What are U.S. Census Records?

The U.S. Census Records are basically a collection of the US population data, which has been taken every ten years since 1790. In 1790 the information collected was simply the name of head of the household and household members in selected age groups. Since that time more information such as age, sex, occupation, education, and relationship has been collected. Currently only from the year 1790 to 1940 is available to the public. This is because of  the 72-year restriction rule on accessing the U.S. Census. The Rule states that no personal identifiable information about an individual will be release to any other individual or agency until 72 years after it was collected. In the year 1890 there was a devastating fire that destroyed most of the records  in the Department of Commerce, so most of 1890 is not available expect there are partial records available for some states.

How Was  The U.S. Census  Information Collected?

Since 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected data using what is called a census “schedule,” or more currently a “questionnaire.” Between  the years 1790 to 1879, U.S. Marshals had the duty of collecting this information.  The U.S. Marshals conducting the census were responsible for supplying paper and writing-in  the headings and information they collected. They had very little training on how to collect this data.  To collect this information, the U.S. Marshals were required to visit and write down the  data they collected from each household. In 1830, the  the U.S. Marshals received printed uniform schedules  to record households’ responses.

The March 3, 1879 Act replaced the U.S. Marshals with  hired and specially trained census takers to conduct the door to door  1880 Census.
U.S. Census
The door-to-door collecting of census  information by the census-takers was the primary method used until the U.S. Census Bureau began mailing questionnaires to households in 1960. The 1940 U.S. Census had separate questionnaires to count the population and collect housing data. In 1960  the census records for the population and housing questions were put  into one questionnaire, which were mailed to households or completed during a census taker’s visit.

Between 1970 and 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau  used two types of questionnaires. Most households received a short-form questionnaire asking a minimum number of questions and a sample of households received a long-form questionnaire that included additional questions about the household.

In  2010, the  U.S. Census became one questionnaire consisting of ten questions.

The job of the census takers began to  change  as more  households received and returned their questionnaires by mail.   In 2010, the majority of households were counted by the mailed questionnaires. Census takers were still used to visit places frequented by the transient population such as shelters and soup kitchens, and households that did not return their questionnaires by mail.

What Information Will The  U.S. Census Tell You?

U.S. Census records can provide a lot of information for your genealogy research. It can help to connect moments in time and give you a clear understanding of how and where your ancestors lived.

I would suggest that you start with the most current U.S. Census year available and work backwards, because of the 72-year restriction  rule on access to the U.S. Census, currently 1940 is the latest year available. Also when checking census records be sure to look at the information of the households that lived next door or on the street. You will find that many of these can be related.  I have found neighborhoods showing up as Godparents for some of my relatives.
Here is what you will find in Census Records from 1850 to 1940:

  •   names of family members
  •   their ages at a certain point in time
  •   their state or country of birth
  •   their parent’s birthplaces
  •   year of immigration
  •   street address
  •   marriage status and years of marriage
  •   occupation(s)
  •   value of their home and personal belongings

In the U.S. Census Records before  1850,  there was not as much  information collected and in 1790-1840 U.S. Census, only the head of household is listed and the number of household members in selected age groups.

What is the Soundex System?

U.S. CensusThe Soundex system was a method of indexing names  that was used in the 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. Census. The Soundex system was a project of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Many states did not have a system for registering births,  so the Soundex indexes was originally used to help the U.S. Census Bureau in finding records for people who needed official proof of age. The Soundex is a coded surname index using the first letter of the last name and three digits based on the way a name sounds rather than the way it’s spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently such as Smith and Smyth have the same code and were filed together.   An example of a 1930 Soundex Card. Photo courtesy of the National Archives. This system was also used to  make it easier to find a particular name that may have been misspelled, which was very common. The Soundex can help genealogists with identifying the spelling variations for a given surname.

Below you can enter the person’s name and it will convert  it to the soundex code.
This is a Soundex converter available on is a community of


This converter will provide  a Soundex code for the entered surname, plus other surnames/spellings sharing the same Soundex code.

This is a sample of  what number represents the Letters 

1 B, F, P, V,
2 C, G, J, K, Q, S, X, Z,
3 D, T,
4 L,
5 M, N,
6 R

A, E, I, O, U, H, W, and Y are disregard letters

Soundex files are available on microfilm at the National Archives, Regional Archives System, the Church of Latter-Day Saints Family History Library, and larger public libraries and university libraries in many states. You may also want to check with your local genealogy society.

Where Can You Find Census Records?

U.S. Census Records are available at National Archives facilities and many large public and university libraries in many states. Currently, the National Archives does not have  U.S. Census Records on-line. Public and university libraries do allow their patrons to access these records free-of-charge with their library card.

There are several websites that offer a subscription service to view census records on-line. NARA has digitized most of the U.S. Census Records and these can be found on their digitization partners’ websites:,, and, have digitized selected NARA microfilm publications and original records and they are available on their web sites. This link will bring you to a list that includes all microfilm publications and original records that have been either partially or wholly digitized by the three listed  partners. is a free site, while both Ancestry and Fold3 are both subscription services that allow free searches of some or all index terms for each title. There is free access to and in all Research Rooms at the National Archives, including those in regional archives and presidential libraries. Eventually there will be free access on-line to all these digitized records through the National Archives Catalog.

Another website that has free access to some U.S. Census record information is

I hope this overview of the U.S. Census Records is helpful and you have great success finding the information you need for your family tree research.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.