The more I study the information that can be gleaned from a census, the more I fall in love with them. They are not perfect, but boy can they paint a picture of your ancestor’s life.
I think it is very important to understand some details about censuses, census takers, and the like.
The US federal censuses are taken every 10 years. The United States started taking censuses for apportioning the number of federal representatives from each state for tax levy purposes in 1790, but, genealogy information was a by-product. I will focus on the population schedules, although, there are many types of censuses that you may have overlooked. Agriculture, Industry/Manufacturing, Mortality, and Slave schedules are just a few.
Between 1790-1870, the duty of collecting census data fell to the U. S. Marshals. A marshal could appoint as many “assistants” as they needed to get the job done. Before 1830, there were no printed schedules, so you may see some censuses that look like the columns are just written on paper…that’s because they were! A census worker was not necessarily well educated or qualified. Penmanship was not a prerequisite!
Wages were not an incentive to become a census worker. It was hard work and long hours for not much pay. In 1790, which was the highest pay rate, the worker was paid $1.00 per 50 people. By 1920, the census worker was paid between $.01 and $.04 per person! I am sure the census taker was not thinking that these records would be used for generations for the use of research; therefore, perhaps they did not worry about “little errors”.
In March of 1879, an act replaced the marshals with specially trained and hired census-takers to conduct the 1880 and subsequent censuses.
There was often confusion of jurisdictions. An area was divided into districts and sometimes into sub-districts. These boundaries were often poorly defined and a census worker may be unsure if a household lay in their jurisdiction or another. This is one reason a family may be enumerated more than once.
When you are viewing “an original” census record, it is difficult to tell if you are looking at the original or one of the two copies. So you see; there were three records of any given census prior to 1880. One set was filed with the County Clerk, one set went to the State and the third set went to the US Census Office. You can tell which copy went to the Census Office because there will be tabulations directly on the schedule.
In 1880, the practice of making copies was ended and the originals went back to the Census Office.
Prior to 1850, typically only heads of households were listed by name. There were no exact ages given, but rather a tally mark in a column which was dedicated to a span of ages. In 1850, everyone in the household was listed by name, age, and place of birth. In 1880, a person’s relationship to head of household was recorded and not only where the individual was born, but where their father and mother were born.
Ever notice that the 1890 census is not available? It was destroyed. The building it was located in was burned in a fire in 1921. Less than 1% of the census survived. Over 6,160 names of persons survived in fragments covering 10 states and the District of Columbia. See http://www.archives.gov/research/census/1890/1890.html for a list of the surviving records.
The 1900 US Federal Census is my favorite. Why? It is the only census that lists the MONTH and YEAR of birth for every individual. It is the only census that has this information.
Take some time to gather your "census" and use them to paint a picture of the life of your ancestor!
|Goldie Cole and her children. Pennington Gap, VA ca. 1953|
 “How Were Census Takers Instructed on How To Conduct The Census?”, internet article, United States Census Bureau (www.census.gov/history: accessed 3 Feb 2014).
 “Overview of the US Census”, internet article, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com: accessed 3 Feb 2014); citing original article “Census Records” by Loretto Dennis Szucs & Matthew Wright in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy.