Censuses were first implemented by Congress and were generally used to determine taxes and for determine apportionment for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the beginning, only the head of household's name was gathered along with a count of people in the household. However, not all people were treated equally! For instance, slaves were counted separately and no names were recorded during the early years. Each census year after 1790, additional information was gathered from the people. It was 1850 before a census asked for the names of every member of the household.
As all census records are “not equal”, neither is the accuracy of the information. There are original documents, hand-written copies of originals and summaries of the censuses. Accuracy was dependent on a number of things including illegible handwriting, the desire of the enumerator to follow the established rules, and the desire of the household members to provide accurate answers to questions. Simply put, some people did not know how to spell names or even know their age. Those things were not as important or as common as they are today. Also, people stretched the truth in some cases to avoid taxes or the law. Some even avoided the enumerator. So don’t think you have the wrong person just because he aged 14 years between censuses, or she only aged 6 years!
Sometimes enumerators were required to make copies of their records which required manually hand-copying their originals to a new paper or form. Some of the originals were even lost or destroyed. Over the years, some census records were destroyed in fires, lost in transport, misplaced or thrown away by mistake. The entire 1890 census was burned in a fire in Washington DC in 1921.
Of the census records that have survived over the past 220 years, copies can be found indexed as well as preserved in both microfilm and digitized images. This brings a new level of frustration to the genealogist. Not all data is indexed correctly, nor are the images all of the same clarity and quality.
Indexes and images can be found online now in both free locations and subscription websites. Each site has its own search engine and level of quality. New technology helps to improve the accuracy and quality and, in many cases, the records are being re-indexed and re-scanned.
Locating Census Records Online - Your first question may be “where can I find them?” To that question I have provided the links and directions to the websites you can use, as well as, links to tips for using census records in your research. So if you haven’t ventured into your own research, give census records a try.
To gain free access to census indexes and images from home:
Utah Educators and Students -
You have access to Heritage Quest if you or your child is a registered user of my.uen.org. If you are not registered yet, click here.
Information about access in other states
Note: Free access to Heritage Quest is provided at Family History Centers located in various LDS Church buildings around the country. Use the Family History Center portal: access through the FHC portal of subscription sites located on the computers desktop.
Other free sites with census records:
FamilySearch Records Search - currently has the following census records online 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 (no images), 1900, 1920 (partial index only)
US GenWEB – has some records partially online-some indexed and some images. Access this easily by state through this link.
National Archives Libraries - If you visit or live in a State that has a NARA location you can access census records. Here is a link to the NARA locations.
Census Finder - locate the available websites that contain free images or transcriptions of census records from all over the world.
Ancestry.com has the most complete set of census records available online. If you have a subscription, click here.
The LDS Church provides free access to the census images for Ancestry at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and at all other Regional Family History Centers around the country. See a list and links for Regional Family History Centers .
The LDS Church also provides free access to the following subscription websites through the FHC portal at ALL Family History Centers, not just the regional ones.
Footnote.com: Currently this subscription website has the 1860 and 1930 US census records.
One other subscription website contains some images and indexes. That is Genealogy.com: Only about half of the census years are indexed.
Tips for using Census records - Use the following links to great sources of information.
US Census explained
Clues in census records, 1790-1840
Cues in census records, 1850-1930
Reading the census
Federal census facts
Tips for using Census records at Heritage Quest online
Finding Families in Pre-1850 Censuses
Census Questions and Research Tips
Searching Census Records
U.S. Federal Census Dates