Every 10 years the United States Government takes a census used to allocate Congressional seats ("congressional apportionment"), electoral votes, and government program funding. The census is mandated by the Constitution.
Start with the 1930 census and follow your ancestors back in time through the censuses. Ancestry.com has the censuses online with the option to view the original page and copy it for your records (highly recommend taking a copy of the information and placing it in your filing system; also highly recommend using a research record that records where, when, and all the information needed to find the record again).
The first census was taken in 1790. The records for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Virginia went missing sometime before 1830. Below is a list of the information available in this census.
Columns - left to right
1. Name of head of family
2. # of free white males 16 & up including heads of families
3. # of free white males under 16
4. # of free white females including heads of families
5. # of all other free persons except Indians not taxed
6. # of slaves
The 1800 census isn't complete as well. The records for Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were destroyed.
Columns - left to right
1. Name of the head of family
2. # of free white males under age 10
3. # of free white males age 10-16
4. # of free white males age 16-26
5. # of free white males age 26-45
6. # of free white males over age 45
7. # of free white females under age 10
8. # of free white females age 10-16
9. # of free white females age 16-26
10. # of free white females age 26-45
11. # of free white females over age 45
12. # of all other free persons
13. # of slaves
The 1810 census included Louisiana, but the records for the District of Columbia, Georgia, and New Jersey were destroyed. This census gives the same information as the 1800 census. The census for 1820 through 1840 gives the same information. The article, Clues in Census Records, 1790-1840, outlines what you can learn from these censuses with examples. The article, Clues in Census Records, 1850-1930, outlines what you can learn from these censuses. They also have articles on Nonpopulation Census Records, 1935 Census of Business Roll Lists, Indian Census Rolls, 1885-1940, and more.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
The 1890 census was the first to be compiled on a tabulating machine, developed by Herman Hollerith. This introduction of technology reduced the time taken to tabulate the census from seven years for the 1880 census to two and a half years for the 1890 census.
The logistical difficulties in compiling the census drove computing technology for the next fifty years until computers became widespread in industry. IBM's first electronic computer was created primarily to deal with the needs of the census in addition to military and academic uses.
This census is one of the three for which the original data is no longer available. Almost all the population schedules were destroyed in a fire in 1921. The Other Censuses that have lost almost all information were the 1800 and 1810 enumerations.
The census is a great tool, but the information can have errors. The information given to the census taker might be wrong either by mistake or intentionally. The census taker could misunderstand what was said and enter misinformation. My husband's great grandfather on his father's mother's side is a case in point. He went by the name Perry and in one of the censuses they had him listed as Harry. Investigate different spellings of the surname, too. I've seen the same person listed as Slater, Slafter, and Slaughter.
Dale L. Edwards