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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Find Every Clue in U.S. Census Records

For U.S. genealogy research, census records are a key record. If you aren't from a location with centuries of vital records, census records might be the first record you used.

There's a good chance if you're reading this, you consider yourself pretty familiar with U.S. Federal Census records. So let's test your knowledge. Answer the following questions based only on census records.

About a specific family

  • Did your family own a radio?
  • Did they rent or own their home?
  • Did they live on a farm?
  • Did they have a mortgage?
  • Could they read or write?
  • Did they own land?

If you see it on the census

  • What race does "Ot" stand for?
  • Do you know what "Pa" means in the naturalization column?
  • What occupation is "Secy.?"
The U.S. Census is full of family history clues. Use this free resource to find them all.

How did you do on the quiz?

Did you know you could find this information in census records?

Do you know how to find out what the abbreviations mean?

You can find this information, and much more.

A Census, is a Census, is a Census, Right?

Each census year there are different questions asked and different abbreviations. The instructions that were given to census enumerators are available online and for free.

This is far more detailed than the tiny headers found at the top of each column of the actual census form. In fact, you may find the instructions indicate a column has a slightly different purpose than you thought.

Enumerator Instructions 1850 to 1950 from IPUMS USA

Each census year there are different questions asked and different abbreviations.


So why would you want to use the enumerator instructions?

First, you could learn more about your ancestors. There's a lot more to learn than just the information in the quiz above.

Second, you can start to define your ancestor. What I mean by that is you will be able to tell your ancestor from someone of the same name and age. You may also be able to identify your ancestor when they are listed with the wrong name and age.

Data Matching

If you haven't realized it, much of genealogy is matching up data points about a person to identify them. You almost always use the data points of a first and last name. You can also use an estimated birth year (i.e. age in a certain year), state of birth, family members' names, and occupation. All of these appear in census records (but not in every census record).

Some census records also contain information about immigration and naturalization, native language, race, living situation (house, farm, mortgaged or free, and more), marital status, number of children born to a woman, and if they owned a radio.

For urban residents, you can match up information with city directories and trace them year to year.


That brings me to another reason to understand the instructions. Many city dwellers often don't own their land/home but what about rural residents, particularly farmers? Some census records explicitly ask if the residence is owned or rented but others have a column for the value of real estate owned.

If they owned their home or any real estate, you should be looking for deed records.

Similarly, if you have an immigrant that is naturalized or in the process of being naturalized, you should be looking for those records. You do need to be careful as a spouse may have gained citizenship through marriage. This may or may not be reflected in the enumerator instructions.

There may be other clues indicated from a census record, read the instructions so you know what you are looking at.

Errors, Errors, Everywhere

Hopefully, you are aware that census records are full of errors. This is another reason to use the instructions. You remove one variable by knowing what the enumerator was supposed to record.

That does not mean the enumerator followed the instructions but if they did, you won't be guessing what each piece of information means. You'll also have a baseline to tell how likely it is that particular enumerator followed the instructions or how careful he or she was.

You may also find what you thought was "wrong" is actually correct based on the instructions. Keep in mind, the purpose of the census is to record statistics for decision making, not to provide "facts" to genealogists.

Occasionally it even turns out what appears to be conflicting information from two different census years actually agrees, based on the instructions.

I hope you're excited to add the census enumerator instructions to your genealogical toolbox. If you have only been gathering names, ages, and birthplaces from the census, you may find you learn much more about your ancestors when you milk the census for every piece of information it provides.

Enumerator Instructions 1850 to 1950 from IPUMS USA

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graphic of building, boat, and compass with text overlay Find Every Clue in U.S. Census Records