Monday, July 13, 2020 -
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Census records keys to family history

In my last column, I talked about the importance of vital records. But the starting point for most family historians in authenticating family information is the US Federal Census. Although I briefly mentioned it in the past few columns, I’ll flesh it out here.

Since 1790, the federal government has had a keen interest in counting its residents (notice I didn’t say citizens), which it has done every 10 years. Of course, for most Jews, the late 1800s and early 1900s are the most pertinent censuses. Unfortunately for us, the 1890 census was tragically lost in a fire. (A few partial state lists survived, but very little for Jewish population centers.)

However, the early 1900 censuses can be very helpful.

All censuses have been microfilmed, and until about 10 years ago that meant going through a lot of work and a lot of hand cranking on microfilm viewers. However, by now all the censuses have been digitized, so it’s far easier to search indexes by name.

All are available at, a commercial site, and some are available at and HeritageQuest Online (available through many libraries)
Genealogy is not just the collection of names and dates — it is creating a portrait of your ancestors, and seeing how they fit into history, and the census can really aid that effort.

Early censuses (1790-1840) only listed names of heads of household, and a few other questions.

From 1850 on, all household members were named, and into the 1900s many questions were asked: address, relationship to head of household, age, marital status, where they were born, when the person married, when they immigrated, immigration status, occupation, and others. It is quite interesting to track households every 10 years and see how they changed.

However, keep in mind that while the information is quite interesting, it is not Absolute Truth. For a variety of reasons, wrong information is sometimes found in these records, so use caution. It was not uncommon for neighbors and children to give answers to the census taker (“enumerator”) when the adults were not home.

Because of privacy laws (information is not released for 72 years), the last available census is 1930. The 1940 census will become available in 2012, through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which keeps all census records.

The best strategy for locating your ancestor is to start with the 1930 census, and work backward.

It certainly helps to know where people lived, but not as necessary as it used to be. However, the more common the name, the more information you need to know in order to find the right one.

If you are looking for Max Cohen on (often available for free at your local library), you’ll get almost 4,000 hits in the census section alone. You should have an approximate birth year, location (at least the state), and names of family members, to narrow it down to your Max Cohen.

States and some cities and counties conducted occasional censuses. While the state of New York conducted a census from 1825 to 1925, the city of New York conducted a police census in 1890, which is a great substitute for the destroyed 1890 Federal census. Good hunting.

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