s records, and those records are available to the public.


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