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Using the Census for Family History Research

How can the United States Census help you track down your family's past?

The Census


The first United States Census was taken in 1790 by U.S marshals. The purpose of the census was to keep track of the population in the 13 colonies, as well as the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the Southwest territory of Tennessee. Legislation required detailed enumeration to help establish the distribution of seats in Congress and the Electoral College. Additionally, the census aids in federal aid apportion for schools, hospitals, and roads. All censuses, up until 2010 were recorded by census takers, or responses filled in by a household member and mailed to the Census Bureau.

The censuses taken between 1790 and 1940 can be accessed by the public via online subscription services like Ancestry or your local public library and archive. After each census is taken, one must wait 72 years before it is made available to the public. This year, 2020, marks the 24th U.S census to take place and for the first time ever it is has been made available online for households to fill out. In light of recent events, the global COVID19 Pandemic has forced many cities across the states to enforce business closures and quarantines. For several weeks, non-essential personnel have been required to work from home. These changes to the work environment may impact the enumeration results for the 2020 Census. Would there be more respondents than earlier decades because of recent events? Is making the questionnaire digital going to create a more accurate representation of the population? These questions will remain to be answered. 


How can this guide help you?

The information compiled here will give you basic knowledge to understand what the U.S Census is and how to utilize it to aid in your family research. Some external links and guides will also be offered to help further your research. Keep in mind the external resources can offer even more help! If you’re already an amateur genealogist, the information compiled here may be redundant, but visit the external links and see what else you can learn. For beginners, it is my hope that this guide will show you the benefits of census records without overwhelming you. Good luck!