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Making sense of the census, a valuable resource


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000

Early census records were often compiled by an odd assortment of folks for whom accuracy was not a priority.

If no one was home, the census taker either omitted the family or obtained the information from a neighbor. Spelling didn't count. Visiting grandchildren and friends were sometimes erroneously included as household members simply because they happened to be there when the census taker came by.

Still, beginning with the first federal census taken in 1790 to the one compiled in 1920, the most recent to be made public, census records remain one of our most valuable sources of genealogical information. (The federal government does not make the personal information available until after 72 years for privacy reasons.) Accessing these records is as easy as visiting your local library or, in some cases, booting up your computer.

Before 1850, census data was minimal. Except for the head of household, only the surname, gender and age range were recorded for each family member. For example, the listing for the John Smith family might look like this: one male, age 20-30; one female, age 20-30; two males under age 5; and one female age 5-10. Occupations and whether a person was foreign-born were sometimes included.

Starting with the 1850 census, additional data was collected. Each person's given name and age were listed, for example. Thus, the same Smith family would appear on the 1850 census as: John Smith, 30, farmer; Mary, 28, housewife; Bobby, 4; Jimmy, 3; and Elizabeth, 9.

The information isn't always accurate; the spelling is atrocious ("Sendarol" instead of Cinderella, for instance.) Nicknames may leave you mystified (Polly was a popular nickname for Mary. Go figure.) Nevertheless, census records provide an excellent springboard for research.

Just because you live in Florida doesn't mean you can't research census records from New Jersey from where you are. All records are available on microfilm, except for 1890. Most of those records were destroyed in a fire.

Most large libraries carry census records. The main branch of the Tampa Public Library and the Largo Library have at least some records for nearly every state. Most are on microfilm. A small selection is available on CD-ROM.

The Mormon Family History Centers also keep some records on hand. In this area, there are centers in Tampa, New Port Richey, Brooksville, Largo, Bradenton and Sarasota. Check with your local genealogical societies about locations; information on the societies is available at any public library.

Can't find what you need? The library staff may borrow microfilm from other states through a library loan program. The Mormon Centers will order microfilm copies from the main library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The National Archives in Washington also loans microfilm. (Log on to for details.)

Rental fees are nominal, usually less than $5. You need to allow about three weeks for the microfilm to arrive.

Some census records can be accessed online. Volunteers have been transcribing census records and posting them on Web sites for several years. The monumental project is not nearly complete. But it's worth logging on to to see what's there. Genealogical sites devoted to a specific geographical area sometimes carry a smattering of records for that locale, as do some general genealogy sites.

All you need to know to get started is in what state, and preferably which county, your ancestors lived when the census was taken. In some states, particularly up North, each county was divided into townships. Knowing in which township your kin lived can save hours of research.

Know only the state? A state census index, when available, should help you narrow your search. Keep in mind that county and township boundaries changed often before 1900. If you don't find your ancestors where you expect, check records for neighboring areas or consult a census index.

-- Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she cannot take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Home & Garden, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her c/o

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