Census release in April an exciting time for genealogists

A Census enumerator assists a farmer during the 1950 Census. Photo courtesy of National Archives Catalog

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A Census enumerator assists a farmer during the 1950 Census. Photo courtesy of National Archives Catalog

Genealogists and family history lovers are looking forward to a big event at the beginning of April.

Every 10 years the US Census releases the census rolls that were recorded 72 years before. In April, the 1950 census will be released for public viewing. This is a big deal in the family history world.

US Census records are amazing historical records. We’ve been counting our citizens since the first census in 1790. Back then all that was recorded was the name of the head of household and numbers of family members of different age and gender. No names. It also recorded number of slaves in the southern states.

Many of the early census records are difficult to read since the handwriting was not standard and the ink is fading. If you are lucky, your ancestors had a census enumerator with good handwriting and undiluted ink. It also helped if the person being counted was literate and could tell the enumerator how to spell the name.

Some of the names in my family tree were misspelled a different way every Census. That made finding them a challenge.

I love to imagine what the person being counted was wearing. Did they think the questions were an intrusion or was it considered an honor to be counted and have your name recorded for all posterity?

Every 10 years the Census added a few more questions like valuation of property or type of work, but they didn’t start recording the names, ages, and relationship of everyone in the household until 1850.

Genealogists love the 1950 Census because it has family names in addition to place of birth. It also included value of property, literacy, and education. Census rolls were still hand written and the spelling of the children’s names added a new challenge. Often it was the nicknames that were listed instead of the actual legal name.

The 1890 US Census records are the ones that break our hearts. Most of these records were burned in a fire. This created a gap in records and a big challenge for researchers. A baby born after the count was taken in 1880 would not show up in census rolls until the 1900 census and that would be as an adult with no mention of parents.

I remember when the 1900 Census was made available in 1972. It was exciting to actually see the names of my grandparents when they were babies.

Back then we had to use a large noisy microfilm viewer at the library. Some of the census had indexes to help folks locate names, but it was still a time consuming exercise.

With the computer age searching the census records was just a few clicks away. Now within one minute in my office at home I can call up a census record and read it either typed or call up the original form.

Now this news is nothing that will excite the young folks. However those of us who have achieved the ripe old age of 72 can now for the first time see our name in the census.

I have my fingers crossed that this is my year. I was born in April 1950 and I’m hoping that I was a newborn when the census enumerator knocked on my parents’ door.

If not, I’ll at least see my parents in their own household for the first time. Then I’ll have to wait until April 2032 to see a 10 year old me listed with a brother and sister in the 1960 census. I hope I’m still around to see that.

Pam Cottrel is columnist for the Springfield News-Sun.

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