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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Introduction To African Americans In The U.S. Federal Census
The U.S. Federal Census is the most widely-used record group in genealogy research. Compiled every ten years since 1790 under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution, the federal census holds a wealth of information of use to the genealogist. The federal census enumerations are currently available through 1940. Each census becomes available seventy-two years after the date of enumeration, according to federal law. For each year, there was a specific day appointed as “Census Day”, which differed from year to year. The information enumerated in each census was supposed to reflect each household on Census Day, though the census-taker may have actually visited on a different day. The sort of information that can you expect to find in the federal census depends on the year. For the earliest years—from 1790 through 1840—the census named each free head of household, and the composition of each household represented by counts in various age groupings:
- The 1790 census provided the least-specific information with columns for free white males over the age of 16, free white males under the age of 16, free white females, other free persons, and slaves. African Americans appeared exclusively in these last two columns.
- For 1800 through 1820, columns divided both free white males and free white females into more specific age groups, though in 1800 and 1810, only one column each counted “other free persons” and “slaves.” The 1820 census was the first that contained age divisions for “male slaves,” “female slaves,” “free colored males,” and “free colored females.”
- The 1830 and 1840 federal censuses provided the most specific information for households up to that point. Free white males and females were counted in ten-year ranges, with children under the age of twenty listed in five-year ranges. Both slaves and free colored persons were also divided into various age groups. Additional columns also tallied the inhabitants by occupations, such as agriculture, manufacturing, mining and commerce, and provided additional details.
The 1850 federal census was revolutionary in terms of genealogical value, for it was the first census in which all free inhabitants were enumerated by name. Also included in 1850 were exact ages, places of birth, specific occupations for adults, and the value of real estate owned.
In addition to the population schedule, there were also several non-population schedules that provided more specific information about the communities and households. The most valuable of these are the slave schedules, mortality schedules, and agriculture schedules. The slave schedules did not provide names for the slaves, but did list them by age, gender, and race (i.e., black or mulatto), under the name of the slave-owner. The mortality schedule provided information concerning those people who died within the year prior to Census Day. The agriculture schedule, also called the “farm schedule”, provided information on the acreage and crops grown on each individual farm or plantation.
Federal Censuses of 1860 and 1870
The federal censuses of 1860 and 1870 continued the same basic format as that of 1850. The 1870 census also bears the distinction of being the first after the end of slavery, and therefore the first to list all African Americans by name. The 1850 and 1860, in contrast, listed slaves only in the slave schedules.
To gain some perspective on this, you must recognize that in 1850, the total population of the United States was over 23 million. Of these, less than 500,000 were identified as free blacks—just over 2% of the total population. That same year, over 3 million slaves were listed, equaling about 13% of the total population. In terms of the African American population, this means that 88% of all African Americans were enslaved in 1850, and thus not identified by name.
In 1880, the federal census provided three additional piece of information, the most genealogically significant data to that point: the relationship of each member of a household to the head of household, the place of birth of each person’s father, and the place of birth of each person’s mother. Prior to this year, the census only provided indirect evidence of relationships at best, but these relationships would have to be confirmed by other sources before definite conclusions were possible. From 1880 onward, the federal census provided direct evidence of relationships. Moreover, the identification of the places of birth of each individual’s parents provided unprecedented information on the paths of migration for families.
The 1890 federal census poses additional difficulties for genealogists, however. In 1921, a fire, and the subsequent smoke and water damage resulting from it, destroyed most of the 1890 population schedule. The meager remnants contain portions of Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and the District of Columbia. However, this year also saw the creation of a “veteran’s schedule,” which listed all Union veterans from the Civil War.
The veterans’ enumerations for the states from Kentucky through Wyoming still exist for this special schedule. The forms provide the name, rank, regiment and company, date of enlistment, date of discharge, and total length of service for each veteran. For most individuals, this is the only remaining federal census information from this year.
The veterans’ schedule is particularly valuable for African American research, as it will lead you to search for military enlistment information. In the summer of 1862, Congress passed two acts allowing for the enlistment of black soldiers. The first regiments of black troops were organized in South Carolina among the freedmen there, and in January 1863, Massachusetts raised a regiment of black soldiers from all over the North. By the end of October, there were a total of fifty-eight regiments comprised entirely of black soldiers. The United States Colored Troops contained roughly 178,000 free blacks and former slaves.
The 1900 federal census continued the trend toward providing more specific biographical information for each individual in the United States. In this year, the census provided the month and year of birth, and the number of years of marriage, as well as information on home ownership. For women, it reported the total number of children and the number of these children still living. The remaining available censuses, from 1910 to 1940, provide very similar data, though the month and year of birth only appeared in the 1900 census.
There are many ways to access the U.S. federal census enumerations.
The original federal copies of the census records are held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. NARA has also microfilmed these records, and the microfilms are available at many public libraries and historical societies throughout the country, as well as at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. Through the many local FamilySearch Centers, you can rent these microfilms from the Family History Library.
The federal census records are also the most commonly available records online. Digital images of some or all of the records are available through Ancestry.com, Fold3, and FamilySearch. With the exception of FamilySearch, these websites are available only through paid subscription. Many public libraries or historical societies have institutional subscriptions to these websites, made available free of charge to their patrons. Another website, HeritageQuest, is available only through public libraries. These websites also provide the ability to search the census by name or other data.
Many of the NARA microfilm reels have also been digitized, reel-by-reel, and are available on the website Internet Archive. These images are not able to be searched, but do occasionally provide better images than those available on other websites. Furthermore, these images are faithful reproductions of the original microfilm, with no further processing. For this reason, the images on this website avoid some of the errors in processing present on other websites.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.