Friday, January 01, 2021

Tip - How can I find my ancestors in the census?

Q. How can I find my ancestors in the census?

A. The United States Government has been conducting a census of the population every 10 years since 1790.  Censuses from 1790 until 1940 are available for research with the exception of 1890 which was lost in a fire. Each census contains a little different information. Censuses from 1850 and later contain names of every member of the household, ages, birthplaces, and varying information on relationships.

Now that these census records are available digitally, it has become fairly easy to find ancestors in them.  Keep in mind that spellings vary, and not census takers had the best handwriting.  It still may be necessary to browse through the images to find that elusive person.

Illinois has taken part in every federal census since 1820, the first decennial census conducted after statehood.  In addition, Illinois conducted a territorial census in 1810 and again in 1818 to document that Illinois had enough inhabitants to become a state.  The state has also conducted its own census in 1825, 1835, 1845, 1855, and 1865.  Unfortunately many of the state census records did not contain names, and several counties have been lost.

Census records may be found online at and  Several of the early census records have also been transcribed and may be found in local libraries.

Although the purpose of the census is to provide an accurate count of the population for purposes of resource allocation and political representation, they have been a wonderful resource for genealogists. 2020 is a census year, so don’t forget to pay it forward by filling out your census form.


Note: This was originally published in the "Tips from the Genealogy Committee" column in the Illinois State Genealogical Society Newsletter (September 2020).  While these tips were written for those researching Illinois ancestors, many of the principles can be applied to other locations.

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