The Federal census has been undertaken every ten years since 1790. Census records can provide snapshot descriptions of families, including names, ages, places of birth, and occupations. While the census does not usually provide the names of ancestral towns, it often includes data that are useful for locating immigration and naturalization records containing that information. It is important to note, however, that information found in a census may not be reliable, since people sometimes reported inaccurate information and census officials did make errors.
Most of the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. Only fragments exist for just Alabama, D.C., Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota and Texas.
Many states, including New York and New Jersey, undertook their own censuses in the 19th and early 20th centuries in between Federal census years. Thus, 1885 and 1892/95 state censuses can be helpful in tracing households between 1880 and 1900. Additionally, in 1890, New York City officials decided that the Federal census had failed to give an accurate count of their residents and undertook their own census, enumerated by city policemen. A large portion of the 1890 NYC Police Census from Manhattan and the West Bronx survives and is another good supplement to the missing 1890 Federal census.
The 1900 census schedules give for each person: name; address; relationship to the head of the household; color or race; sex; month and year of birth; age at last birthday; marital status; if a wife is listed within the household, then number of years married, number of children born of that marriage, and number of children living; places of birth of each individual and of the parents of each individual; citizenship; if the individual is foreign born, then year of immigration and number of years in the U.S.; citizenship status of foreign born individuals over age 21; occupation; whether or not person can read, write, and speak English; whether home is owned or rented; whether or not home is a farm; and whether or not home is mortgaged.
The 1910 census schedules record the following information for each person: name; relationship to head of household; sex; color or race; age at last birthday; marital status; length of present marriage; if a mother, number of children and number of living children; place of birth; place of birth of parents; if foreign born, year of immigration and citizenship status; language spoken; occupation; type of industry employed in; if employer, employee, or self-employed; if unemployed; number of weeks unemployed in 1909; ability to read and write; if attended daytime school since September 1, 1909; if home is rented or owned; if home is owned, free, or mortgaged; if home is a house or a farm; if a survivor of Union or Confederate Army or Navy; if blind in both eyes; and if deaf and dumb.
The 1920 census schedules record the following information for each person: name; relationship to head of household; sex; color or race; age at last birthday; marital status; place of birth; place of birth of parents; if foreign born, year of immigration and citizenship status; year of naturalization; mother tongue; language spoken; occupation; type of industry employed in; if employer, employee, or self-employed; ability to read and write; if attended daytime school since September 1, 1919; if home is rented or owned; if home is owned, free, or mortgaged; if home is a house or a farm.
The 1930 Federal Census includes information about place of abode, name of each person living there, relationship of each person to the head of the family, information about the home (including value if owned), personal data (including sex, age, marital status and age when first married), education, place of birth of the person and the person’s parents (usually the country), mother tongue, citizenship (including year of immigration and naturalization status), occupation, employment, veteran status, and farm schedule (if applicable).
The 1940 Federal Census was taken at the end of the Depression and, therefore, many of the questions relate to the economy and employment. Data includes address, whether home is rented or owned and rent or value of property, name, relationship to head of household, sex, race, age, marital status, highest grade in school, country or state of birth, citizenship status, location of residence in 1935, occupational and employment status and type of work, and amount of salary or wages in 1939. In addition, 5% of the respondents were asked parents’ place of birth, language spoken at home, veteran status and wars fought, and Social Security and usual occupation data. You may view a blank form with all 1940 census questions and codes here. Some information useful to genealogists which was included in previous censuses is missing in 1940, including parents’ place of birth (for all but the 5% sample) and year of immigration.
Census records less than 72 years old are available, but access is restricted for reasons of privacy. Personal information from the restricted schedules can be provided by the Census Bureau only to the person to whom the information relates or to a legal representative of that person. If the record relates to a deceased person, a certified death certificate must be provided. For additional information and application instructions, click here.