Census records are great. They are FULL of interesting information. But every census record is different, the information collected varies for each census year. I find it helpful to have an idea of what information was collected for each census while I do my research. Knowing what information is available will save you time and your sanity :)
Generally, the US census recorded first and last names, gender, age, birthplace, parents birthplace, and occupation. Census records prior to the 1850 census only list the first and last name of the HEAD of the household, other family members are counted and arranged by gender and age group. (see 1840 example left). As our population changed and the country grew, information needs changed, resulting in a variety of details collected. I recommend you bookmark this page from the US Census website. They have a great index and you can click on the different years to see a detailed breakdown of the census questions and answer codes.
For example, if you are trying to pinpoint when someone got married, the 1880 (if married within the year), 1900, & 1910 census records asked married individuals how many years they have been in their present marriage. In other census record years, they only asked if the person was single, married, widowed, or divorced.
Another example, how many children did the couple have? You might know of 3 children, but there could have been other children who died. The 1900 and 1910 census asked how many total children a woman had given birth to, and of those, how many are still alive. I have found many in my family tree who lost young children in the late 1800's, a very sad reality they had to live through.
Sometimes it can be hard to read the census columns when you've found a match, leaving you squinting and guessing what the question/answer means. Having a clean version of the census record is ideal for a thorough evaluation of the data. You can print out clean blank copies of each census record from ancestry.com.
Where can you find census records?
Ancestry.com - with a free account you can build your tree and search census records, BUT, you can't view the original form. You can keep a log of which records you want to see and then visit your local public library to use their account to view/print the original documents.
FamilySearch.org - FREE, no account needed
The USGenweb Free Census Project - FREE, a project working to get all census records online for free. You can volunteer to transcribe census records and search already transcribed census records.
Tips to keep in mind when reviewing census records:
Thoroughly evaluate the records. It's better to have the correct census record vs. a complete family tree full of census records that might be your family. Your research builds and builds from your base information- you don't want to spend all your time thinking your connecting the dots of your family when it's really a completely different family.
Trust your gut. If the record seems like a match, but there is just something that doesn't add up to your previous findings- keep looking for a sounder match or reevaluate your previous research.
Keep in mind the information source. Back in the day, census takers income depended on quantity of information and areas covered. To save time they COULD have collected information for all 4 families living in multi family house from the 1 person who answered the door. A glaring error in age, birthplace, or name doesn't necessarily mean you've found the wrong record.
GOOD LUCK! There is nothing like the excitement of finding a match! If you have any questions or comments please leave them for me in the comments section.