Monday, September 5, 2016

Using early census records in genealogy

Early census records are valuable to genealogists in the search for family information. In the United States, the first recorded census is 1790. In Canada, in the Province of Quebec there is an early census that were taken in 1666 and the first national census was in 1871. In the United Kingdom, the first national is in 1841. While these are probably the best known censuses, they are by no means the only ones done or the only ones whose records have been preserved. Many other countries in Europe also took censuses and the records have been preserved in many cases. So don't despair if you don't have ancestors on the ones mentioned, it doesn't mean that you won't find one for the country you are interested in researching.

Not all early censuses are created equal however. In many of the very early ones, only men were enumerated which is not helpful if you are trying to locate females. You never know what gems you will be able to glean from these records so it is important to look them over carefully. You can place them in an area on a given day in a particular year and that is huge. Remember however, you don't know who provided the information to the enumerator, you can't take these records as the gospel truth, they are merely fascinating hints.

The first step when researching with censuses is to try to have a blank copy of the record available so that you understand exactly what the information is in each column. That 25 you are seeing can be an age, the value of property or the acres of land owned depending on the census. It can even be the number of years that the respondent has lived in the country of the census. Never assume you know what each column means, be sure.

In the US census, an important column is one that asks if they are a citizen. This leads to another document you can look for, naturalization. Don’t expect to find naturalization records for women since before they had the right to vote, they didn’t have to naturalize, they automatically became citizens when their husbands or fathers did.

In the early UK census, one record that can be a great help is whether or not the respondent was born in the county where the record was taken. It is only a yes or a no response but it can save you a lot of useless work to know that while your ancestor may live in Yorkshire, they were not born there. If you are lucky they may have added the county where they came from but it is no guarantee.

The main value of the early censuses is not the amount of information that they include, most of them are quite sparse. They do however, place your ancestor in a city, town or village on a particular date and that gives you a place to start looking into local civil and church records. Since many ancestors were quite mobile, this is a big thing.

Even if you can’t find a national census for your ancestor, don’t give up. There are other types of censuses that were taken by counties, states, cities and villages and even churches. Just because your ancestors are not in one, it doesn’t mean that they are not in another.

Ancestry.com is not a free website but it has one of the best collections of census records and it may be worth your while to join at least for long enough to search their database. A free source for at least some of the census records is Familysearch.org.


Early census records are a valuable resource for today’s genealogist and the more recent the census, the more information it will include. Be prepared to learn a lot of about your ancestors from the information that they provided. Just be aware that the census is not really a primary source since before 1940 no one is sure who actually provided the information and how much they knew about the person they were answering for. Use it as a tool, to lead to further research.

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