Sunday, February 24, 2013

Genealogy How To -- Census Data

I thought perhaps, based on conversations I've had recently with friends and family, that some of you may be getting interested in tracing your families' roots.  So I'll share some of the tips and techniques I've learned along the way regarding the United States decennial census of population and households.

The first thing to know is that in order to protect the privacy of respondents the Census Bureau does not release a decennial census until 72 years after it takes place. The 1940 census was just released in 2012.

The second thing is each census a bit different and asks unique questions, depending on the interest of Congress at the time the census was approved. For example the 1930 census was approved by Congress in 1929. In the time between the passage of the act and census day, the stock market crashed and the nation plunged into the Great Depression. The public and academics wanted quick access to the unemployment information collected in the 1930 census. The Census Bureau had not planned to process the unemployment information it had collected, which some statisticians considered unreliable, until quite a bit later and was unequipped to meet these demands. When it did rush its data on unemployment out, the numbers it reported were attacked as being too low. Congress required a special unemployment census for January 1931; the data it produced confirmed the severity of the situation.

A sample of the 1930 census form

It's little historical nuggets such as those that make the census so interesting.

Websites like make searching census documents easy and frustrating at the same time. The easy part -- if you find your relatives, then in just a few clicks, everyone in the family is connected to your tree.  The frustrating part -- if you don't take the time to open the scanned image, mistakes can occur and you will miss out on some wonderful details.

How I process census documents and transcribe the information to my tree:
  • I go to the top of the sheet and record the enumeration number. Many times I want to come back to a certain sheet but cannot remember to which family I associated it. By knowing the number of the sheet, I can easily pull it up on or any other census website.
  • I record the address of the family I am researching.  When entering the address in my family tree, I include the county.  This is important because many vital records are still stored at the county level of government. This is very helpful when you are tracking down records that are not online.
  • I look at the ages and relationships of the various family members to the head of the house.  Many times the children may be step-children and apps like don't handle those well.
  • If an older relative is living with the family, this can be a useful way of discovering the maiden name of the wife. But it's not a fail safe method.  Mom could have remarried after divorcing or being widowed.  I usually assume Mom's last name is the wife's maiden name, but I make a note of it so I'm not confused later if I find conflicting information.
  • Look at the occupations listed by each relative. I think you may be bored at first as so many men were farmers. But eventually families moved to town and got jobs; those jobs are fascinating and can send you off on fun research sidetracks. If they list the name of the company for which they work, Google it. The results can be fascinating . It's how I found out so many interesting things about Ternes Coal & Lumber Co.
  • Occupation data is also interesting because many women went from "keeping house" to jobs outside the home. Record those occupations in your relative's timeline.
  • Don't forget the education information. It's fascinating to learn when your relatives started going to college or even if they finished elementary school.
  • The census also asks where each person's parents were born. Record that information. It can help hone in on an exact city later and gives you a place to start researching the previous generation.
  • Remember ages are estimates and are not always correct on the census. Don't believe they are gospel.
  • There is invaluable information about unemployment, home ownership, and income.
This is a great instructional video from the National Archives and Record Administration:

If you have any other tips and tricks for researching census data, I'd love to hear about them.

No comments:

Post a Comment