ABCs of Family History: C


is forĀ census. Census records are a staple of genealogical research. They provide vital information for each household member, such as name, sex, race, age, marital status, education, and place of birth. Census records also paint vibrant pictures of the family’s everyday life. For example, a census will reveal each individual’s occupation and the value of the family’s home. The 1900 census is particularly helpful because it lists the number of children a woman had and how many of those were living. No matter what you’re looking for, a census record is a great place to start.

According to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, the U.S. is required to conduct a census every 10 years. The first census was taken in 1790; the most recent census was performed in 2010. Early censuses (through 1840) listed only the names of the heads of household. Starting in 1850, enumerators recorded specific information for all household members. Unfortunately, most of the 1890 census was destroyed by a fire in January 1921.

In general, census records are subject to the “72-year rule.” This means that records are kept private for 72 years after the census year. Therefore, the latest census we have access to is 1940. Individuals named in the 1950-2010 censuses (or their heirs) can request records for their households only by submitting Form BC-600. Otherwise, you will have to wait until April 1, 2022 to explore the 1950 census. Note that census records from 1790 to 1940 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.

When you examine a census record, you will notice various symbols and codes. Perhaps the most common code in the 1940 census is the “x” with a circle around it. This indicates who gave the household information to the enumerator. For example, here is the 1940 census listing my great grandfather, Charlie Stafford, and his wife, Draxie. As you can see, Draxie provided the information to the census taker.

Stafford_1940 Census

An “x” with a circle around it appears next to Draxie’s name

There are other codes, too, so it’s important that you become familiar with them before examining the record. Click here for a helpful summary of the questions and codes used in the 1940 census.

Want to view some “famous” census records? Click here.