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Federal Censuses

Overview

In the United States, the federal government has conducted an enumeration of the public every 10 years since 1790. In general, from 1790 through 1840, the censuses recorded only the name of the head of household and tabulated the number of males and females in age categories. Since the 1850 census, each person living in the household has been listed separately by name. The 1890 census was almost completely destroyed in a fire in January 1921.

Some special schedules were created with the federal population schedules. These recorded information about farms, persons who had died, veterans, slaves, businesses, and social institutions. These documents can help you find information that may not be found elsewhere.

  • Mortality schedules recorded names and information about persons who had died during the 12 month period before the date the census was taken from 1850-1880. This resource provided information before most states had civil recordings of vital statistics. 
  • Agricultural schedules recorded persons owning land. 1850-1880. The 1900 agricultural schedules were destroyed. No agricultural information was collected after 1900.
  • Veterans schedules recorded military service. 1890. Information about military service was also recorded in columns of the population schedules for 1840 & 1910. 
  • Slave schedules recorded the name of the slave owner and sex and age of each slave. Unfortunately, these did not record the names of slaves. 1850-1860. Information about slaves was also recorded in columns of the population schedules, 1790-1840. 
  • Manufacturers/Industrial schedules recorded businesses owners. 1850-1880. 
  • Social Statistics recorded existing social organizations like churches, schools, etc. 1850-1880.

Search Strategies

Censuses are the most heavily used genealogical sources. Unfortunately, most people rush through them and don't get the most out of these fabulous records. There are many valuable tips for using censuses. We recommend that you read chapter 5, Research in Census Records, in The Source (Salt Lake City, Ancestry, 1997 edition). This will outline the use of censuses and the many tips for getting the most information. 

Key points to consider:

  • Photocopy the full 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 information if you choose to transcribe instead of photocopying.
  • Read the pages before and after the ancestor's page. You may find other family members living nearby. 
  • Find each census for the life span of your ancestors. Compare the information that is given every ten years. You are bound to see differences in ages, years of immigration, and number of children living at home.
  • Consider the source of the information given. The census pages do not indicate who gave the information so the researcher must consider that these pieces of information are leads and not necessarily facts. The researcher must compare these sources with others.

What the Society Owns

The Library has acquired on microfilm a complete file of all the surviving schedules of the 1790-1920 U.S. censuses for all the states. The Library has also attempted to acquire all available published indexes to these materials.

How to Access These Records at the Society

Interlibrary Loan
Unfortunately, most of the census collection does not circulate and must be used in the Library. We do offer circulating copies of the Wisconsin federal and state censuses. Request these from your local library's Interlibrary Loan office. Provide the year and county. We also circulate indexes to the Wisconsin federal census (1820-1900, 1920). Provide the name of the person and year.

Research by Mail/Fax
If you would like our Reference Staff to locate and photocopy pages from the censuses, it is very important for you to view our Library Services page for an explanation of charges before you place any order.

Who will you find?

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