Quick Census Research Tips
If you're planning to utilize the incredibly vast census archives to find out information about a research topic, family history, or another pursuit, there are foundational steps and strategies that may enhance your results and findings.
Step 1: Engage in Thorough Investigation
Before perusing search terms in the census records, it is ideal for individuals to gather comprehensive information about their particular topic, family, or person of interest.
For example, if you are hoping to map out your genealogical history, meet with family members or flip through old family archives (photo albums, journals, etcetera) to find out information on the following topics:
- Full name (married names and / or maiden names)
- Place of birth
- Place of death, if applicable
- Actual or estimated date of birth
- Any additional details (such as property owned, service in the military, etcetera)
While you do not need to acquire all details about each of these suggested topics, most genealogists and historians assert that ample information, prior to a census search, allows individuals to yield more accurate and thorough search results.
Step 2: Begin Your Search
Once you have as much background information as possible, you can begin your search of the census records. Available online, at state libraries, and at other offices of the National Archives, the most convenient form of census search is conducted via the National Archives' main website.
To begin, simply visit the government-owned site, available at archives.gov/. Once on the site, begin your search with the full name of your first person of interest. To narrow down your search, it is also helpful to minimally provide the general location of the individual. For example, by entering the individual's county of residence, documents such as marriage records, birth certificates, contracts, as well as other accounts can be conveniently accessed.
Step 3: Become Familiar with the Evolution of Census Records
Because the census content and organizational structure has changed over time, it is helpful to be informed on the general shifts in census records history. Specifically, review the most significant changes in census record-keeping in order to prevent confusion during your historical searches:
- Earlier census records do not state the actual age and / or date of birth. For example, the 1790 census categorizes white male citizens into a group of “over 16” or “under 16,” while white women were grouped into just one general category, with slaves also grouped into a broad and nondescript category.
- Actual ages and birth information was recorded for the first time in the 1850 census.
- Also beginning in 1850, households were categorized and listed in alphabetical order. Prior to this, the records reflect the order in which houses were visited, which can make the search somewhat unclear when evaluating the pre-1850 records
- Beginning in the 1900s, households were gradually recorded by street and / or address.
With a general awareness of these distinct shifts in census policies and practices, individuals can navigate their searches with greater ease.