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How To Use The Census In Your Genealogy Research

By: Debbie Pettitt

You've gone through the preliminaries.

You've collected all your household vital records, interviewed relatives, gathered additional records from living relatives and followed-up on some of the leads that were developed. Now, you're stuck and not sure what to do next in your genealogy research.

If you've worked your way far enough back, it might be time to start checking the Census.

But first, you'll want to understand that while the Census Bureau collects some great genealogical information, it has the responsibility of confidentiality. As a result, the Decennial Census of Population and Housing on individuals does not become available to the public until after 72 years.

That's why you have to have worked your way far enough back in your research before you'll find the Census helpful.

But here's what you'll really like ... not only will the Census records help you locate where an acestor lived, after 1840 the Census collected age, place of birth, occupation, personal wealth, education, spouse, children, hired hands, and even immigration information. A gold mine for genealogists.

Copies of the original decennial census forms from 1790 through 1930 are available on microfilm for research at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC (, at Archives regional centers, and at select Federal depository libraries throughout the United States. In addition, these records are available at various other libraries and research facilities throughout the United States.

You can also check with the reference librarian at your local library and see if they're set up to borrow microfilm through the National Archives' census microfilm rental program.

There's something else you're really going to like ... immigration records are also on microfilm at the National Archives. These records have been collected for all major U.S. ports since 1820. They include Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans. The western ports of San Franciso and Seattle are also archived, though those records weren't started until late in the 19th Century.

Here's what these immigration records include: the full name, age, sex, place of origin, and destination for every passenger on the ship. The records even include those who were born or died during the voyage.

And there's more. You can also track down some naturalization records through the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Naturalization is the process by which a a person becomes an American citizen. By law, a person can be naturalized in any "regular" court. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has records for the entire country beginning in 1906, but before this time, the procedure will only be located in the records of the court where it took place. These records often provide a person's birth date and location, occupation, immigration year, marital status and spouse information, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

For Pre-1906 Naturalizations:

Contact the State Archives for the state where the naturalization occurred to request a search of state, county, and local courts records.

Contact the NARA regional facility that serves the state where naturalization occurred to request a search of Federal court records

For Naturalizations After 1906:

After 1906, the courts forwarded copies of naturalizations to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Naturalizations from Federal Courts are held in the NARA's regional facilities for the Federal courts for their area. Learn more:

Here are some additional resources that you might find helpful for learning learn more about the Census and how to access all the incredible information available to genealogy researchers:

USGenWeb Census Project

U.S. Census Bureau's Genealogy Page

Census Finder

There's nothing quite as exhilarating as uncovering new information about your ancestors. If you've reached a point where you aren't quite sure what to try next in your genealogy research, The Census might just be your best bet. Even if you aren't at that point, it's a resource that you should familiarize yourself with. Sooner or later, it's likely that's where your research is going to led you.