Census and Sensibility
This week many of us received the 2010 federal census form in the mail. While I was happy that it took only a few minutes to complete the form, as a genealogist I was disappointed that it asked so few questions. Future genealogists will surely find the 2010 census disappointing compared to some earlier enumerations.
In the early years, beginning with the first federal census in 1790, enumerators recorded the head of each household by name. Others in the household were recorded by tick marks in gender and age categories, leaving genealogists to speculate as to the identity of these ancestors. To the delight of genealogists, this changed in 1850 when the census began to record each person in the household by name.
While early censuses provide a skeletal outline of a family, enumerations from the late 19th and early 20th centuries provide the genealogist with a treasure trove of data, including dates and places of birth, marital status, year of immigration to the United States, occupation, and value of real estate. In the 1930 census, I discovered that my grandfather’s monthly rent was $37.50.
Mention the 1890 census to any genealogist, and you’ll surely elicit a groan. A 1921 fire at the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C., almost entirely destroyed the 1890 census, leaving future genealogists with an exasperating “ancestral generation gap” in their late 19th-century research.
Entries in the census are arranged geographically, rather than alphabetically. Years ago, genealogists relied on printed and microfilm name indexes to locate a particular ancestor in the census. In recent years, however, genealogists most often access the census online via Ancestry.com and other providers. (The St. Louis Public Library and the St. Louis County Library provide free access to Ancestry.com to their patrons.) Although finding our ancestors in the census is usually just a few keystrokes away, poor handwriting by census takers occasionally threatens to cast our ancestors into obscurity.
In addition to the population schedules of the census, which genealogists regularly use, in some years the government conducted “special schedules.” As an example, in the years 1850–1880, the “mortality schedule” compiled information on deaths that occurred in households in the 12 months preceding the taking of the census. The 1850 mortality schedule documents hundreds of St. Louisans who died in the cholera epidemic of 1849.
While the aforementioned population schedule of the 1890 census was largely destroyed, much of the special schedule of Civil War veterans and their widows conducted in that year has survived. Among those listed in this schedule is my Civil War ancestor Adam Schauer, who served for three and a half months as a private in Company D, 2nd Missouri Light Artillery, and resided at 3685 South Broadway in St. Louis.
The 1930 census is the most recent census that is accessible to the public, due to a statute that prohibits the release of this information until 72 years have passed. Back in 2002, when the 1930 census was first released, some National Archives branches opened their doors at midnight on the release date to allow excited genealogists to view this long-awaited census.
So as you fill out your census form, remember to consider genealogists of the 22nd century: Answer each question completely and make sure to write clearly!