Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Census is the beginning not the end

There it is, the U.S. Census, all decked out in its best go-to-meeting suit and ready for the obligatory Easter Sunday family photo. Look at Uncle Sam, sort of uncomfortable with the whole process and looking way out of place in the genealogical world. Of course we can find Ma and Pa and all the kids, and in the background, all the aunts and cousins. There's Cousin Fred in his military uniform getting ready to go off to war. If we look carefully we can find almost every family member somewhere in the picture with the top of their head poking out of the group photo. It is a lovely shot on a beautiful Spring day, everyone is in detailed black and white focus.

What's wrong with this 1940 U.S. Census picture?  Nothing, absolutely nothing. It is so perfect that we cannot believe our eyes. But wait, what is that down in the corner of the picture? Is it a little detractor? Don't worry, we can Photoshop it out with our 21st Century tools.

In helping people "do their genealogy" the U.S. Census collection is a huge success story. Right there, in gorgeous black and white, you find complete families dating clear back to 1850 and family groups dating all the way back to 1790. So what's wrong with this picture? Why isn't the Census both the beginning and the end of genealogy?

To some people it certainly is the end as well as the beginning. Take the example of the patron I helped last week. We were able to track back six generations of his family using the Census records almost exclusively. Thank you very much, that is all I wanted to know. See you again never and out the door. Often, not always, but more often than is comfortable, budding genealogists are given the impression that census records are genealogy. If you can't find your family in the census, they didn't exist so there is no reason to look further.

How many of us (and I include myself) look at census records as the mere beginning of our genealogical journey. That stack of ten year snapshots is nothing more than that, a snapshot of a family at one point in time. It is always useful to have a snapshot, but what about the rest of the story. The clues are there in the censuses, the immigration dates, the occupations, the schooling, the number of total children born, the state or country or origin of the parents, all sorts of useful information if it is used to find other records. That is sticking point, if it is used to find other records.

How may of budding genealogists who are searching for their ancestors in the 1940 U.S. Census know where to go next? How many of the promotional websites are telling them that the Census is only the beginning of the picture? Where would you go next for records after finding your family in the 1940 U.S. Census? How about some of these suggestions to name a few:
  • World War II Draft Registration Records
  • Local School Records
  • Union Records
  • Voter Registration Records
  • Tax Records
  • Property Records of all kinds
  • Probate Records
  • Newspapers
  • Vital Records
  • City Directories
  • Agricultural Coop Records
Do you get the idea? The census, no matter what the year, is just the bare beginning of genealogical research, not the end.


  1. Perhaps we in Australia are sort-of lucky not to have the census as to some extent wenhave to go to other sources I feel so strongly about this hence my series of posts on records beyond the Internet.

  2. So true and thanks for posting this information....