Common Census Questions

The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…

Following are some questions about the federal censuses, 1790-1940, perhaps common to all genealogists who use the censuses to locate their ancestors.

● Question: Who were the people who became the early census takers?
Answer: From 1790-1870, the U.S. federal censuses were taken door-to-door by assistant U.S. Marshals. The U.S. Marshal for each federal court district within a state was responsible for taking the federal census, hiring assistants, and ensuring the proper conduct of the census in his jurisdiction. From 1880 forward, all censuses were conducted by enumerators hired temporarily by the U.S. Census Office/Census Bureau.

● Question: When did the Bureau of the Census begin?
Answer: The first Census Office was created just prior to the 1850 federal census. Although the door-to-door census takers were still the assistant U.S. Marshals, the new Census Office received the census schedules and tabulated the results. The Census Office, part of the Department of the Interior, was authorized and funded in 1850 by Congress for the purpose of tabulating the census statistics, then disbanded after each census, 1850-1900. The Census Office became a permanent agency in 1903. After World War I, it was referred to as the Bureau of the Census, or more commonly, the Census Bureau. The first census conducted entirely by the Census Office was in 1880, where for the first time, the Census Office hired its own door-to-door census enumerators in all states and territories. (This was also the first census in which the relationships of members of a household were shown, that is, the relationship of a person to the head of household).

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 9: An 1850 census record showing all twelve children in a family proves only that your ancestors did not have access to birth control.

● Question: If someone were not at home on the day when the 1850 census taker came, would that person still be included in the census? What about students away from home, inmates at prisons, sailors on board ships, and other temporarily displaced persons?
Answer: The 1850 instructions to the assistant U.S. Marshall were as follows: “The name of every person whose usual place of abode on the 1st day of June, 1850, was in this family, insert the name of every free person in each family, of every age, including the names of those temporarily absent, as well as those that were at home on that day.” The same instructions were given for censuses before and after 1850.

The 1850 instructions also included these words, “All landlords, jailors, superintendents of poorhouses, garrisons, hospitals, asylums, and other similar institutions, are to be considered as heads of their respective families, and the inmates under their care to be registered as members thereof.”

The language relating to students was specific: “Students in colleges, academies, or schools, when absent from the families to which they belong, are to be enumerated only as members of the family in which they usually boarded and lodged on the 1st day of June.”

The instructions also defined the place of abode as “the house or usual lodging place of a person. Anyone who is temporarily absent on a journey, or for other purposes, without taking up his place of residence elsewhere, and with the intention of returning again, is to be considered a member of the family which the assistant marshal is enumerating.”

The assistant marshals were directed to “make inquiry at all stores, shops, eating houses, and other similar places, and take the name and description of every person who usually slept there, provided such person is not otherwise enumerated.”

The instructions went on to say: “Inquiries are to be made at every dwelling house, or of the head of every family. Those only who belong to such family, and consider it their home or usual place of abode, whether present or temporarily absent on a visit, journey, or a voyage, are to be enumerated. Persons on board of vessels accidentally or temporarily in port, temporarily boarding for a few days at a sailors boarding or lodging house, if they belong to other places are not to be enumerated as the population of a place. The sailors and hands of a revenue cutter which belongs to a particular port should be enumerated as of that port. A similar rule will apply to those employed in the navigation of the lakes, rivers, and canals. All are to be taken at their homes or usual place of abode, whether present or absent; and if any live on board of vessels or boats who are not so enumerated, they are to be taken as of the place where the vessel or boat is owned, licensed, or registered. And the assistant marshals are to make inquiry at every vessel and boat employed in the internal navigation of the United States, and enumerate those who are not taken as belonging to a family on shore; and all persons of such description in any one vessel are to be considered as belonging to one family and the vessel their place of abode. The assistants in all seaports will apply at the proper office for lists of all persons on a voyage at sea and register all citizens of the United States who have not been registered as belonging to some family.”

Question: If someone had died after 1 June 1850, would that person be listed in the 1850 census? What if a child were born after 1 June 1850?
Answer: The assistant marshal’s official instructions were clear: “The names of every member of a family who may have died since the 1st day of June is to be entered and described as if living, but the name of any person born since the 1st day of June is to be omitted.” This provision of the census day being used as the though time had stopped on that day was followed for all censuses 1790-2010. The census day was used for the purpose of tabulating the statistics of the census. Although it may have taken a census taker several weeks after the census day to reach a particular house, the questions all related to the census day. For more information, see my previous blog article, The Census Day.

Question: In the 1850 federal censuses, the names of all members of a household are listed, but without showing a relationship to the head of house. What were the rules for listing the members of a family? Was there any particular order followed?
Answer: For the 1850 federal census, the official instructions from the Census Office to the Assistant Marshals were as follows: “The names are to be written beginning with the father and mother; or if either, or both, be dead, begin with some other ostensible head of the family; to be followed, as far as practicable, with the name of the oldest child residing at home, then the next oldest, and so on to the youngest, then the other inmates, lodgers and borders, laborers, domestics, and servants.” Similar instructions were given for the 1860 and 1870 censuses. Although one can never tell for sure what the relationships may be for each member of a household, this bit of instructions to the assistant marshals is revealing. It means that the order in which the names were listed is important, which for children was by their descending ages, followed by servants, non-children, and etc. Therefore, one can usually spot extra people in a household (with or without the same surname as the head) based on their age and position in the household group listing.

Question: Where can I find the complete text of the official instructions to the census takers?
Answer: The U.S. government’s official instructions to the assistant marshals were reproduced in a book, 200 Years of U.S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Question, 1790-1990 (U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1986; reprinted by Heritage Quest, No. Salt Lake, UT, 1996).

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 29: The page on the census where your ancestor’s town was enumerated has no page number.

For Further Reading:

A Century of Population Growth: From the First Census of the U.S. to the Twelfth 1790-1900

Finding Answers in the U.S. Census

Genealogy at a Glance: U.S. Federal Census Records

Quillen’s Essentials of Genealogy: Mastering Census & Military Records

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.