- Posts for research techniques tag
Census Research | Our Prairie Nest
Census Research

Censuses are the first records most people look at when getting started with family history, and with good reason. Censuses are widely available records that give us a snapshot of an individual, couple, or family every ten years or so. The types and frequency of censuses vary by country, state, and province. The most popular censuses are the U.S. Federal Censuses, followed by state, Canadian, and UK censuses, and veterans enumerations, just to name a few.

U.S. Federal Census

The United States takes a federal census, which means they account for every person in every town in every county in every state, every ten years. This practice of enumerating the population began in 1790 and has continued ever since.

The censuses currently available online at FamilySearch.com and other websites are 1790 through 1940. The 1950 census will be released to the public in April of 2022. Most genealogists start with the most recent census and work their way back through censuses to 1930, 1920, 1910, and so forth.

Not all U.S. federal censuses collected the same information. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect each decade:

1790-1840 Censuses

These census years offer the least personal information, but are still very useful in your research. From 1790 to 1840, the government collected the name of the head of household, who was usually male (though sometimes female), the number of people residing in the household, the age categories of those residents, and other bits of information, such as how many people were involved in agriculture.

Censuses are organized by state and town. Even if you can’t confirm between 1790 and 1840 whether or not William’s wife was Mary, and that they had four daughters by 1820, you can at least confirm that he lived in the town of Anywhere, USA and had five females in various age categories within the household. Who knows – you might find William and Mary thirty years later in…

1850-1870 Censuses

This is where many genealogists give a cheer, since the government expanded the census-taking to include the names of all people residing within a household, as well as their specific ages. You can also see a family’s street address starting here. This doesn’t necessarily mean the census records you will find are perfect – far from it! The censuses suffer from human error on three sides.

Sometimes the person giving the information was not accurate. This might have been because the person responding to the census taker’s questions was a child or distant relative or neighbor of the family, and did not know the precise ages of the members of the household. The census-taker might also have written a name down with a close, but incorrect spelling. Finally, if you are accessing a transcription rather than an image of a census, the transcriber might have misread or mistyped information. This is understandable, since the handwriting back then is very different from what most people are accustomed to now.

Still, these censuses are of huge help in documenting a family’s names, children, potential dates of birth, and residences!

1880 Census

If the censuses from 1850 through 1870 are a vast improvement over the previous decades, then 1880 is the year the census makes another leap forward in usefulness. As of this decade, census takers began asking for the birth places of the respondents’ parents.

Once again, this system is far from perfect. I have a great-great grandmother whose parents have been listed as being born in four different places over four different censuses (Maine, Massachusetts, Canada, and England and Scotland). Whatever the answer may be, I’ve learned I can’t rely on the census for it in this instance! As with the prior decades, take the information you find with a grain of salt. The person giving it might not be the one most knowledgeable about the family being enumerated at the time.

1890 Census

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Sorry, tiny researcher!

Sadly, the majority of the 1890 census schedules were lost in a fire at the National Archives. A few do exist and you can find them online at FamilySearch and other sites. However, those few remaining censuses are limited to small, specific areas.

1900-1940 Censuses

The census questions remained fairly consistent from 1900 onward. You will find various questions include age at first marriage, number of children a woman had, number of children still living, questions related to whether or not a person was a citizen or naturalized, and their work, just to name a few.

There are various other enumerations and special schedules too, including the 1890 Veterans Census, mortality schedules, and state censuses. The state of Massachusetts, for example, held a state census every 10 years. You can find the complete 1855 and 1865 Massachusetts State Censuses at FamilySearch. If these are available for the states where you are researching ancestors, these can be especially helpful for bridging the gap left by the 1890 census, as can local directories.

When most people join a subscription site for genealogy, censuses tend to be the major draw. However, you can find many federal and state census images free at FamilySearch.

UK & Canadian Censuses

Another set of censuses you can find both for free and pay are those from other countries, specifically Canada and the UK. These were also taken every decade and are available from 1841 through 1921. In addition to FamilySearch and pay sites, you can also find the Canadian censuses at the Library and Archives of Canada.

One last caveat about censuses: keep in mind not every family appeared every decade. I’ve researched families easily discovered in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 censuses, only to have them disappear in 1880. They were still alive, according to other available records, yet for some reason they were skipped or perhaps simply not at home during the 1880 enumeration. If you run into this problem, there are plenty of alternative resources out there to verify your ancestors’ existence at the time – vital records, land records, court and probate records, and much more. Censuses are one of many tools available to you in your genealogical endeavors!

Ernesta Maddalena Bergamasco
Transcripts vs. Original Records

It seems I’m on a roll with sharing my thoughts in 2020! As it turns out, I’m also on a roll with finding Italian records. You see, I have two “sets” of Italian ancestors, both maternal. My mom’s parents each have one Italian parent. And those Italian parents are from completely opposite “ends” of Italy.

This year, my focus is on my mother’s mother’s – or Nana’s – family. We have some neat photographs of my great-great grandparents, Bartolomeo Giovanni Michele Galfré and Ernesta Maddalena (Pedemonte) Bergamasco. There is also a fantastic family history my Aunt Espezzia put together with two of her sisters. However, there are tidbits of misinformation in the family history, and it’s still only part of the story of the Galfré and Bergamasco families.

After two solid weeks of research, I’ve learned so many new things that none of us knew, like the fact that my great-great grandma Ernesta had 3 sisters we weren’t aware of, and that her parents actually weren’t married until after they’d already had 8 children together. Thus, Ernesta often went by her mother’s surname, Pedemonte. After her parents married, she then went by either her father’s surname of Bergamasco or her husband’s surname of Galfré, but only in U.S. records.

Furthermore, her mother was previously married to a man named Giacomo Spiazzi and Ernesta’s eldest siblings were Spiazzis. We’d also been told that Ernesta had an uncle who was a bishop. Well… I’ve yet to find such a person, but through her half-brother Bartolomeo Spiazzi, she’s the aunt of Catholic theologian Raimondo (born Aurelio) Spiazzi.

Of course, all this research has involved digging deep into Italian records, using a combination of the FamilySearch catalog to find non-indexed records and the Antenati website, for those records to which FamilySearch currently restricts access.

Here’s a small reminder about why genealogists always strongly recommend you look for an original record or image of the original, instead of relying on transcriptions.

Transcriptions can be handy, but incomplete, such as this one for the birth of one of my distant uncles from the Italy, Imperia, San Remo, Civil Registration (State Archive), 1805-1910 database on FamilySearch:

Name: Vittorio Galfrè
Event Type: Birth
Event Date: 20 Oct 1895
Event Place: San Remo, Imperia, Italy
Gender: Male
Father’s Name: Bartolomeo Galfré
Certificate Number: 402

I’m glad FamilySearch has this available, however they currently restrict access to the image of the actual record. Fortunately, the Antenati has the record, which looks like this:

Nati (birth) of Vittorio Galfre, 20 October 1895, San Remo, Imperia, Liguria, Italy.

Why is the actual handwritten birth record superior? For starters, my Uncle Vittorio’s birth record shows that his father (my great-great grandfather Bartolomeo) was 30-years-old and worked as a porter. From what we understand, he worked at the train station in Ventimeglia.

This record also tells you Vittorio was a “gemello” or twin. His brother, Emanuele, is on the next page. I’m sorry to report that both Vittorio and Emanuele died as infants. This seemed to also be a sad trend with their mother’s mother, who had twins, one of whom died in infancy.

Another interesting tidbit is that Vittorio’s parents, my great-great grandparents, weren’t yet married! As I mentioned, the same thing occurred with Ernesta’s parents. They took a good 20 years after her birth to finally marry one another.

I hadn’t yet located a marriage record for Bartolomeo and Ernesta over weeks (actually years) of researching. Now I knew why. They weren’t married in 1894, as we were told. I’d also put a great deal of time into trying to find a marriage record for them in their native towns/villages of Cuneo and Moneglia, respectively.

Now that I knew they were married sometime after the birth of the twins in 1895, I decided that perhaps they were married in San Remo, simply because of this record. After all, how far might they have gone between 1895 and 1896, when their next son was born, also in San Remo? Not far, it turns out, because I found their marriage in San Remo within about 30 minutes of finding the images of the birth records for their 3 sons born in Italy.

I never would have known from the transcription that Bartolomeo and Ernesta weren’t yet married. Thanks to the original image, I was able to refocus my efforts and find what I was looking for!