Fun with the U.S. Census

The Federal Census of the United States has been taken every 10 years since 1790 to collect population statistics, with the primary purpose of determining how many seats a state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. (For example, the population of Ohio shrunk between 2000 and 2010, so Ohio will be losing 2 Congressional seats when it comes time to elect a new U.S. Congress.)

But in addition to affecting legislative representation, there are a number of reasons why the census is useful and interesting from a historical point of view. The demograhpic information, such as race and income, that is collected can tell us lots of nifty things.

For instance, check out this neat map mashup of 2010 census data posted by the New York Times. You can view color-coded maps showing race and ethnicity, income, housing, and education. You can view a nationwide map or zoom way in to show your own neighborhood. The official 2010 census web site has some cool data maps as well, such as one showing populations changes from state to state from 1910 to 2010.

If you are looking for more detailed information about a particular city, you might try the FactFinder on the U.S. Census Bureau web site. At the FactFinder web site, you could find facts for a particular city such as: population, median age, median household income, per capita income, racial percentages, education levels, and many other stats. Another great thing about the FactFinder is that many small towns are included, not just cities or “metro areas.” Don’t believe me? Here’s the FactFinder for Lucasville, Ohio, a town of about 1,500 people. I just love the FactFinder for getting a general demographic sense of a place that I know nothing about.

The people who probably get the most “general public” use out of U.S. Census data, however, are probably genealogists (myself included). Finding a relative on the census means connecting that person to a specific location at a specific time. Census years up to 1840 only record the head of household and then count of the people in the house. However, in the year 1850 and afterwards, there is a lot more useful information, such as family members’ names and ages (at the very least). Certain years asked questions like place of birth, relationship to the head of household (wife, son, mother-in-law, servant, etc.), occupation, birth date (not just age), number of children born to the mother, number of years married, year of immigration, etc. If you are curious exactly what questions were asked in what years, check out’s downloadable blank census forms for years 1790-1930. They didn’t ask quite as many questions on the 2010 census, but at least names and ages were still collected.

Unfortunately (for us genies) but understandably (to due very legitimate privacy concerns), the individually identifiable information data is not released until it is 72 years old.  But, that means the 1940 census names will be coming out in 2012! Hooray! Hmm…I just realized that if I’m alive when the 2010 individual census info is released (if it even is released, who knows what privacy laws will be like then!), I will be 100 years old. Oh my!

I recently read a good article from CNN about using the census for family history research. There are many genealogy web sites that are sure to have tips, and of course there’s always your local genealogical society or library local history/genealogy department. Odds are, the library can help you search the census using microfilm or an Internet database, such as the free FamilySearch or the subscription site Ancestry (which the library probably has a subscription to, by the way).

But here’s a quick list of things to keep in mind when using the census for genealogy:

  • ** The info is only as good as the information giver, the information recorder, and the combination thereof. **
  • Don’t assume the names are spelled right. The census taker may not have even asked how the name was spelled.
  • Explore the possibility that the name was spelled wrong. If you don’t find your grandfather’s last name spelled under the correct entry of “Kiser”, try “Kaiser” or “Kizer” or “Kayser.” Also, if you have a name that is often misspelled, you migth want to check into a magical little thing called the SOUNDEX.
  • Don’t assume the ages are correct. (If someone came to the door and asked your dad how old all of his kids were, do you think he’d get them all exactly right?)
  • Don’t assume you “know” where they were. One side of my family has lived in Scioto County, Ohio for almost 200 years…and yet one year I found them in some random distant county of Kentucky; the next census they were back again. I wouldn’t have believed it was them except the guy had several children and the names and ages all matched up…

The bottom line is: Don’t assume…anything, really. You never know what you’re going to find. That’s one of the things that makes the census fun and interesting…..and sometimes incredibly frustrating.

Anybody who thinks history isn’t interesting hasn’t done real history. And the U.S. Census is one big giant chunk of real history. So check it out.


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