The United States Census is the backbone of almost all American family trees. Have you exploited it to its fullest potential?

A census has been taken once every 10 years since 1790. Due to privacy laws, censuses are not released to the public until 72 years after it was taken. This means the most recent census available to genealogists is the 1940 US Census, and the 1950 US Census won't be released until 2022 (on April 1st for those of you counting down the days).

The United States was actually the first nation in the world that made the census a mandatory part of its constitution. Though we're a relatively young country, it's comforting to know that we'll have records of our population from the very beginning (and even earlier).

All US Federal censuses free on Findmypast

The primary purpose of the census was originally to apportion each state's seats in the House of Representatives. After centuries of population growth, the government decided to cap the size of Congress at 435 records after the 1910 census.

Today, the census is the largest non-military operation undertaken by the United States government.

The census is definitely impressive, and definitely a key part of American history - but why is it so important for genealogy?

The census and your family

In a world riddled with inconsistencies, brick walls and missing records, the census is the genealogist's rock. There truly is nothing like it.

Thanks to the census, genealogists can find the household of every member of the US population (okay, not every member - but experts estimate that upwards of 90% of the population was successfully captured in each census) at consistent intervals of 10 years.

When we know so many of our family members will have been captured in the census, it's a no-brainer to start there. Savvy genealogists will begin with the census to create an outline, only going back to fill in the gaps after this amazing resource has been entirely exhausted.

Learn how to jump-start your genealogy with the census

Getting the most out of census records involves knowledge of each individual census. They all differed slightly and contain different information, which is part of their appeal - you can find the same ancestor in multiple censuses and learn something new each time.

What can be found in each census

1790 Census

  • Name of head of household
  • Number of free white males over/under 16 years old
  • Number of free white females
  • Number of all other free people ("sex and color" noted)
  • Number of slaves owned

Early American censuses were mainly concerned with taxation, voting and military service - something mostly confined to free white males at the time. For this reason, the 1800 Census, 1810 Census, 1820 Census, 1830 Census and 1840 Census all contain the information above, and not much more.

1850 Census

For each free individual in the house (from 1850 onward, all individuals in the household were captured)

  • Name
  • Age
  • Sex
  • "Color"
  • Profession (if over 15 years old)
  • Real estate value
  • Place of birth (State if born in US, country if born outside US)
  • Married in the past year
  • Attended school in the past year
  • Illiterate (if over 20 years old)
  • Disabilities
  • Name
  • Age
  • Sex
  • "Color"
  • Profession (if over 15 years old)
  • Real estate value
  • Personal estate value
  • Place of birth (state, territory or country)
  • Attended school in the past year?
  • Married in the past year?
  • Illiterate (if over 20 years old)
  • Disabilities
  • Name
  • Age
  • Sex
  • "Color"
  • Profession (if over 15 years old)
  • Real estate value
  • Personal estate value
  • Place of birth (state, territory or country)
  • Was father of foreign birth?
  • Was mother of foreign birth?
  • If born in last year, which month?
  • Attended school in the past year?
  • Married in the past year? If so, which month?
  • Illiteracy (if over 20 years old)
  • Disabilities
  • Name
  • "Color"
  • Sex
  • Age
  • If born last year, which month?
  • Relationship to head of family
  • Married or single?
  • Widowed or divorced?
  • Married in the past year?
  • Occupation
  • Number of months employed in the past year
  • If sick or disabled
  • Attended school in the past year?
  • Literacy
  • Place of birth
  • Father and mother's place of birth
1890 Census (note: this census was almost entirely lost in a fire)
  • Name
  • Did this person serve in the Civil War?
  • Relationship to head of family
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Marital status
  • How many children did this person have? How many were living?
  • Place of birth
  • Father and mother's place of birth
  • Number of years lived in the US
  • Naturalization status
  • Occupation
  • Number of months unemployed the past year
  • Literacy
  • Language spoken
  • If sick or disabled
  • If a prisoner, convict, homeless child or pauper
  • Name
  • Relationship to head of family
  • Race
  • Sex
  • Date of birth
  • Age
  • Marital status
  • Number of children and living children
  • Place of birth
  • Father and mother's place of birth
  • Year immigrated to the US
  • Naturalization status
  • Occupation
  • Literacy
  • Months unemployed previous year
  • Months in school previous year
  • Language spoken
  • Home ownership status
  • Living on a farm?
  • Name
  • Relationship to head of family
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Age
  • Marital status
  • Number of years married
  • Number of children and living children
  • Place of birth
  • Father and Mother's place of birth
  • Year of immigration
  • Naturalization status
  • Language spoken
  • Occupation
  • Description of industry
  • Literacy
  • If the person has attended school since September 1909
  • Home ownership status
  • If on a farm, what's the farm identification number on the census farm schedule?
  • Civil war veteran status
  • Disabilities
  • House number and street
  • Name
  • Relationship to head of family
  • Home ownership status
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Age at last birthday
  • Marital status
  • Year of immigration
  • Naturalization status and year of naturalization
  • If the person attended school since September 1919
  • Literacy
  • Place of birth
  • First-language
  • Parents places of birth and language spoken
  • English speaking ability
  • Occupation
  • Industry of occupation
  • Employment status
  • If on a farm, what's the farm identification number on the census farm schedule?
  • House number and street
  • Name
  • Relationship to head of family
  • Home ownership status
  • If the person currently lives on a farm
  • If the person lived on a farm a year ago
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Age
  • Marital status
  • If the person attended school since September 1929
  • Literacy
  • Place of birth
  • Father and mother's place of birth
  • Year of immigration to the US
  • Naturalization status
  • English speaking ability
  • Occupation
  • Industry of occupation
  • Employment status
  • Military veteran status, conflicts served in
  • Number of farm schedule
  • House number and street
  • Name
  • Home ownership status
  • Home value/monthly rent
  • Does the person live on a farm?
  • Relationship to head of household
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Age at last birthday
  • Marital status
  • If the person attended school or college in the past year
  • What was the highest grade of school the person completed?
  • Person's place of birth
  • Citizenship status
  • City, county and state where the person lived on April 1, 1935
  • Was this house on a farm?
  • For all individuals 14 or older
    • Was the person at work for pay or profit in private or non-emergency government work during the week of March 24 - 30?
    • If not, was he at work on, or assigned to, public emergency work (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.) during the week of March 24 - 30?
    • If the person was neither at work or assigned public emergency work: was this person seeking work?
    • If not seeking work, did he have a job or business?
    • If unemployed, why?
    • If the person was at work in private or non emergency government employment: how many hours did he work in the week of March 24 - 30?
    • If the person was seeking work or assigned to public emergency work: what was the duration, in weeks, of his unemployment?
    • Occupation
    • Industry of occupation
    • Class of worker
    • Number of weeks worked in 1939
    • Salary
    • Did this person receive income of more than $50 from sources other than money wages or salary?
    • Corresponding number on the Farm Schedule of the person's farm
  • Supplemental questions (5% of people provided this information)
    • Name
    • Father and mother's birthplace
    • First language
    • Veteran status (if yes, where served)
    • If father was a veteran (if yes, where served)
    • If the person has a Social Security number
    • Were deductions for federal Old-Age Insurance or railroad retirement made from this person's wages in 1939?
    • If so, were deductions made from all, one-half or more, or less than one-half of the person's wages or salary?
    • What is this person's usual occupation?
    • What is this person's usual industry?
    • What class of worker is this person?
    • Has this person been married more than once?
    • Age at first marriage
    • Number of children ever born

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