Most people probably remember from school that the census provision was a made a part of the constitution to equally divide up the congressmen between the states.
The first US census was in 1790, and it has been taken every 10 years since then. The early census just listed the head of the household and the age range for others in the household.
In 1850, the census listed everyone in the household and the ages of everyone therein. After 1850, each census added a few more questions,
and so each census will tell a little more about your family. The 1890 census was almost completely destroyed by water damage, caused when an adjacent building caught fire,
and instead of drying out the census documents, they were left in damp rooms for 14 years and destruction from moisture took it's toll.
Because of privacy regulations, the census records for any period can not be opened until 72 years after the particular census was taken.
So, the most current census available is the 1920 census, but the 1930 census will be available in April of 2002, which is not too long from now.
Nearly all of the census has been indexed by now. The first indexes were done by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the 1930s.
They used an index called a Soundex to index all of the 1900 and 1920 census. For 1880, 1910 and 1930 they did only part of the census.
They soundexed the 1880 census for families that had children ages 10 and under, why? - It was to help people prove their ages for Social Security which started in 1935. A person 65 and
eligible for Social Security would have been born in 1870 and would appear in the 1880 census as a ten year old. The 1930 census was being soundexed when the United States entered WWII,
and so the WPA was closed to help win the war. Just recently, a complete index of the 1880 census was finished and it is available on CDs from the LDS or their Family History Centers.
Why is the census important? - It allows you to follow your families migration across the country, since it is taken every ten years.
It allows you to find where your ancestors were if you did not know. It lists occupation, place of birth, whether married, single, widowed. It lists the children and ages, where parents born,
when the person immigrated to the USA, or whether they are naturalized or not. It also enumerates the neighbors, which may have married into your family. The census is also available at libraries,
Family History Centers and you can rent the microfilm or buy the census on CDs or microfilm from several online companies .
When you start your census research, start from the newest available and work back, be sure to record everything on the census for your family
and preferably all the rest of the families on the same page as your family. Record where you got the information also, film number and enumeration district, sheet number and line number.
The most important thing to record is the census date, now there will be two dates, the actual census date and the date the Enumerator came to your ancestors house.
The Enumerator was supposed to record everyone in the house on the actual census date, so births or deaths after that date will not show.
Did the Enumerator always follow this instruction - no! So, that is why the date the Enumerator came to the house is important, as that is the date that may have been used.
This sounds like a lot of work, but it will help you a lot and will tend to make things much easier later on, as your search progresses.
Now for the bad part of the census - some are nearly unreadable due to poor copies, poor filming and antiquated filming techniques.
Those that are readable can have such poor handwriting that they are nearly impossible to read, and last since a human collected the data there can be errors anywhere on the census.
I have seen people age from 7 to 15 years between the census which were taken 10 years apart. Names are misspelled, nicknames are used, and sometimes the neighbor down the road
supplied the information since the census taker did not want to go another two miles to your ancestors house.
Even with all the shortcomings of the census it is still a good place for everyone to start, just remember it is not the only record of your ancestors,
but it is easily available and most of the censuses are indexed today making census research fairly easy. Most of us old
timers will remember cranking through page-after-page of unindexed census pages looking for our ancestors and you may get the same pleasure if your ancestor is mis-indexed.
Enumeration districts used to be very important to you if you were checking the census without an index as that would narrow down the amount of film you had to check.
An enumeration district was the area assigned to one Enumerator. If you had an address for your ancestor you could check the enumeration district boundaries to see which
enumeration district to look in. Also check to see if they used other districts. For Washington in the 1910 census, voting precincts were used, which were smaller than the enumeration districts,
so you will not néed to check as much microfilm.