2 July 2012
From 1790 until now, the United States government has taken a census every ten years that is meant to count every person living at the time. (There is only one census that is missing; the one for 1890. Except for a few thousand names, this census was completely destroyed in a fire.) These are a treasure trove of information.
Each census asked a different set of questions. By piecing them together, it is possible to get a very good picture of a person’s life. It is possible to learn where someone was born, where their parents were born, the number and duration of marriages, the number of children a woman had and how many survived, occupations, whether they were literate and whether they owned or rented a home.
The system for census tracking is to work backwards. That means you would start with the 1930 census (the latest one available) and go back ten years at a time. Remember that, in the past, communities were relatively small and tight knit. People tended to move in groups (friends or family); live nearby and marry each other. The easiest families to find are those who stayed in place. For those of you who have relatives still living in the “home place,” you are very lucky indeed.
The most significant census for African Americans is the 1870 census. That is the one that records us as humans. From 1790 to 1840, heads of households were counted along with the number of slaves owned by that person. In 1850 and 1860, we are counted on separate slave schedules with no personal details — not even our names.
In order to progress in your research, there comes a time when you will have to look at the white families that enslaved your ancestors. Finding a slave schedule is the first step in this process. Slave schedules establish the names and locations of slaveholders. Note that there are two separate documents. One is the slave schedule, the other is the general census form. You need to look at both.
If you find your ancestor on the 1870 census, keep looking around them. If they lived in the same community as a slaveholding family with the same surname, it’s likely you found the family that “relates” to you. (There is something called “The Nettie Rule” that says look 10 households forward and 10 households back on the census and you will likely find a match.) In many cases, you will find several white families with the same surname in the area too. They are likely related to one another — brothers, cousins…. and may have held slaves as well.
The 1870 and 1880 census records are available for free in several places. The site I recommend is FamilySearch.org. You can search for your surname and get immediate results. Just bear in mind that names were spelled differently on different records. In the census, I have found people with the most unlikely spellings — often because the handwriting of the census taker was so illegible. There is also a frequent problem with ages. Huge variances from census to census are common. I usually accept a ten year variance as being acceptable.
States also engaged in local census taking. I have had great luck with the 1866 Alabama census, which was the first one taken after the Civil War. Like the 1870 U.S. census, it lists African Americans by name — first and last.
For privacy purposes, Federal census records are released 72 years after they are taken. The 1940 census came online this year.
This post first appeared as part of a 12 part series for Geni.com: http://www.geni.com/blog/african-american-genealogy-part-i-the-adventure-begins-370149.html