The Strengths of U.S. Federal Census Records
The information requested on the U.S. Federal Census Records changed from year to year from the first census in 1790 to the most recent one available. You can think of these changes as being modifications to the column headings. You can find a complete set of blank U.S Census forms on the FamilySearch.org Research Wiki. See (https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Census_Forms). There are other sets of these blank form online from other websites also. Depending on the quality of the original microfilm image and the subsequent online digital images, you may need the blank forms for reference to read the column headings. There are multiple sets of all the U.S. Census records online on different websites, including FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, Findmypast.com, MyHeritage.com and many other websites. The images on the different programs may be differently made and so it is sometimes advantageous to view the individual sheets as they appear on the different programs.
Here is another example of the same sheet shown above from Archive.org.
For genealogists, the watershed year is the 1850 U.S. Census when the forms asked for complete families. Because the information requested changed more or less every ten years, each one of the applicable census records should be closely examined for clues as to where to find additional information about the family.
One of the best introductions to and explanations of the U.S. Census is the following book
Dollarhide, William. 1999. The census book: a genealogist's guide to federal census facts, schedules and indexes : with master extraction forms for federal census schedules, 1790-1930. Bountiful, Utah: Heritage Quest.
Although the book is now a little out of date because it does not cover the 1940 census, it is helpful for understanding the process and the limitations.
As an example, here are the fields on this 1900 U.S. Federal Census:
- Number of dwelling home in order of visitation by enumerator
- Number of family in order of visitation by enumerator
- Relation to head of the family
- Color or Race Enumerators were to mark "W" for White, "B" for Black, "Ch" for Chinese, "Jp" for Japanese, or "In" for American Indian.
- Date of Birth
- Was the person single, married, widowed, or divorced?
- How many years has the person been married?
- For mothers, how many children has the person had?
- How many of those children are living?
- What was the person's place of birth?
- What was the person's father's place of birth?
- What was the person's mother's place of birth?
- What year did the person immigrate to the United States?
- How many years has the person been in the United States?
- Is the person naturalized?
- Occupation, trade, or profession
- How many months has the person not been employed in the past year?
- How many months did the person attend school in the past year?
- Can the person read?
- Can the person write?
- Can the person speak English?
- Is the person's home owned or rented?
- If it is owned, is the person's home owned free or mortgaged?
- Does the person live in a farm or in a house?
- If a person lived on a farm, the enumerator was to write that farm's identification number on its corresponding agricultural questionnaire in this column
From the standpoint of further research there is some of the information that can be relied on, assuming that the researcher has identified the right person. One of the most reliable pieces of information is always the place where the person was located at the time of the census. In the case of the two images above, the place is as follows:
Township or other division of county: St. Joseph Precinct
The location is of paramount importance in finding additional information about the family.
Other very helpful fields include the number of children the mother has had and the number living. This often provides information about children who do not appear on the census at all because they died very young. The occupation, trade or profession of the head of the family is useful in differentiating between people with the same or similar names. Likewise, the information concerning whether the person owned or rented property can lead to land and property records in the location identified by the census.
One of the most valuable provisions asked for the year of immigration and whether or not the person was a naturalized citizen. The answers to these questions can help the researcher find passenger records and naturalization documents. A skilled researcher will not just collect the census records and then fail to extract all of the possible information that will help to find additional records.
The Weaknesses of U.S. Federal Census Records
The main weakness of census records is that the information was solicited and written down by the enumerators. These people were not necessarily familiar with the language or culture of those providing the information and spelling and locations must be considered to be suspect. In addition the enumerators did not always ask for a date of birth, in some census years, they only asked for the age of each of the family members at the time the census was taken. Even if the age information is correct at the time the census is taken, the ages can be off by as much as a year due to the date of the person's birthday and its interaction with the date of the census.
Besides the unreliable spelling, the information could have been intentionally misrepresented for any number of reasons. Failing to go beyond the census records and verify names, ages, and other information can send a researcher off on a tangent.