The U. S. Federal Census

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The U. S. Federal Census

Prepared by Nancy Pascal

PURPOSE: The purpose of the Federal Census was to count the total population every ten years to determine representation in the House of Representatives.

In Article I, Section @, the Constitution of the United States states that:

“Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included with this Union according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons……”

The first Federal Census was taken in 1790 and the most recently released Federal Census is the one taken in 1920. The 1930 Census should be released in the year 2002.

The Federal Census is a wonderful tool for genealogical research. It contains valuable clues that aid the researcher in locating and identifying their ancestors. It can help determine approximate age, race, nationality, marital status, citizenship, occupation, and a host of other details that can point you in the right direction.

Like all research tools, one must use caution. Census records contain many errors and omissions, but the benefits are certainly worth it. Defining ones area of research is probably the single, most important issue to be determined for a genealogist and the Federal Census can certainly help a researcher establish that.

Keep in mind, that the Census is limited. The first Census was not taken until 1790 so prior to that time they offer the researcher no help. It was taken every ten years, but from 1790 to 1840, only the heads of households were listed while other family members were listed in age brackets only. By 1850 all family members that were living in the household on the day of the Census were listed by name. As the Census progressed, they included more personal information on individuals and families, making them even more useful to researchers.

CENSUS DAY: Each Census had a designated census day, and all information given to the enumerator was to be correct as of that day. If a person died the day after the census, he would still be included on the that census. If he died the day before the census he would not be included. Likewise, babies born before census day would be included, while babies born after census day would not. Ages, as reported on the Census would be the age of the person as of census day. For that reason, except in the cases where babies reported as 3/12 (3 months), etc., exact birth years cannot be determined by the census except in 1900. It needs to be clarified here that Census Day was NOT necessarily the day the census was taken.

Census Day 1790-1960

1790 – 1820 First Monday in August
1830 – 1900 June 1
1910 – April 15
1920 – January 1
1930 – 1960 April 1
1880 Indian Schedule – October 1

For the best and most complete picture of the family you are researching, it is advisable to look for the members of that family in each of the Census’ taken in their lifetime.

1790 Federal Census: This was the first census. Available and indexed for CT, ME (still part of MASS then), MD (except Allegany, Calvert and Somerset Co.’s), MA, NH, NY, NC (except Caswell, Granville, and Orange Co.’s), PA, RI, SC and VT. Many were lost. Those not available are DE, GA, NJ, TN, KY, VA, WV and the Northwest Territory (not enumerated). Residents living in the Indian lands that became AL and MS are not included in this census. Those living in the Indian lands claimed by GA are probably not included either. Land west of the Mississippi, Florida and eastern Louisiana were not yet part of the United States.

Items included: Head of household, males over 16, males 16 and under, and females (no breakdown).

Copies available to view:


  • 1. Family History Center (microfilm available through rental)
  • 2. AGLL (mail order rental to members only)
  • 3. Most Public Libraries (Main Branch)


Indexed? Yes. Available on CD-Rom. The 1790 Census was indexed by AIS and published in book form. Also available through AGLL.

1800 Federal Census: Still only named the head of household, but further broke down age groups for males, and included age groups for females. By 1800 the United States had two new states, KY and TN and three new territories were included in the Census, Mississippi Territory, the Northwest Territory and Indian Territory which had been divided form the Northwest Territory. There were district-wide losses of the census for GA, Indian Territory, KY, Mississippi Territory, NJ, Northwest Territory, and TN. The portion of DC included in the VA Census was lost along with all of VA.

Copies available to view: ( Same as 1790)

Indexed? (Same as 1790)

1810 Federal Census: Format was the same as for 1810. The new state of OH was added and DC was listed on separate schedules from MD and VA. The western lands of GA were ceded to the Federal Government and included in the Mississippi Territory. In addition there were five new territories, Louisiana Territory, Orleans Territory, Indiana Territory, Illinois Territory, and Michigan Territory. Again there were district-wide losses in most of the territories and the states of GA, NJ and TN.

Copies available to view: (Same as 1790)

Indexed? (Same as 1790)

1820 Federal Census: Formated the same as 1810 & 1820 except for the addition of a category breakdown for males 16-18. It also included the number of foreigners in a household. Six new states were added, LA, IN, MS, IL, AL, and ME. The old Louisiana Territory was renamed Missouri Territory and one new territory, Arkansas Territory was included. There were district wide losses for Arkansas Territory, Missouri Territory and NJ, and partial losses for Alabama (over half the counties). TN was divided into two districts. The Knoxville district, which included the eastern third of the state is presumed lost.

Copies available to view: (Same as 1790)

Indexed? Only partial indexes are available for AL and TN. Others (Same as previous)

1830 Federal Census: The format for this census further broke down the age groups for both males and females. Added were the number of deaf, dumb and blind persons in a household. The state of Missouri , and the territory of Florida were new to the census. There were only county-wide losses in MA, MD and MS. All others are available.

Copies available to view: (Same as 1790)

Indexed? All available census are indexed.

1840 Federal Census: Format the same as 1830 with addition of number and age of persons receiving a military pension and the number of persons attending school.. Included two new states, AR and MI and two new territories, Wisconsin Territory and Iowa Territory. Entire census available.

Copies available to view: (Same as 1790)

Indexed? (Same as 1830)

1850, 1860 & 1870 Federal Census: For all the intents and purposes of the genealogical researcher, these census are basically the same. Starting with 1850, all members of a household are listed, along with their ages as of ‘census day’. They do not, however show relationships or vital statistics. In spite of that, they are invaluable in defining an area of research and establishing family units. In 1850, WV counties are included with VA and there was no census taken for the unorganized territory that later became Oklahoma. All three census included additional schedules for agriculture and industry, however, much of the information requested was never acquired and the columns were left blank. There were no losses for these three census.

Copies available to view: All three census are available through LDS and AGLL.

Indexed? 1850 and 1860 have been indexed. Most available in book form (AIS) for 1850. All of 1850 and 1860 are available on CD-Rom. The 1870 Indexes for NJ and NY were never completed and are unavailable. Some are available at the county level. If the 1870 Census Index is needed for these two states, persons should check with the local Historical and Genealogical Societies for the county they are researching. Other states were indexed and available on CD-Rom.

1880 Federal Census: By 1880 the census included the relationship to the head of household, that enabled the researcher to better identify the family unit, while offering other clues to the identity of non-family members. If aML (mother-in-law) was living in the household it may offer the maiden name of the wife. Si would indicate a sister to the head of household, while SiL would be a Sister-in-law. Likewise, B would be brother, BL , brother-in-law. Borders were generally abbreviated Bo. In addition to listing each persons birth State as in previous census, it also added the place of birth of each persons father and mother.

In 1880 a new indexing system was introduced called ‘Soundex”. The Soundex coding system sorted names based on phonetic sounds. Soundex codes for all surnames are comprised of 4 digits, the first being the first letter of the name and the last three, numbers based on the value placed on the remaining letters in the name. When ordering a soundex for a certain surname in a particular state, you have the advantage of seeing all those with the same surname throughout the entire state, not just the county you are researching. If you are unsure in what county your ancestor was located, this can be an invaluable tool in determining where to concentrate your search. The soundex itself, reveals a great deal of information on a family. It lists the names of the individual family members, their relationship to the head of the household, their age and State of birth. In addition, it identifies the county , the city and usually the address where the family was living at the time of the Census. More importantly, it gives the enumeration district the family is in, as well as the sheet and line numbers where the family can be located on the actual census. One of the disadvantages of the 1880 Soundex is that it only includes families where there are children 10 and under living in the household, making it difficult to located older couples whose children have already left home, and very young couples who do not yet have children. For that reason, it is advisable to view the actual census. Generally many of the relatives live close to each other, and often can be located in the same enumeration districts.

Copies available to view: Both the 1880 Soundex and the 1880 Census are available through the LDS and AGLL.

1890 Federal Census: Not available. Destroyed by fire. In 1890 the Census Bureau had a new method for enumerating the districts. Only one family was enumerated on each page (1880 had as many as 10 families on a page). This created an enormous use of paper, and Congress decided to only finance one copy, unlike the three copies financed in 1880. Individual counties were given the option to make an additional copy for themselves but, at their own expense. Consequently, when fire destroyed the only copies in Washington D.C. the complete census was lost. Only one county, Washington Co., GA is known to have survived. The fragments of the 1890 census that were saved are available on one roll of microfilm. It contains 6,160 persons out of a population of 62,979,766 people. This method of enumeration was never repeated.

1900 Federal Census: From the genealogist point of view, this is probably the best census. In addition to those items listed for the 1880 Census, it also includes the month and year of birth on each individual, their marital status, and the number of years they have been married. Mothers indicate how many children they have given birth to and how many are still living at the time of census. Additionally it provides the year of immigration and the number of years in the United States for foreigners. Knowing the year your ancestor immigrated is a giant step in locating the actual ship they arrived on.

Copies available to view? Available through the LDS and AGLL.

1910 Federal Census: In the 1910 Census the month and year of birth have been excluded. Beyond that, the information is basically the same as that of 1900. This Census was never fully indexed. For that reason a Cross Index to City Streets was made available to researcher to aid in identify enumeration districts where an address was known. This cross index can be found at LDS Family History Centers.

Copies available to view? Available through the LDS and AGLL.

1920 Federal Census: This Census is similar to the 1910 Census providing basically the same information. Unlike the 1910 Census, however, the soundex is available for the entire Census.

Copies available to view? Available through the LDS and AGLL.

1930 Federal Census: To be release in 2002.

Additional Notes:

1. Alaska is the only state without counties.
2. In Louisana, a parish is the same as a county in other states
3. Since 1790 one hundred and thirty-eight counties in the United States have been
renamed, abolished, or absorbed into other counties.
4. Through 1920 there were forty-four cities in Virgina independant of any county.

“Genealogy Bulletin”, #35, Sep/Oct 1996; “Census Records: Look Again!” by Wm. Dollarhide “Genealogy Bulletin”, #37, Jan/Feb 1997; “A Review of Published Indexes to the U.S. Federal Censuses. Part 1: 1790-1840” by Wm. Dollarhide.
“The Genealogist’s Companion & Sourcebook” by Emily Croom (1994)