Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Finding your family in the US federal census records - overview

It's an exciting thing, the first time you see a parent or grandparent listed in the census, or when you finally find those ellusive cousins that have been hiding from you. The search itself can be frustrating at times. The census records, while certainly not perfect, provide you with a glimpse of your ancestors as they were at the date of the census. Some of the information might surprise you while some will confirm the stories you grew up with. The most important advice I can give you for your search of census records, or any records for that matter, is to keep an open mind. I mean this with respect to names, dates, places of birth, where they lived on the census date, everything. Bad handwriting, misspellings, mistrust of the government, poor memories, foreign accents...all of these can hinder your search. Some may even give you a giggle once you figure out what happened.

All of my ancestors (at least all of the ones I know about) were city/town dwellers. Here in the US, that means they moved around a lot. Sometimes it was to be closer (or further away) from family or maybe for a new job. Most of the moving around I've seen has been the result of changing family size. There was no need to spend money renting a larger apartment when a new baby was born...wait a couple of years until that baby, like my Aunt Linda, was too big to sleep in an open drawer. After 1910, most of the family made the move from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn or the Bronx. I think I've only located one branch of the family that actually stayed at the same Bronx address for the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census'.

Most of my experience is with the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census records. Very few of my ancestors arrived in the US before 1900. In some ways that's a good thing because the more recent census records available for public access are easier to search and contain more information than the older census records. It wasn't until 1870 that all family members were listed in the census. For the more rural communities, that may not be a big deal. If you knew which county your family lived in, it shouldn't be too difficult to find them. Sometimes I wish my family could be traced further back in US history so I wouldn't have to deal with the eastern European records but they arrived when they arrived. Can't change that.

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