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Census Records Have Always Been A Great Tool For Genealogists
Column published: 26 February 2010
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Census records have always been a great tool for the genealogist. In the U.S., census records are released after 72 years so we eagerly await the release of each census. Our descendants will not have some of the advantages that we have enjoyed. Our 2010 United States census is about to be taken. This year there will only be 10 questions asked. Our descendants will not be able to learn a lot of information about us from this census.

2010 United States census questions are as follows:
  1. How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment or mobile home on April 1, 2010?
  2. Were there any additional people staying here April 1, 2010 that you did not include in Question 1?
  3. Is this house, apartment, or mobile home owned by you, or someone in the house with a mortgage? Owned without payment of rent?
  4. What is your telephone number (number to call if an answer is unclear)?
  5. Names of the individuals living in the home.
  6. Sex of the individual inhabitants of the home.
  7. Ages and dates of birth of the individual inhabitants of the home.
  8. Are any of the individuals living in the home of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?
  9. The race of the individual inhabitants of the home.
  10. Do any of the individuals live or stay somewhere else?
We will, of course, have some good information on this census but it lacks the possibility of learning lots of juicy tidbits about individuals. In the past years we have learned some very interesting things about our ancestors. Some were fascinating and some really made us cringe.

One of the things that I have found fascinating was the tendency among females to be inconsistent about their ages. As someone has said "women have been chiseling on their ages ever since the stone age." Apparently this was fairly common.

The historical records revealed some quirks. For instance, Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary, reported growing only seven years older between the 1850 and the 1860 census.

(Census Year: 1850; Census Place: Springfield, Sangamon Co., Illinois; Roll: M432_127; Page: 120; Image: 243.)

(Census Year: 1860; Springfield, Sangamon, Illinois; Roll: M653_226; Page: 140; Image: 139.)

Census records include a wealth of information that is obviously useful to researchers, as well as hidden clues that are less obvious but equally useful.

It is difficult to construct our family's histories with the brief entries that we find. When I look at the census I am always humbled by how little I will actually ever know about the lives categorized in the census records of long ago. It is always a challenge to try and find out more about those lives, whether in little snippets found within the census itself or in other sources that they have lead me too.

In future articles we will examine some of the other types of things that we learn from the census.

Until next time :)

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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