First, it is a good idea to understand how the Census records came into existence. Why do I care? You ask. If the information is there, what difference does it make where it came from or how it was obtained? Would it help if you knew that census records were written by illiterate enumerators? That isn't true, but illustrates the reason you might want to know how and where genealogically interesting records come from.
Let me give you a very, very common scenario. A person comes into the Mesa Regional Family History Center and says something like, "This is the first time I have ever done any research on my family, where do I start?" Almost always the first thing that almost automatically happens, is the person fills out a pedigree chart with some information and a volunteer sits with them at a computer and looks for Census records. A high percentage of the time, one of the ancestors shows up on the U.S. Census and the person is amazed, delighted, impressed etc.
What is wrong with this picture? Even if the person is told by the volunteer that the information may not be accurate, they still have a copy of the U.S. Census record and now believe it to be the TRUTH. Now all of you out there in bloggingland know that the U.S. Census is not a primary source for information like birth dates and so forth, but almost no one understands that principle until they have spent a long time doing research.
I need to suggest two sources for learning about the U.S. Census:
Hinckley, Kathleen W. Your Guide to the Federal Census for Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2002.
Dollarhide, William. 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, 1999.
The Dollarhide book is available online as part of the Help menu in the Heritage Quest data base. Heritage Quest may be available for free through your local library. The book is buried down in the levels of the Help menu.
Now what about copies of the U.S. Census? Remember, the U.S. Census records for 1890 were lost with the exception of a few records. But here is the list of the online sources:
- Yes, Ancestry.com does have a "complete" set of images and indexes of the U.S. Census from 1790 to 1930 (soon to have 1940). $ but free in Family History Centers and some libraries. 1880 U.S. Census is free.
- But Heritage Quest also has the images for the U.S. Census from 1790 to 1930 with indexes for all of the years except 1930 which only has five states completed, Connecticut, Delaware. Maryland, Texas and Virginia. $ but free in some libraries
- FamilySearch.org has the U.S. Census from 1850 to 1930 with indexes for all the years but no images for 1860, 1880 or 1930. Free. See Ancestry.com for images in 1880.
- Fold3.com (previously Footnote.com) has the complete 1860 U.S. Census with images and index and partial indexes and images for 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930. $ but free in Family History Centers
- Archive.org (The Internet Archive) has a complete set of images from 1790 to 1930 but no indexes. When I say complete, I mean complete. If you are used to looking at the other U.S. Census images, you really need to look at The Internet Archive. This is a complete copy of the National Archives Microfilm including all of the introductory material and instructions. You may never have known what you were missing. Free.
- Genealogy.com has a "complete" set of the images and an index to all of the years from 1790 to 1930. Genealogy.com is owned by Ancestry.com. $
- Census Finder has a search engine to find online Census records not in the other collections. Free.
- African America Census Schedules Online. Partial but complete in some areas for some years. Free.
Now about indexes. Why do you need one? Do you trust the index? Do you assume that your ancestors are not in the U.S. Census when you don't find them in the index? Do you know where your ancestors lived? Do you automatically search the entire town records for other family members in small towns? What did genealogists do before the indexes were available? Answer those questions and you can see why the collection of images by Archive.org is so valuable.