It’s 2020, ya’ll, and you’ve likely heard a lot about the upcoming census, slated for this April. It got me thinking that, while it’s one of the most common historical records for new researchers to search for and interact with, many people may not be familiar with the history of census-taking (#trendingtopic #sarcasm) and all the rich detail you can extract for family tree purposes.
*yawn* Stay with me, people.
Seriously, you can uncover a lot of spicy information in a census! Children born out of wedlock? Check. Black widows? Check check. Abandoned families? Check check check.
Ok, so what exactly *is* the Census?
In short, it’s a list of every individual within a particular location (i.e. Massachusetts, the Netherlands, etc) at a certain time. In the US, there has been a Federal Population Census taken every ten years since 1790. And most US states also took their own censuses every decade, often in years ending in “5” to complement the federal census. In fact, the United Nations recommends that population censuses be taken at least every ten years.
People are typically counted within their households, and the information collected is mainly about the household structure (renting vs owning; relationships to one another; etc). More on this below!
A Brief History Lesson:
The word census originated in ancient Rome from the Latin word censere (“to estimate”) and during the Roman Republic, the census was really just a list that kept track of all adult males fit for military service.
Some form of census-taking has been around for a LONG time. I mean, how else were governments supposed to know who to tax and send to war? The first known census was undertaken by the Babylonian Empire in 3800 BC, where they counted things like livestock and quantities of butter, milk, and vegetables. And the oldest surviving census data was recorded in 2 AD, by China’s Han Dynasty where they showed a population of 57.7 million people.
In medieval Europe in AD 1086, William I of England needed a way to properly tax the land he had just conquered so he created The Domesday Book (this book title maybe needed some marketing work? Yikes!). It’s one of the oldest public records and is a very comprehensive list of all the landowners, property, tenants and serfs of Norman England.
I mean, censuses are even mentioned in the Bible.
Ok, whatever. But how do I read and use a census record?
The cool thing about our more recent census records is that you need very limited information to get started on a search: you just need a name and a location.
In the US, from 1850 to 1940, details for each individual in a household can be found for things like: age; place of birth; parents’ birthplace(s); marital status and years of marriage; year of immigration; occupation; whether they could read or write; and race. Now, not all of this information is available in every census but it’s a helpful starting point to dig deeper into other types of records.
Keep in mind that when searching online historical records, misspellings and use of nicknames are common. So if you are having trouble finding someone in a census record during a particular decade, try broadening your search terms (or take a look through death records!).
Just remember that for citizen privacy, there is a 72-year restriction on access to the census so recent records from 1940 onward are not yet available. Why the seemingly random number of 72 years, you ask? Because when this law was enacted in 1978, 72 was the average lifespan of a US citizen.
So, set your calendar to April 1, 2022 when the 1950 census goes public!