This past week, you are able to access the 1940 census records.
What does this mean? To anyone who has interest in genealogy, it’s a time of celebration.
The history of the census records dates to the U.S. Constitution Article I, section 2 required the population be counted so we have equal representation.
A nationwide enumeration or count of the population has been taken every 10 years since.
The first U.S. Census was in 1790 and was overseen by federal marshals.
The first Census Office opened in Washington in 1850 and closed after each census. It stayed open permanently in 1902.
The 1790 census act gave the enumerators nine months from the collection of information to “post copies of the statistics in two of the most public places in the division” and send the lists to the marshals.
The clerk of the federal district court received the records and the federal judges submitted the census records to grand juries for verification of compliance.
Early census records have minimal information.
Early censuses were filled out by representatives of the federal government, known as an enumerator, and not the people themselves.
This most frequently occurred by going door to door.
This often resulted in errors in spelling and other information, particularly with names not commonly known to an enumerator.
Some of the discrepancies were also the result of a language barrier when the enumerator didn’t speak the same language as the person they were addressing.
The 1820 census was the first to ask about naturalization and heads of families.
1850 recorded each person’s age, occupation, and dwelling or house numbers.
You can see where your ancestors lived by utilizing area land plat maps.
1860 census schedules inquired about the value of personal estates.
Some of the census records asked if the head of household owned slaves.
Beginning with the 1870, the census asked where a person’s father and mother were born.
This is vital information to anyone doing genealogy research.
But discrepancies in ages, places and other information might cause inaccuracies.
Did your great-great grandfather know where his mother-in-law was born?
Some of the census records are difficult to find.
You may have to refer to historical records, such as when the state was established.
Minnesota was established in 1858 and was a territory beginning in 1849.
Prior to that it was a part of the Wisconsin Territory and it was in Michigan Territory before that.
The parts of Minnesota that were in those territories is included in those censuses for the appropriate years.
According to the National Archives and Records Administration, a Department of Commerce fire in 1921 destroyed most of the 1890 census, although there is an alphabetical index for the small percentage of population schedules that survived.
The census records are invaluable to the migration patterns of families and groups.
Federal land acquisitions throughout American history and territorial expansion “allowed” many families to travel together and establish farms and grazing rights.
Not much thought was given to Native groups of people.
Why 1940 now? Legislation requires a 72 year delay in the release of the records.
This was originally related to the average lifespan of a person.
I referred to “Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920” by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide and “State Census Records” by Ann S. Lainhart for some of this information.
Other resources for your research: National Archives, US Census records.gov and US Census.org
Editor’s note: Leslie Plummer is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.