Census Records - United States
Begin your Research with Census Records
Once you have the name of an ancestor and an idea of which state he or she resided in, you may want to begin by exploring census records. The Federal Population Census has been taken every 10 years, beginning in 1790. The National Archives has the census schedules on microfilm available from 1790 to 1930. (Note: Most of the 1890 Census was destroyed in a Department of Commerce fire, though partial records are available for some states.) There is a 72-year restriction on access to population census schedules, which is why 1930 is the latest year currently available.
How can Census Records help in my research?
Sample page from the 1930 Census
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Census records can provide the building blocks of your research, allowing you to both confirm information, and to learn a lot more. From 1790-1840 only the head of household is listed, (along with the number of household members in different age groups). However, beginning with 1850, details are provided for all individuals in households.
Depending upon the census year, some of the information that the records may provide includes:
- the names of family members
- their ages at a certain point in time
- their state or country of birth
- their parent's birthplaces
- year of immigration
- their street address
- marriage status and years of marriage
- value of their home and personal belongings
- the crops that they grew (in agricultural schedules), etc.
For details on what information was collected in each census year, see...
- Summmary of Information Collected in Census Records 1790-1930
- Detailed Instructions for Census Enumerators 1850-2000
- Census Findings - Questions asked in US Census Records
|Tip: It is best to begin with the most current census year available and to work backwards. With the 72-year restriction on access to the Census, the most current year now available is 1930.|
What Census information can I get on the NARA web site?
NARA does not have census records available online. However, it does have the microfilm catalogs online, which can help prepare you for your visit to the National Archives. Ancestry.com and Heritagequest.com have digitized many of the Federal Census records. These are subscription-based web sites, but access is unlimited and free-of-charge from any NARA facility.
How can I search the Census Records?
Please note, due to staffing limitations the National Archives cannot conduct census research on your behalf. However, you can access census records by:
- Visiting the National Archives Building in Washington, DC or one of our 13 regional facilities located in Anchorage, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Fort Worth, Kansas City, Laguna Niguel, CA, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsfield, MA, San Francisco, and Seattle.
- Visit State Archives or State Libraries.
- Contacting public libraries, historical societies, and other research facilities.
- Renting microfilm reels through our microfilm rental program with public libraries. Your local public library may help arrange the loan.
- Purchasing rolls of the microfilm from us.
- Using online services, such as Ancestry.com or Heritagequest.com, which have digitized many census holdings from the National Archives. (Available free-of-charge at the National Archives facilities nationwide and through many libraries, otherwise by subscription.)
- Check with the USGenWeb project to see if census records from your states of interest have been transcribed (free of charge). See both U.S. Genweb Census Project and U.S. GenWeb State Census Index.
How to Use NARA's Census Microfilm Catalogs
If you know the state, county, and town in which your ancestor lived in the census year, go to the microfilm catalog. Locate the census year, state, and county from the list. This shows the microfilm publication number and roll number. For example, The 1790-1890 Federal Population Censuses: Catalog of National Archives Microfilm (Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1993), shows that the 1860 census for Medina County, Ohio, is on roll number 1007 of microfilm publication M653, Eighth Census of the United States, 1860. (The microfilm publication number and title is shown at the beginning of the listings for the 1860 census--just before Alabama.)
Microfilmed Indexes, 1880-1930
Microfilmed indexes are available for these censuses. Microfilmed indexes for the 1880 and 1900-1930 censuses use the soundex indexing system. Read How the Soundex Indexing System Works for instructions.
The microfilmed index to the 1890 census is arranged alphabetically by surname, thereunder by first name.
Published indexes to the 1790-1870 censuses have been published by various private companies; these can be found at many public libraries and other institutions with large genealogical collections.
The 1880 census is indexed only for families with children age 10 years or younger. If your ancestor resided in a household that did not include a child age 10 or less, you will have to search the census of the community in which he/she lived line by line.
This census is indexed by microfilm publication M496, Index to the Eleventh Census of the United States, 1890, Roll 1 (surnames A-J), Roll 2 (surnames K-Z). A Department of Commerce fire in 1921 destroyed most of the 1890 census.
There is a soundex index for all states.
There is a soundex index for only the following states:
Alabama Missouri Arkansas North Carolina California Ohio Florida Oklahoma Georgia Pennsylvania Illinois South Carolina Kansas Tennessee Kentucky Texas Louisiana Virginia Michigan West Virginia Mississippi
If your ancestor lived in a state for which there is no soundex for 1910, you will have to search the census of the community in which he/she lived line by line or use other indexes listed above under "How can I search the Census Records?"
There is a soundex index for all states.
There is a soundex index for the following areas only:
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky (only counties of Bell, Floyd, Harlan, Kenton, Muhlenberg, Perry and Pike), Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia (only counties of Fayette, Harrison, Kanawha, Logan, McDowell, Mercer, and Raleigh).
How to Use Soundex Microfilm
Go to the catalog for the appropriate census year (1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, or 1930), then find the state, microfilm publication number, and roll containing the soundex code. Note that only the beginning and ending soundex codes contained on each roll are shown. For example, The 1920 Federal Population Censues: Catalog of National Archives Microfilm (Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1995), the shows that, for California for 1920 soundex code A-266 is included on microfilm publication M1551, Index (Soundex) to the 1920 Federal Population Census Schedules for California, roll 3, because roll 3 begins at A-246 Nathan and ends with A-350 Douranana.
Special Note: Within each soundex code, the microfilmed index cards are arranged alphabetically by name of head of household, such as A-266 Albert, A-266 Ann, A-266 Arthur, etc.
For additional information how to use the soundex indexes and census schedules, read the on-line introductory material to each census microfilm catalog.
Once you have located a soundex index card for the person or household in which you are interested, note the following information: county of residence; city, town, village, or township of residence; and the four numbers located in the upper right hand corner of the index card: volume number, enumeration district (E.D.) number, sheet number, and line number. Use the county name and enumeration district number to determine which roll of census microfilm you need. For example, for 1920 only, Los Angeles County, CA, Enumeration Districts 1-11, 13, 14, 33-37, and 16-32 are located in microfilm publication T625, Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920, roll 102, while other enumeration districts for that county are located on rolls 103-120.
Note that the soundex indexes and census schedules are on microfilm; you will not be able to search them on-line. You can get access to census microfilm through the National Archives Microfilm Rental Program, in which many public libraries participate. Census microfilm is also widely available at public libraries, state archives, and other institutions with large genealogical collections.
For more information, see A Beginner's Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses.
For a comprehensive guide to the 1930 U.S. Census, see the NARA Guide to the 1930 Census.
Census extraction forms are doubly valuable: not only do they allow researchers to see the format and column headings for various census years (especially if the schedules themselves are hard to read), they also provide a clean and convenient method for extracting and filing important information you find.
You can download blank U.S. census forms at http://www.ancestry.com/save/charts/census.htm