The Desert Shamrock
Arizona’s Original Irish Newspaper
Volume 9, Number 4, July/August 1998, page 20

The Census: A Decennial Family Record

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Professional Genealogist & Historian

        Previous articles have discussed searching family records, public records, and networking nationally and internationally. I raised basic questions regarding genealogical research in Ireland, and explained the importance of geography and history in relation to genealogy. These previous articles are on my web site at; click on Professional Services then Genealogical Writings. In this article I wish to discuss a specific record which is most significant in the beginning stages of the search for family history.

        The best all around type of record used in the search for family history is the United States Census Records. There is probably no other single group of records which contain more information about persons and families who lived during the 1800s in the United States. Fortunately, most of the U.S. census records still exist, and indexes for each State make searching for families in the census much easier. Taken every ten years, the census thus becomes a decennial family record.

        The United States census was begun in 1790 as a result of a Constitutional provision, and has been taken every ten years since. From 1790 to 1840 the census only lists the name of the head of the household with a count of persons in that household according to age groups. Despite these limitations, even these early census records have proven to be invaluable aids in painting a complete genealogical picture, as well as useful tools to help locate and identify specific persons and families.

        1850 saw one of the most significant changes in the census. The individual, rather than the family, became the primary census unit. Instead of describing an entire family on a single line, as had been done in the earlier schedules, one line of the census was used to record information on each person within the household. This was the first census which would name every individual in the household, and include ages, place of birth, occupation, and other significant details related to each individual. Also, there is an implied relationship of individuals within a household to the head of the household.

        Gradually, additional information, such as deaths and marriages, were added in the 1860 through 1890 census schedules. Most significantly, beginning with the 1880 census the relationship of individuals within a household to the head of the household is stated directly.

        The 1900 census began to inquire as to citizenship status of each individual, including year of immigration to the U.S. and whether naturalized. This continued through the 1910 and 1920 census.

        State and local census records exist for some of the States during the years between the Federal Census records. Meanwhile, Special Censuses were conducted in conjunction with the regular Federal Census. Some examples of these are the Mortality Schedules, Indian Censuses, Agricultural Schedules, Slave Schedules, and Manufacturing Schedules.

        The more recent U.S. census records are not yet available due to the Right to Privacy Act of 1974. The 1920 census is the most current census available to the public at this time. However, information from the most current census records can be obtained under special circumstances from the Bureau of the Census.

        Unlike in United States genealogy, where census records are the backbone of research, in Irish genealogy the census records are an extremely poor source. The Irish census returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851 were destroyed in the Four Courts fire of 1922. The returns for 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 were destroyed by government order. The 1901 and 1911 returns are the earliest complete census records available for the country.

        However, some fragments of the earlier census records have survived. For example, many parishes for the 1821 Census of County Cavan and for the 1831 Census of County Londonderry do still exist and are available on microfilm. Research efforts must first determine what has survived for the area of interest, such as a specific parish or townland.

        The U.S. census records are available at hundreds of facilities across the country. Locally, the most complete collection of these records, from 1790 to 1920, are available at the Family History Center in Mesa, 41 South Hobson, just behind the Arby’s on the corner of Hobson and Main. This facility is part of the Morman Church and is a branch center of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Microfilm copies of the surviving census records for Ireland can also be viewed at this facility. I had discussed this facility in more detail in the September/October 1997 issue of this publication.

        Overall, the census records help you to locate where the family was living in a specific year, and provides you with a wealth of information regarding that family, such as who the children or parents were, dates and places of birth, marriage and death, occupation, year of immigration and whether naturalized. As you collect the census records for a specific family over the course of several censuses, a family picture will develop.

        Also, searching census records will give you multiple directions for further research. Census records can lead you to where and when to locate birth, death and marriage records, occupational records, city directories, ships passenger lists, and naturalization records, which all can provide a wealth of additional information.

        In the short and long term, census records can help you identify where in Ireland that your family came, so this is a great source worth taking advantage of.

DISCLAIMER: This is an important reminder that the above article is provided here exactly as originally written and published several years ago. Therefore, while most of the primary context of the article may still be relevant, please be aware that possibly certain of the information and references may now be outdated, such as individuals and organizations, links, contacts, facilities, etc. Please follow-up accordingly for more updated information.

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©2013, Robert M. Wilbanks IV, Scottsdale, Arizona
created Nov 15, 2013; last updated Nov 15, 2013