by Mary Harrell-Sesniak
"Genealogy is not just a pastime, it's a passion."
Don't be fooled by thinking U.S. federal census records were created for family historians—their original purpose was for demographics. Genealogists use them now, but knowing their original purpose and knowing the questions asked and notations used can keep you from being misled.
For instance, what does "UN" or "UA" indicate regarding military service? Unknown or Unavailable? No—it indicates service with the Union Navy or Army, and that can make a world of difference.
Questions changed from decade to decade. Some items were dropped and others manipulated to unearth new details. Here is some guidance to get you started.
Marital Status or Civil Condition
Early on, newlyweds were the only ones whose length of marriage was recorded, and the only year the month of marriage was asked was 1870. By 1880, divorces, widowhood, and single status were included.
From 1900–1910, the number of years a couple had been married was enumerated, but in 1920 this was eliminated. Strangely, in 1930, the enumerator determined the age when a person had first married.
That's quite a different issue, and it didn't matter if one was on a second or third marriage—the enumerator just recorded the age at first marriage. So what was the point? From a demographic standpoint, as more women worked or attended college, they were less likely to marry high school sweethearts! Luckily some records show M1 or M2, indicating first or second marriage.
Information enumerated, by census year and column number:
·1850 and 1860. Columns 10 and 11, respectively: Whether married within the year
·1870. Column14: If married within the year, the month (Jan., etc.)
·1880. Column 9: Civil Condition Single; Column 10: Civil Condition Married; Column 11: Civil Condition Widowed, Divorced; Column 12: Whether married during the census year
·1890. Column 7: Whether single, married, widowed, or divorced; Column 8: Whether married during the census year (June 1, 1889, to May 31, 1890)
·1900. Column 9: Whether single, married, widowed, or divorced; Column 10: Number of years of present marriage
·1910. Column 8: Whether single, married, widowed, or divorced; Column 9: Number of years of present marriage
·1920. Column 12: Whether single, married, widowed, or divorced
·1930. Column 14: Marital condition; Column 15: Age at first marriage
Some abbreviations you will see relating to military information include "UN" for Union Navy; "UA" for Union Army; "CA" for Confederate Army; "CN" for Confederate Navy; "CW" for Civil War; "SP" for Spanish American War; and "WW" for World War I.
In 1910, column 30 recorded whether someone was a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy. In 1920, the question wasn't posed, but in 1930, column 30 noted veterans of the U.S. military or naval forces mobilized for any war or expedition (with a Y or N), and column 31 indicated the war/expedition.
Interestingly, a number of Civil War veterans survived, along with veterans of the Spanish American War and the Great War.
In addition, in 1890 a special census was enumerated to assist with pension requests granted to veterans or widows. Only those with disabilities were eligible, and it didn't include confederates. Much of this special census schedule is missing—only records from Kentucky and Wyoming remain. However, if you are lucky enough to have an ancestor recorded, there are a number of important items included.
Information enumerated, by column number:
·Columns 1 and 2: The house and family number
·Column 3: Name of surviving soldiers, marines, and widows
·Columns 4 and 5: Rank and Company
·Column 6: Name of regiment or vessel
·Columns 7 and 8: Date of enlistment and discharge
·Column 9: Length of service
·Column 10: Post office address
·Column 11: Disability incurred
Citizenship and Naturalization
Over the decades, questions were expanded from place of birth to information about parents and native languages.
Information enumerated, by census year and column number:
·1850. Column 9: Place of birth, naming the state, territory, or country
·1860. Column 10: Place of birth, naming the state, territory, or country
·1870. Column 10: Place of birth, naming the state, territory, or country; Columns 11 and 12: Parentage of father and mother of the foreign born; Column 19: Constitutional Relations—Male citizens of U.S. of 21 years of age and upwards; Column 20: Male citizens of U.S. of 21 years of age and upwards where right to vote is denied on other grounds than rebellion or other crimes
·1880. No related information enumerated
·1890. Column 33: Number of years in the U.S.; Column 14: Whether naturalized; Column 15: Whether naturalization papers have been taken out
·1900. Column 13: Place of birth of this person; Column 14: Father; Column 15: Mother; Column 16: Year of immigration to the U.S.; Column 17: Number of years in the U.S.; Column 18: Naturalization
·1910. Same as 1900, but recorded on Columns 12 through14; Column 15: Year of immigration to the U.S.; Column 16: Whether naturalized or alien
·1920. Column 13: Year of immigration to the United States; Column 14: Naturalized or alien; Column 15: If naturalized, year of naturalization; Columns 19 and 20: Place of birth/mother tongue of person; Columns 21 through 24: Father and mother
·1930. Columns 18 through 20: Place of birth of person, father, and mother; Column 21: Language spoken in home before coming to the United States; Column 22: Year of immigration to the U.S.; Column 23: Naturalized or alien; Column 24: Whether able to speak English
In addition, census records often report addresses, literacy, occupations, and property values. Each decade was different, so do your research carefully.
I recommend RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees Number 9, which details the index system, official dates of enumeration, and pitfalls in interpreting and locating data.
Previously published in RootsWeb Review: 8 October 2008, Vol. 11, No. 20.
Rootsweb Review Archives: http://rwr.rootsweb.ancestry.com/