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Genealogy Resources: Census Records

About US Census Records

What Are Census Records?

The Federal government requires a census to be taken once every ten years for the apportionment of members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Census records are the only records that describe the entire population of the United States on a particular day. The answers given to the census takers tell us, in detail, what the United States looked like when the census was taken, and what issues were most relevant to Americans after a decade of economic depression. The first census was taken in 1790. Over the years, the format of census schedules changed and more questions were asked.

The 72-Year Rule

The U.S. government will not release personally identifiable information about an individual to any other individual or agency until 72 years after it was collected for the decennial census. The US Census Bureau provides more information about census record availability.

Census Records

A bit about census records:

  • Census records are useful for tracking your family over a period of time.
  • Census records contain information about the person who lived in the home at the time the census taker visited them.
  • A census is taken every ten years.
  • The questions asked on census records have changed over time.
  • The 1940 census is the most currently available record for historical research on genealogy sites.
  • The 1950 census will be available in April 2022. For more information about when census records are released, read about "The 72-Year Rule."
  • The information provided to the census taker may not be 100% accurate. Typically, the "head of the household" provided the information, but if there were language or communication issues, the family's information may have been provided by a child, or in some cases even a neighbor. A child or the neighbor may (unknowingly) have provided inaccurate information to the census taker.
  • The information about a person on a census may change from one record to the next. For example, Angela Starzak (how she was known to family) was listed on the 1920 census as Angeline and on the 1930 census as Angline. (This is another example of how using a wildcard to search would be helpful.)
  • Not everyone listed on a census living in a household was related to the family. Some families took in "lodgers" or "boarders."

For more information about what you'll find in census records, visit Census Records from the National Archives.

Alternate Spellings -- Less is More!

The records that appear in genealogy research sites like FamilySearch are entered by hand by people who have to decipher the handwriting on very old documents. This can lead to errors or inaccuracies and sometimes makes it difficult for you to find records. 

Instead of searching the full last name, use a wildcard (*) to search just the first few letters.

For example, when Frank Starzak arrived to the United States in 1902, he was listed on the New York Passenger Arrival List as "Franciszek Starzak." On the 1920 census, he was listed as "Frank Stzarsek." To allow for alternate spellings of names, you might use wildcard searches that look like this: Fra* Star* or Fran* Starz* or Franc St*