Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Developing An Ancestor's Profile Through U.S. Census Records

Last April, the National Archives (NARA) released the U.S. Census of 1940 to the public, a day that genealogists and family history researchers throughout the country had been anticipating for years. You may be asking yourself why the 1940 census was still private - it had been more than 70 years since the data was recorded. 

Well, here’s the reason. Where U. S. census records are concerned, the federal government enforces what is called “The 72 Year Rule.”  What this means is that census records are not available for citizens to search through and view personal information contained in the records until 72 years (an average lifetime) after the information was gathered. Although the U. S. Census of 1940 was released to the public and is available for viewing at,,, and other sites, the data contained there is not easy to navigate without an index. Because of the sheer volume of the data, census records for only a few states have been indexed. The good news is that through the efforts of paid individuals and thousands of unpaid volunteers, we are closer than ever to having indexed census record data from the U. S. Census of 1940 available for researching in all 50 states.

Poring through the rolls of the 1940 census would have helped me tremendously last week.  I had taken on the task of assisting someone in putting together her mother’s family history. But data for the states I needed to search had not been indexed, and I had to “make do” with data found in census records from previous years. As I reviewed and searched  through countless digital images of documents from several states, beginning with 1850 and ending with 1930, I began to develop visual profiles of the relatives my contact had never met, even some she never knew existed. And it was all because of small bits of personal information available on census records. It’s true. Almost everything any researcher might ever need to know about an ancestor, except for a physical description, is contained within those handwritten entries on these priceless documents. 

As I continued my review and diligently searched for more facts, census entries answered one question after another.  When was the individual born?  Where was he/she born? And who were the parents? Where were the parents born, and what language did they speak? 

But wait; that’s not all. There is so much more information contained there, information that goes well beyond the basic facts. Many of these old census records reveal how many years a couple had been married, whether they had been previously married, and if so, how many times, and how old they were when they were married the first time.  Staring out at me from these images was data that detailed a woman’s childbearing history. How many “live births” had she experienced? And what was the total number of her children who had survived childhood? Just how personal can we get here? But when one considers the importance of this information to a developing country in preventing infant mortality, these facts suddenly become much more than sad reminders of how difficult having a child really was back then. 

As I continued my research, I realized that by simply reading a line of words across a page, I could determine the dollar amount of an individual’s assets, the value of his house or farm, the occupation at which he or she was employed, and whether a child had attended school that year. Since we are a nation of immigrants, census records also provide details about when an individual immigrated to this country, if that individual has been naturalized, and if so, when the naturalization occurred. Also, I began to formulate visual images and mental impressions of people caught in a micro-moment of time, sometimes daring people who were forging life out of the elements, but always people whose lives were eternally linked together in this universe by blood, hard work, and often tears. 

I knew my contact would be pleased with what I had found. And it was because the census records of this country tell a moving story of its people, a story that consistently makes tracing one’s roots a powerful and enlightening journey.  

1 comment:

  1. I love those census records, so many wonderful tidbits that tell us a lot about our ancestors. I encourage researchers to not skip this step in their research.