[Webmaster’s Note: I downloaded this somewhat humorous introduction to genealogy research as a zipped text file off of a FidoNet Bulletin Board a number of years ago. All that has been added is the HTML coding, a few comments in brackets which are in this blue font, and, when known, links to online information, which were unavailable at the time this guide was written. Additionally, a Table of Contents with hypertext links was added to the original document. Please note, however, that I do not guarantee that all possible links for every visitor’s genealogy are linked to this site, since the number of sites on the internet changes frequently. This is primarily a beginner’s guide for offline source documents, not a comprehensive guide to all genealogy web sites. For a more comprehensive web guides to genealogy web sites, please see Cyndi's List or Linkpendium. Also, most of this information is current, but please note the caution in the introductory paragraph that this guide was originally written in 1977, and then updated in 1982, so it does not cover topics such as GEDCOM files, internet mailing lists, genealogy software, the World Wide Web and genealogical CD-ROMs, etc., except as noted in my added comments. FYI, Mr. Pence, who died in 2009, had his own website at Pence Family History Home Page, which is still online. If you wish, you can bypass the introduction and go to the hypertext Table of Contents, or read this guide from the beginning.]
By Richard A. Pence
[The following beginner’s guide to genealogy was first syndicated to newspapers in 1977 and again in 1982 by the Register and Tribune Syndicate. While it has been updated to reflect such things as new addresses, it obviously doesn’t deal with how you might effectively use them in genealogy work, since it was written before the days of home computers. Those experienced with computers will readily see applications in research, recordkeeping and printing out material. Richard A. Pence was co-author, with Paul Andereck, of Computer Genealogy, published by Ancestry, Inc., Salt Lake City, and has published several books on the Pence family. He was editor of the NGS/CIG Digest, published bimonthly by the Computer Interest Group of the National Genealogical Society. He was also co-sysop of the [defunct] NGS/CIG BBS, a part of the National Genealogy Conference, and moderated a conference on genealogy for the Capital PC Users Group in Washington. ©1982 by the Register and Tribune Syndicate, Inc., Des Moines, Iowa. Updated December, 1986; used with permission.]
Recommended Bibliography of books (from genealogy class the webmaster took)
One of the difficult aspects of genealogy—at least for me—is trying to explain to friends why a grown man should spend countless hours in a musty library or chasing around the country copying inscriptions from tombstones in overgrown cemeteries.
That sort of avocation, they think, is reserved for matronly ladies who want to join patriotic societies.
There are many who search their family trees for that reason alone. But genealogy is much more. It is a human history of our nation’s growth and a puzzle infinitely more challenging than the crossword in the Sunday New York Times.
If you enjoy solving a mystery or are fascinated by the early history of our country, then genealogy may be the hobby for you.
But where do you start? The best place is right at home.
The first thing you should do is write down all you know about your family, starting with yourself and your parents and working backward to your grandparents, great grandparents and so on. Chances are someone already has started this process; if so, your job will be easier.
You should include dates and places of births, marriages, deaths, places of residence and other information, such as occupation, military service or church affiliation.
When you get stuck, figure out who in your family might know the answer. In fact, you should try to interview your older relatives as a first order of business. With some luck, you may find out much of what you want to know about a particular branch of your family.
Early in my research I visited a great aunt who supposedly had kept some family records. I didn’t really expect the treasure I found. Among the things she had: my third great grandmother’s family Bible—complete with vital statistics for three generations—which had made its way from Massachusetts to a homestead in South Dakota nearly 100 years before; a family photo album with pictures that predated the Civil War and which contained photos of four of my third great grandparents; and old newspaper clippings, letters and notes which provided additional information and clues.
INTERVIEW POINTERS Table of Contents
There are things to keep in mind when interviewing or writing your relatives.
First, make your questions specific. You’ll have a better chance of getting a helpful answer. If you ask generally about early family recollections, your correspondent may not reply or may say that little can be remembered. Ask about specific people, specific times or places.
I once wrote a great uncle, asking him for any information he might have on his ancestors. He answered, saying he didn’t remember anything. I then wrote and asked him if he knew where his father had lived in 1870. His return letter not only solved that mystery, but included colorful stories about great grandfather’s days as a cowboy in Texas and Kansas, stories told at bedtime when my great uncle was a boy.
Second, inquire about photographs, diaries, letters and other family papers that may give clues for names and places your family lived. Look for items such as funeral cards, birth announcements or marriage, birth or death certificates.
Third, keep track of what you are told in a carefully dated and documented fashion. Write down who told you and when they told you for each piece of information. If a relative sends you an undated letter, add the date you received it. If you use a tape recorder, begin the tape with the date and location and the name of the person you are interviewing, as well as your own name.
FAMILY TRADITIONS Table of Contents
You should treat family traditions with a certain amount of healthy skepticism. These stories—often embellished from generation to generation—are great clues for further research, but they shouldn’t be accepted until they can be documented.
There are some traditions that seem to pop up in nearly every family. If you encounter one of these, don’t disregard it—but be careful how you use it. Here are some:
The “Three Brothers”. Invariably you will come across the belief that the founders of a particular family in this country were “three brothers, who came here at an early date.” A common variation is that “one remained in New England, one went south and one went west.”
This tradition reflects the desire of an individual to believe that everyone with the same last name is somehow related. The “three brothers” theory neatly explains why there are families with that name throughout the country whose relationships can’t be established. Most genealogists disregard this theory unless there is evidence otherwise.
”We’re Related to Nobility”. This tradition also is common but often not true. Variations include a lost dukedom, riches or a castle in some foreign land.
Unscrupulous promotors have played upon the desire for wealth or status by convincing people to contribute toward a fund seeking to restore a lost fortune or property to its “rightful heirs”—usually everybody with the same last name as some rich or famous person.
The strange thing about these con games is that the more you try to tell “Aunt Bessie” she’s being taken, the more she is convinced that there’s a giant conspiracy aimed at depriving her and her relatives of their just inheritance.
If it does turn out that you have an English lord as an ancestor or that you and George Washington are descended from the same stock, then you have an interesting addition to the story of your family. (When you consider that in just 12 generations—less than 300 years—an individual has 8,190 ancestors, it wouldn’t be terribly unusual to find such a connection.) But don’t forget that for every nobleman in most family trees, there are several dozen ancestors who came to this country as indentured servants.
Association With Famous People. You often will hear of some ancestor’s association with famous people or events. Stories like these may have some foundation, but they often are impossible to document. However, if the facts seem to fit you’ll want to continue researching the tradition.
As a small boy, I read a relative’s account of how our ancestor—my third great grandfather—supposedly spent a winter in an Indian “wickiup” (teepee or lodge) and was later confronted by its owner, Blackhawk, the famous Sac chief. The story was worth more checking for two reasons: Our ancestor was known to be in that area of northwestern Illinois at the time, and history records that an incident such as this (according to Blackhawk’s autobiography) was one of the things that led up to the Blackhawk Indian War in the early 1830s.
Finally, several years ago, I discovered an eyewitness account of the event. Not only was our ancestor named as the intruder, but specific dates and places were given, thus documenting when the family moved into Illinois. In this case, a family tradition led to the eventual proof of an ancestor’s participation in an interesting historical event and added illuminating details about his life.
[Webmaster’s comment: Here are some web sites where you can find information about famous people, but which may only provide the names of their parents and places of birth but those can be valuable clues: Wikipedia, Biography, Who’s Who, Presidents of the United States, Mayflower Families, Burke’s Peerage, and Political Graveyard, but you can probably find others using a search engine, as well.
But other traditions have never proved out. I’m still trying to document an item in an Indiana history that claims Abraham Lincoln visited once or twice at the home of a second great grandfather (Is it true? If so, what was the reason?), one that says New England relatives were frequent visitors of J. Pierpont Morgan, the financier (they were related to him through a Pierpont line, but at best distant cousins!), and still another that places an ancestor among those who participated in the Boston Tea Party (turns out he was a prominent leader during the Revolution, but no facts relate him to this event).
There are some other common problems with family traditions you should watch for. Some examples:
An incident often will be credited to one side of the family when in fact it happened to another side. Your grandmother may tell you a story she heard as a child about something that happened to her paternal grandfather and later you discover that it was her maternal grandfather who was involved.
Sometimes the story will be credited to a person in the wrong generation. An example appears in my grandfather’s obituary, which says he was descended from a “Revolutionary War veteran who became known as Judge John Pence.” Since Judge John wasn’t born until 1774, I knew this was impossible. I assumed what happened was that the family stretched a statement in an early family history from “the family goes back to Revolutionary days” into veteran’s status for the first known ancestor. Years later I discovered documentation that John’s father was the one who had served in the Revolution.
Mistakes about national origin can confuse a family’s history. Your great grandmother may have denied a particular nationality because it was not “the thing to be” in her day. Consequently, your grandmother might pass on to you what she believes to be the truth; in reality, though, great grandmother “withheld evidence.”
Don’t be surprised if, while you’re interviewing Aunt Bessie, she suddenly has amnesia after having displayed a remarkable memory about the family tree, complete with names, dates and places. Suddenly—when you ask her about a particular ancestor—she can’t remember a thing. That’s a sure sign you’ve found a family “black sheep”—we all have them!
As you collect more and more information about your ancestors, you’ll find that you will have an increasingly difficult time keeping track of who is who. That’s when you’ll want to set up some sort of record-keeping system.
A looseleaf notebook and alphabetical files are enough at first. The notebook is compact enough to be carried when doing research, yet it can contain enough information so you can double-check information on the spot. The alphabetical file provides a safe and orderly means of keeping copies of accumulated records or notes and correspondence about a particular family.
THE NOTEBOOK Table of Contents
These are the records I include in my “traveling notebook”:
Family Ancestor Charts or Pedigree Charts. These charts, which can be purchased through most genealogical societies or from businesses or bookstores which specialize in genealogy, are for your direct ancestors only. They begin at the left of the page with an individual (you or your child or parent), then branch out to the right to show parents, grandparents, etc., including dates and places of births, deaths and marriages. If you are the “subject” of the chart (which is designated as Chart No. 1), you are assigned the number 1. Your father is No. 2, your mother is No. 3, your paternal grandfather is No. 4, and so on. Pedigree charts usually have complete information on three generations of ancestors for an individual, with the names of the members of the fourth generation plus a reference to succeeding charts, where vital information on them is recorded.
This commonly used numbering system for pedigree charts is called an “ahnentafel” by genealogists, after the title of a book where it was first used. By looking at a chart you can see that the number for any individual’s father is 2 times that of the individual and that person’s mother's number is 2 times plus 1. With the exception of No. 1, who can be either male or female, all even-numbered persons are males and all odd-numbered are females. The spouse of No. 1 is not assigned a number.
If you don’t have charts, you can simply do an “ahnentafel listing” on a sheet of paper, with the persons listed in numerical order. [Webmaster’s comment: Now, genealogy computer programs are able to generate these automatically!]
Carrying this numbering system over to other records allows quick identification of any person in your records and allows you to file numerically if you choose.
Charts subsequent to No. 1 are numbered sequentially, with Chart No. 2 having the ancestors of No. 16 (your great great grandfather), Chart No. 3 the ancestors of No. 17 and so on. All these charts are kept in the front of your notebook and provide a record of the statistics you have on your more distant ancestors. As you acquire information, you may need to include an index of each family name in your notebook. This index probably won’t be necessary until you have traced several families back a half dozen or more generations.
Family Group Sheets. The other major section in your notebook is a collection of family group sheets containing information about each couple whose names are on your pedigree charts. These sheets can be arranged alphabetically by last name or numerically according to your pedigree charts.
Included on these sheets is the following information: name of husband, date and place of his birth, marriage, death and burial, and names of his parents. Similar information is given for the wife and for each of the couple’s children with room for their spouses’ names. Space is left for other information such as places of residence, occupation, church affiliation and military service.
Also included is such information as additional marriages for either husband or wife and the citation or source of each piece of information. Children born from other marriages of your ancestors are listed on separate family group sheets. Adopted children may be listed if the adoption is noted.
As with pedigree charts, family group sheets can be done on a plain sheet of paper. Among places where these forms can be ordered are: The National Genealogical Society, 4527 Seventeenth Street North, Arlington, VA 22207; New England Historical and Genealogical Society, 101 Newbury Street, Boston MA 02116; or they may be bought at any of the many branch libraries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in bookstores which deal in genealogy or history.
The information on your family group sheets will provide you with backup facts for those contained on your charts and also will come in handy on your research excursions.
While you may not be directly interested in facts about the brothers and sisters (siblings) of your ancestors, this information often can provide a vital clue about your own direct line.
For instance, you might learn that a particular great grandfather’s name was John Doe, but you don’t know his father’s name. From other sources, you learn that John had a brother named James and a sister Elizabeth. Put this information, with actual or approximate dates of birth, on the children’s portion of a family group sheet.
If the children you know about seem to have several years between their dates of birth, you should leave blanks for other probable children. Also leave the spaces for the parents blank. Later in your research, you may discover that a Samuel Doe had children named John, James and Elizabeth, as well as others. Check this information against what you have learned about your great grandfather and his siblings. If there’s enough to convince you that Samuel may indeed be John’s father, then you can begin in earnest to find out more about him.
There’s another important reason for learning about the brothers and sisters of your ancestors: They can provide clues to earlier generations of a family.
Building on the above information, suppose your great grandfather and one or more of his brothers named their first sons Samuel. This would be added evidence that Samuel was John’s father, for it was the custom in the last century to name the first son after the paternal grandfather.
Likewise, the second son was commonly named after the maternal grandfather, and succeeding sons were often named after uncles or great uncles. The girls, too, were often named after their grandmothers or great grandmothers.
And given names that appear to be surnames also can provide clues to a mother’s or grandmother’s maiden name. Naming a son John Smith Doe might indicate that his maternal grandfather's name was John Smith.
Your family group sheets can also help in establishing ages of the parents and children. Suppose you are piecing together information on a family and you only have ages or birthdates for a few of the children. Group the children as best you can from the oldest down to the youngest.
If you know the spread of time from the oldest to the youngest, you may be able to approximate the mother's age by keeping in mind normal childbearing ages. Statistics tell us that the average age for men to marry is about 25; for women, about 21. The average time between children is about two years, sometimes less.
If there is a gap of several years between children, it likely could indicate that one or more children died at birth or in infancy. Another possibility is that the older group of children had a different mother who died and the younger group are the offspring of a second marriage.
Large numbers of children with a spread of 25 years between the youngest and oldest definitely should lead you to examine whether there was another wife. If you know there was an earlier wife, but are unsure as to when she died, think of the possibility she may have died in childbirth, a frequent cause of death in early days.
THE FILE Table of Contents
Despite all of the information you’ll have in your “traveling notebook,” you still will need a place to keep other documents and backup material.
A secondhand standard letter-size file cabinet should do the job. Initially, I had a file folder for each family name filed alphabetically. As the amount of information grew, however, these folders had to be subdivided.
I now have dozens of folders for the Pence family, including several for some individuals, plus many for unrelated Pence families. (In the course of your research, you’ll accumulate a lot of material on unrelated lines. You’ll want to file this material because it can help you prove or disprove theories about your own lines. In my case, piecing together all of the various Pence families in the U.S. eventually became an overriding genealogical interest.
Above all, remember as you go about your genealogical research that everything must be verified or documented before it can be considered genealogical evidence. Place each bit of information, its source, the place you found it, the date and other pertinent facts on a sheet and put it into its proper file folder as soon as you can.
Genealogists need to learn what written records are available and where to find them in order to do an accurate job on their family trees. Generally, records are referred to as either “primary” (contemporary or original) or “secondary” (compiled or published).
Primary records are those which report an event at or close to the time it happened. They are original records of events and include state or federal census records; courthouse records, such as deeds, wills, probates, birth or death records, naturalization records, or court proceedings (both civil and criminal); church records, primarily baptism and marriage; ships’ passenger lists; and military records.
Secondary, or published records, include histories, indexes or compilations of census or marriage records, printed family histories or genealogies, and collections of tombstone inscriptions.
Primary records are the most reliable source of information, but secondary sources can provide you with many shortcuts in your genealogical research. A printed family genealogy, for example, might have information on several generations of a given line you’re searching.
Most competent genealogists consider published family histories only as clues for further searching. They use the dates and places as evidence of where to search for more supporting information. A well-done family history or genealogy will include citations to primary records and will greatly simplify your future research.
LIBRARIES Table of Contents
As interest in genealogy and local history has grown, more and more libraries have improved their collections in these areas. Many county-seat libraries have fine collections. Almost every state library has a special collection of genealogical materials, often maintained with the aid of a state historical or genealogical society. Unfortunately, smaller libraries often cannot afford such collections, although some books may be available through interlibrary loan.
In your search for secondary reference materials, you'll want to start at your local—or nearest larger—library, especially if your family has lived in your county or state for many years. Ask your librarian for local histories and genealogies; one of these might, for instance, tell you where your family lived before it came to the county where you now live. Also check libraries in nearby counties.
Often the books you need to check will not be available locally. If you have a fairly good idea of the information you want and which book it is in you may be able to write your state library (or another library) and ask for specific information.
Many state libraries have genealogical finding aids which can help you. Some have indexes of names in early histories or other printed or microfilm records, such as marriage record indexes. Write your state library and ask for information. Most have a pamphlet describing what is available.
Many will copy printed or microfilm records for you for a fee. They also may be able to provide you with a list of people who will undertake genealogical research for you for a fee.
The Library of Congress (Washington, DC 20540) has an excellent collection of genealogies and local histories. If your travels include a trip to Washington, this is a must visit. The library’s small staff can only do a limited amount of searching in the catalogs and indexes for specific titles or references if you query it by mail.
You can write the library for free leaflets describing its services. The three most helpful are “Reference Services and Facilities of the Local History and Genealogy Room,” “Guide to Genealogical Research: A Selected List,” and “Surnames: A Selected List of Books.”
The Library of the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution (1776 D Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20006), has an extensive genealogical collection, including printed genealogies as well as manuscripts submitted by individuals or local chapters. It also has Bible, church and cemetery records, abstracts of court records, lineage books, and other materials. The Library is open to nonmembers for a small fee except during April.
The National Genealogical Society has its own library and maintains a library loan service and research service for members. The library collection includes published and unpublished works pertaining to genealogy, local history and heraldry. It is open to nonmembers for a small fee.
The most famous genealogical library is that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (35 North West Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84150). It has a massive genealogical collection, much of it on microfilm or microfiche and available through branch libraries around the country.
Its collection includes a computer-produced genealogical library catalog on microfiche; the latest edition of the International Genealogical Index [IGI], which lists the names and selected vital data of approximately 88 million deceased persons from over 90 countries; the Accelerated Indexing System’s microfiche index for 1790-1850; an extensive list of library aids and reference books; and the Family Registry of some 100,000-plus names coordinating the searchers with the names being searched.
The library is open to the public and specialists in most areas are available for consultation.
You’ll save a lot of backtracking if you make certain you don’t leave a library, court house or other research site without a complete citation regarding information you’ve found. Also write down the citations and general content for books you didn’t find anything in and keep a list of those so you won’t go over the same ground again. This list can also be of help in case you need to go back to check these sources for newly discovered ancestors.
[Webmaster’s comment: Indexes of links to online catalogs of libraries nationwide have become available since the advent of the world wide web, such as LibDex, LibWeb, or LibrarySpot. Searching these for libraries in your area can save you time when you pay a visit to the library, since you will be able to visit with a list of references to look up. Since it is sometimes possible to borrow genealogy materials, such as microfilmed records, through interlibrary loan.]
GENEALOGIES AND LOCAL HISTORIES Table of Contents
As previously mentioned, two of the more common types of secondary information are local histories. Both can be excellent sources of information or clues for further research. You should keep in mind, however, that these sources may not always be accurate.
Local histories were very popular in the latter part of the 1800s, especially in the Midwest. Most of them were money-making efforts of large publishers who sent teams of people out into a county. These people collected some local history and local biographies and added them to a pre-packaged state history.
They also sold books, for that is the way the publishers made money. And the way to make sure they would sell more copies was to include flowery write-ups about county residents—either for a fee or upon the subject’s promise to buy one or more of the usually high-priced books. The more prominent one was made to appear, the more books he was likely to buy, so the publisher’s word craftsmen spared no adjectives.
The biographies were full of “loyal patriots,” “respected farmers” and “prominent merchants,” as well as “loving wives and mothers.”
Even with these drawbacks, there often is much genealogical information in these presentations. Usually the names of previous generations are given, along with the wife’s maiden name and the names of her parents. Often included were the dates the family came to the county and where it had previously lived.
One of the major drawbacks of family genealogies and histories, especially those published in the Nineteenth Century, is the lack of adequate documentation. As often as not, the author—in his zeal to trace the family back to the Mayflower or other illustrious beginnings—made serious mistakes. The most common one was assuming that an ancestor was the son of a particular man with the same name without proper documentation.
On the other hand, these books provide excellent clues for further research. You can usually make your own judgments as to the accuracy of a particular genealogy by noting such things as completeness and citiations to specific sources.
[Webmaster’s comment: Quite a number of volunteers are scanning and/or transcribing books in the public domain to place on the WWW, which include genealogies and county histories. Some links to these are:
The Cornell Library New York State Historical Literature Collection which has scanned copies of the books entitled Abstracts of wills on file in the Surrogate’s Office, City of New York along with other historical works; see also Cornell Daily Sun Digital Archive.
George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. “Document types in the collection as a whole include correspondence, letterbooks, commonplace books, diaries, journals, financial account books, military records, reports, and notes accumulated by Washington from 1741 through 1799. . . . Because of the wide range of Washington’s interests, activities, and correspondents, which include ordinary citizens as well as celebrated figures, his papers are a rich source for almost every aspect of colonial and early American history. In its online presentation, the George Washington Papers consists of approximately 152,000 images.”
Genealogical Dictionary of The First Settlers of New England by James Savage.
Kansas Collection of Online Books includes online editions of History of the State of Kansas, edited by William G. Cutler, and published by A.T. Andreas in 1881, as well as Andreas’ History of the State of Nebraska published in 1882, and other books and articles about early Kansas.
Making of America, another section of the Cornell Library Digital Collections, has scanned copies of “primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 8,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints.”
Project Gutenberg has a wide variety of public domain books as plain text files in zipped format available for downloading, some of which may be histories. Their selection is constantly growing, so check back monthly.]
Of all the materials and sources available to the genealogist, by far the most important are primary records or “original” records. These are the records found in archives, courthouses, town halls, old churches—even in the attic.
The value of primary records is that they are contemporary with the event which they record. Thus they are more likely to be accurate than a record made some time later from memory.
The National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, DC, 20408) is the repository for the U.S. government. It preserves and makes available valuable federal records from all three branches of government. The records in the custody of the National Archives are housed in the National Archives building in Washington, DC, (bounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues and 7th and 9th Streets, N.W.), in the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, MD, and in eleven archives branches around the country.CENSUS RECORDS Table of Contents
One of the most valuable records for the genealogist is the federal census. The United States government has conducted a census of each state and territory every 10 years since 1790 and, in some places, other years. The federal census records from 1790 through 1840 contain little genealogical information. Only the head of household is given by name; all others in the family are counted only in specific age groups by sex. These records, though, can be helpful, for they tell you the number of children in the family and their approximate ages (remember that not all in the household are necessarily family members). They also can help you find where your family lived and pinpoint your research.
The 1850 census was the first to include the name of each person in a household, including age, sex, color, occupation, and birth place (state, territory or foreign country), occupation and value of real estate and personal property (usually just for the head of the household). In 1870 the census gave the month of birth if born during the year, the month of marriage if married within the year, and whether the father or mother of each individual was foreign born. The 1880 census added two valuable pieces of information: the relationship of each person to the head of the household and the birthplace of the father and mother of each person. The 1890 census was largely destroyed by fire in 1921 and only fragments of it are available for research.
The 1900 and 1910 censuses are the most helpful available. The 1900 census included the month and year of birth of each individual, as well as the number of years married for each couple, the number of children the woman had borne, and the number living in 1900. The census indicated whether a family rented or owned its own residence, whether it was a home or a farm, and whether it was mortgaged. For foreign born, the year of immigration was given and whether naturalized or first papers filed. The 1910 census has similar information and includes whether it was a first marriage or, if not, what number, language spoken, employment status, and whether served in the Union or Confederate army or navy.
Because of the confidential nature of census records, Congress determines when each census may be released. Current law requires that census information remain confidential for 72 years. The 1920 census, available in 1992, is the last to have been indexed.
Published indexes are available for all U.S. censuses from 1790 through 1850. Computerized indexes of the 1860 census for most states will be available in a few years. [Note: These have mostly been rendered obsolete with the resources now available on the internet.]
The 1790 census—those parts available—was published by the government in the early 1900s and has since been privately reprinted. Published census schedules for 1790 are for Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Vermont.
The schedules for the remaining states—Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia—were burned during the War of 1812. Substitute schedules, made from names in state censuses or tax lists, have been published for many of the missing states. These printed 1790 schedules are available in most larger libraries.
The 1880, 1900 and most of the 1910 censuses have “soundex” indexes on microfilm. The soundex is a coded surname index based on the way a surname sounds rather than how it is spelled. The 1880 soundex includes only those households with a child 10 or younger.
In using a census index, be certain that you have looked for your surname in all of its possible spelling variations. Remember also that indexes, including those produced by a computer, are subject to human error. Every genealogist has a horror story about printed census indexes; studies show that the error rate is high because of improper keypunching or misreading of the original records. So if you don’t find your ancestor in an index it doesn’t necessarily mean that he cannot be found in the census. You may often have to search every name in a given county before you find him.
The National Archives has original or microfilm copies of all the federal census schedules that have been made available to the public. These can be used in the microfilm reading room in the National Archives or at one of the eleven branches. If you are searching in Washington, enter the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the building. You will need to sign in and out and notebooks or brief cases are subject to search. The reading room is located on the fourth floor. While a researcher’s identification card is necessary for certain research in the National Archives, you don’t need one to use the microfilm reading room. In any case they are available in the lobby upon request.
[Webmaster’s comment: The most recent federal census record now available is the one for 1930 which was released to the public in 2002, or 72 years after it was taken. The census microfilms are now available at many libraries and are also available through interlibrary loan from the National Archives. Ancestry, Inc. now has all the the microfilmed census records online, if you pay a fee to join, but some libraries also subscribe to the service. Also, check out the USGenWeb Online Census Images website. Copies of forms to record census information can be downloaded from Ancestry.com.]
To help with your census search, the Archives has a free booklet, “Getting Started: Beginning Your Genealogical Research in the National Archives.” Included is an explanation of the soundex system. [Note: This may no longer be available, or it may be online.]
If you are unable to visit a library where census record microfilms are available, the National Archives will, on request, send you a copy of each of its catalogs of microfilm copies: “Federal Population Censuses 1790-1890,” “1900 Federal Population Census,” and “The 1910 Federal Population Census.” Prices and order blanks are included. Also, many county libraries have microfilm copies of census records for their local areas. [Note: You may be still able to borrow microfilm through interlibrary loan. I did that a couple of times, although there is usually a small fee for each reel of film, but this program may no longer be available since so much is available through the internet. It’s best to check with your local library.]
Census records cannot always be relied on as accurate. Persons giving the information may not have known the exact ages or places of birth of each member of the household. And there’s always been vanity about ages—I’ve noted cases where people aged only five years in the ten years between the censuses! Census takers spelled what they heard and many of them spelled badly. And apparently they weren’t hired because of their penmanship. Even so, the family listing in a census gives you valuable information and provides clues for further research.