To the genealogist, a census is a beautiful and useful thing.
For example, here are just a few facts I’ve gleaned from these documents.
- My grandfather was earning a wage at thirteen.
- My great-grandfather was a U.S. RFD contract mail delivery man.
- The rest of my ancestors were mostly farmers, though I can also claim a few coopers, carpenters, servants and joiners.
- My 2x great-grandfather couldn’t write.
- The majority of my family members were born in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and, later, West Virginia. But one was listed on three censuses as being born in three different states.
This brings me to my next point.
The census is not always accurate, and apparently, many census takers couldn’t spell. In addition, old-fashioned handwriting can be difficult to read, so indexes are not always correct. Still, if you find something repeated in enough censuses, you can probably accept it as fact.
It’s also useful to pay attention to neighbors because they were often the source of marriage partners. Say you have a great-grandfather named Andrew Warren Bird who was married to your great-grandmother Clara Olive Summers, and in earlier censuses you find a Byrd family living near a Summers family, it’s probably the right families, even if the names are spelled differently, and there is no Andrew listed. And if, a generation later, you discover that a Lang man married a Byrd woman, and his sister married a Byrd man, well, you’ll begin to realize just how small the marriage pool was. (Children of these two marriages are double-first cousins, and they share as much DNA as siblings.)
Something else you need to understand is that counties were divided to make new counties (and in the case of West Virginia, one state was divided to form two). You may discover a family that lived in Monongalia County in the 1840 census was in Marion County in 1850. And they didn’t move.
Alternatively, a family can be listed in once census, disappear entirely in the next, and reappear back in the same place in the following one.
Occasionally, someone appears in a completely unlikely place. I have an ancestor who — after she was widowed — turned up in Oklahoma. At first I ignored that return on a search for her name because, well, she couldn’t be there.
She was. Her son-in-law was working in the oil fields, and my ancestor was living with him and her daughter.
In earlier censuses (1790-1840), women and children (and later, slaves) were listed only as hash marks, unless the woman was a widow and therefore head of the household.
Still, the census, especially the later ones can provide a wealth of information including some, but not always all, of the following.
- Name (occasionally misspelled and/or nearly illegible).
- Age (from which you can generally guess about birth year, which you can use to find other resources).
- Profession/occupation, and sometimes how many months they worked that year.
- Value of property.
- Place of birth.
- Year married.
- If the person attended school in the last year.
- If the person could read or write.
- If the person suffered from certain infirmities.
- If their parents were “foreign-born.” In later years, this information is more detailed with the census asking parents’ place of birth.
- Relationship of the person to the head of the family.
- Whether the person was single, married, widowed, or divorced.
- The Special Schedule of the 1890 census tells whether or not the person served in the “war of the rebellion” or was a widow of a soldier, sailor, or marine. (Note: If your ancestor isn’t listed, it doesn’t always mean he didn’t serve. I have several for whom I have Civil War pension records, and they don’t show up on this schedule.)
- How many children a female ancestor has given birth to, and (this one always gives me pause) how many of those children are still alive.
- Year of immigration and mother tongue.
- The 1900 and 1910 censuses also has a separate census for “Indians.”
So, what’s stopping you? Go to this page on FamilySearch.org and see what your ancestors were doing in 1940.
Or pick any decade. You might be surprised at what you learn.