© 2020 by Roots & Wings Research, LLC

  • Kristin Wenger

Top tips for census research

In my last #52Ancestors story, I shared how one census record led me to many discoveries. If you’d like to start learning about your family history through census records, first familiarize yourself with a basic introduction.


Then, check out my top three tips for maximizing census research:


1. Always look at the neighbors

Don’t just zero in on your family. Examine the entire page as well as the page before and after to place your family in context. You will often find extended family members living in clo­se proximity.

For more practical tips, click here.


2. Pay attention to the details.

Depending upon the census year, you could discover some of the following:

  • occupation

  • year of immigration or naturalization

  • number of children to whom a mother gave birth and how many were still living

  • birthplace

  • birthplace of each parent

  • language spoken

  • whether individual could read or write

  • whether they owned or rented their home

  • income and hours worked

  • military service

Read more about instructions to census enumerators here.


3. Don’t forget about the non-population schedules!

These schedules exist primarily for the years 1850-1880 and include:

  • Agriculture schedules – provide insight into the crops, livestock, and acreage of farmers

  • Mortality schedules – particularly valuable if your state did not start keep death records until later

  • Manufacturing and industry schedules

  • Social statistics - community information about schools, churches, libraries, newspapers, average wages, etc.

  • Slave schedules (1850 and 1860 only in slave-holding states)

  • Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes (DDD, 1880 only) - This record set provides information found nowhere else and much of it would be considered politically incorrect or a violation of privacy in today’s society. It enumerated individuals in prisons, “poor houses” or “insane asylums.” It also included individuals who were classified as “deaf-mute,” “blind,” “insane” (suffering from mental illness), or “idiots” (individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities).

For example, my husband’s fourth great-grandparents, Benjamin and Anna Denlinger, were enumerated in the 1880 census at ages 65 and 62 with five adult children living in their home. Four out of those five had tick marks in the column for deaf.

When found in the 1880 DDD schedule, I learned that all four (Martin, John, Lydia, and Kate) had been deaf from birth and had attended a school for the deaf for four to six years. Their year of entrance into the school was also specified, providing an avenue for further research.


Census records contain a wealth of information if you know what to look for and how to find it. I’d love to help you get started!