Wisconsin Historical Society Census Records Research Tips | Wisconsin Historical Society

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Census Records Research Tips

Censuses are one of the most valuable primary resources for genealogy research. Census records provide insights into the family structure over time. They pinpoint where your ancestors resided during specific years of their lives and provide various details about them. In addition to basic personal facts for each person, census records include detailed information that can help make connections across generations.

Censuses can lay the foundation for the rest of your genealogical research. They offer clues to help you find information about your lineage and can point you to other resources to investigate. 

Search by Last Name and Location, Work Backward in Time

Find your ancestor in each census year that your ancestor was alive.

Gather all information you have on each person because it may help you find those elusive, migratory ancestors when they don’t show up where you expect them to be located. Rely on clues found in the censuses to guide you.

Census records are prone to a variety of errors. Misspellings are common in indexes and censuses. Also, county and state boundaries changed over time.

Read the Pages Before and After Your Ancestor's Page

You may find other family members living nearby. County and state boundaries changed over time.

Print the Page on Which Your Ancestor is Found

You may see something later that you didn't notice the first time you found the page. You will lose that information if you choose to transcribe instead of printing out the entire page.

Compare Census Information Gathered Every 10 Years

You are bound to see differences in ages, years of immigration, and number of children living at home. The kind of information gathered for censuses varied from year-to-year and for each census type. Also, the dates censuses were taken varied from year-to-year.

Census pages don’t indicate who gave the information and may not be entirely factual. Instead, consider these leads. Be sure to compare census details with other resources.

Information That May Be Included in Census Records

  • Names of family members
  • Their ages at a certain point in time
  • Their state or country of birth
  • Their parents' birthplaces
  • Year of immigration
  • Street address
  • Marriage status and years of marriage
  • Occupation(s)
  • Value of their home and personal belongings

More Details

Wisconsin
  • Wisconsin Territorial and State Censuses were taken in scattered years, 1836, 1838, 1842, 1846, 1847, 1855, 1865, 1875, 1885, 1895 and 1905.
  • Most of the 1865 State Census did not survive. Only these counties are available: Dunn, Green, Jackson, Kewaunee, Ozaukee and Sheboygan.
  • The 1836-1895, and surviving fragments of the 1865 censuses list only the head of a household by name and summarizing the number of others.
  • The 1905 census was the only Wisconsin census to list all members of a household by name. This was also the last state census conducted in Wisconsin.
Federal Census
  • Federal Censuses have been created in the United States from 1790 to the present.
  • There is a privacy law that prohibits release of census records for 72 years after the census was taken.
  • Census records for 1940, 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900 and 1880 have more detailed information about families than earlier census records. Relationships between family members are stated and some connections to the old country are defined.
  • From 1790-1840, only heads of households are noted by name.  All other members of the family are noted as tally marks in columns by age and sex.
  • Most of the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire in 1921.  The remaining fragments consist mostly of a special schedule of Veterans and Widows of Veterans from Kentucky to Wyoming.
Special Schedules
  • These are only available from 1850-1880 (done every 10 years).
  • Information differs drastically between the 1870 and 1880 Agricultural Census.
  • To appear on a Mortality Census, a person had to have died within the 12 months after that census date.  If the census was taken April 1, 1870, the schedules recorded deaths that happened as of April 1, 1869.
Canada
  • Canadian Censuses were taken in scattered years between 1666-1911.
  • Many Canada Censuses provide information about church affiliations.
  • Starting in 1851 all people in households were listed, and agricultural censuses were compiled separately.
  • The agricultural censuses for 1861 listed with the population schedules at the end of each county. These are found on the microfilm and not yet online.

About Our Census Records

The Wisconsin Historical Society has census records for the United States (1790-1940), Wisconsin (1836-1905) and Canada (1836-1901). The Society also owns special U.S. Federal Schedules for Wisconsin including Mortality, Agricultural and Industrial. Censuses are official, periodic counts of populations including such information as age, gender and occupation.

Learn More

See more articles about researching your family history.

Have Questions?

Contact our Library and Archives staff by email.

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