Census records have been collected and compiled by the federal government every ten years since 1790. Anyone can access these records for information on individuals from this first census through 1930. Any record less than seventy-two years old is not available due to privacy concerns.
Remember that records from different census years include different types of information. Before 1840, only the names of the head of the household was listed. The 1840 census added the names of veterans of the Revolutionary War. Only with 1850 do you start getting the names of other members of the family.
Census records have become more easily accessible through computer databases such as Ancestry and Heritage Quest. Because of this easy access, census records are often the first record searched by beginners. There are several things to remember when you are looking through census returns.
First, your access to these records is only as good as the person who transcribed the name into the online index. Remember that the indexer is reading off of original records and handwriting can be very difficult to decipher. If you are not finding what you are expecting to locate, try any other spelling you can think of. If you run out of ideas, pronounce the name to a friend and ask them to spell it. You’ll be surprised at how many alternative spellings you come up with this way.
Secondly, I have never seen a census record in my own research that did not have at least one mistake in it. Just because it is written on a census sheet does not mean it is accurate. Anyone can be giving the census taker information, a neighbor, children of parents who do not speak English, an inlaw living in the home. People being surveyed could be speaking with accents that the census taker has difficulty understanding. If it is the population of a large city being surveyed, each person taking the census is more likely to have a large number of people to question and is less likely to know the families involved. The faster information needs to be gathered, the more inacurate it tends to be. Change that old phrase to “Do not trust and definitely verify.”
The Newton Free Library subscribes to the Ancestry.com database, as do many local libraries. You can use Ancestry without cost in the library. To have access to it from home you must pay an individual subscription fee directly to Ancestry.
For more information on the census, you can check out Ancestry”s Learning Center. This is one section of Ancestry that can be accessed at no cost from your home computer. Also the Tennessee GenWeb Resource Project has both interesting general articles on the U.S. Census and separate articles on each individual census and the different information that was collected for each. Two books, Val Greenwoods’ The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (pages 233 – 307) and the most recent edition of The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy (pages 157 – 218) are worth consulting as you begin to use census records for your research. The more you know, the less mistakes you make. The less mistakes you make, the less time you waste.