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Documenting Difficult Cases

The Census: 1790 to 1940

You can gather much information from the federal censuses and mortality schedules, including an individual’s year of birth, his or her parents’ names, the state in which the individual was born, and the states in which the individual’s parents were born. Many states also conducted a census during the periods between the federal censuses. These provide comparable information and are often overlooked. Census records are available on microfilm at the ten federal Branch Archives and larger genealogical libraries. Some libraries may order a reel of census film, once your research narrows to the particular census desired. Please note that when copying a page from a census record, you will need to note the bibliographical source of the copy on its reverse side. You may make a pencil mark, on the copy only, to help the reader find your ancestor’s name.

Federal censuses have included different details from one to the next.

   • The original 1790 Census copy was destroyed when the British burned Washington, D.C., in 1812, although it was reconstructed from local records and though indexed, names only the family head.
   • The 1800 Census is indexed and names only the family head.
   • The 1810 Census is indexed and names only the family head.
   • The 1820 Census is indexed and names only the family head.
   • The 1830 Census is indexed and names only the family head.
   • The 1840 Census is indexed and names only the family head.
   • The 1850 Census includes all family members and all families are indexed.
   • The 1860 Census includes all family members and all families are indexed.
   • The 1870 Census includes all family members and all families are indexed.
   • The 1880 Census includes all family members and is Soundex indexed for houses with a child under the age of ten years old.
   • The 1890 Census includes all family members and is indexed, although it was ruined in a fire, with only a few whole states and few counties in others remaining.
   • The 1900 Census includes all family members and is Soundex indexed.
   • The 1910 Census includes all family members with a Soundex index for only some states.
   • The 1920 Census includes all family members and is Soundex indexed.
   • The 1930 Census includes all family members and is Soundex indexed.
   • The 1940 Census includes all family members and is Soundex indexed.

Note:  The Soundex is a coded surname (last name) index based on the way a surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently, like “Smith” and “Smyth,” have the same code and are filed together. The Soundex coding system was developed so that you can find a surname even though it may have been recorded under various spellings. To search for a particular surname, you must first work out its code.

Names were sometimes misspelled and left out of the index, but if you know the individual’s approximate address you can determine the census ward in which he or she lived and do a name-by-name search of the microfilm of that ward’s census records. The records were generally taken in a systematic, house-by-house order down each street, and the streets are sometimes noted on the census forms.

In 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880, the federal census included inquiries about persons who had died in the year immediately preceding the enumeration. In general, the schedules’ questions covered topics including the individual’s name; age at last birthday; sex, race; marital status; profession, occupation, or trade; state, territory, or country of birth of the individual and his or her parents; length of residence in county; month in which the individual died; disease or cause of death; place where disease contracted (if not at place of death); and the name of the attending physician.

Many of these census indices can be found online at Ancestry.com, Fold3.com, Footnote.com, or similar genealogical databases. The SAR Genealogical Research Library, located in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, has access to these databases and thousands of other genealogical records on file for your use. Please contact the SAR Genealogical Research Library for further details in continuing your research.

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