State Census Research – Five Years Can Make a Difference!

By Carolyn L. Barkley

I have been spoiled by my family and my husband’s because both families lived in roughly the same geographical area through multiple generations. My family may have done a bit of relocation between Connecticut and Massachusetts, but nothing major; once they got to North Carolina, my husband’s family migrated only one or two counties away. I began doing research for others. What a different experience! One family started out in Long Island, moved to Vermont, then to New York, then to Wisconsin, and ended up in Wyoming. I have also happily researched a family which was enumerated where I expected them to be living in Massachusetts in one census, and then again in the same place in the subsequent census. But, in between, the family had two children born in Kansas. What a surprise! I think there should have been a law about when an ancestor could move and how many times he could move within the ten year census span.

The lesson is that the federal census will not solve all of your problems in locating your ancestors, and in fact may create problems by providing unexpected information. Census records created by the states themselves, however, may assist you in understanding where your ancestors were living in between the decennial federal censuses.

State censuses were usually authorized by state constitutions and were tied, as were the federal censuses, to the need for legislative apportionment. In addition, they often provided statistics with specialized purposes such as establishing school populations, the availability of men for militia service, as well as for financial and other governmental planning. While specialized purposes might differ from year- to-year, or state-to-state, state census records usually included a name, place of birth and age. Often the information provided was in more detail than that requested on federal census questionnaires. In 1925, Kansas, for example, included not only every name plus age, sex, and color, but also a birthplace and residence prior to coming to Kansas. War veterans were asked to include the state in which they enlisted, regiment, command, and branch of the service. Of particular help are any state census records that were enumerated in 1885 and 1895, thus filling in the gap created by the destruction of the 1890 federal census. Clearly, such census records not only can supplement information to that found in the federal census, but may in fact provide the only information available about an individual at a given point in time.

Use of these records is not without some major caveats. First, not all state censuses are extant. Massachusetts, for example, conducted a state census every ten years from 1855 to 1945, BUT, only the original population schedules for the 1855 and 1865 census still exist. What a wealth of potentially useful information has gone missing. Conversely, some states have released census data for years after 1930 as the federal seventy-two year waiting period may not apply. Examples include Florida (1935, 1945), Iowa (1925), Kansas (1925), New York (1925), North Dakota (1925), Rhode Island (1925, 1935), and South Dakota (1925, 1935, 1945). Secondly, not all state census records are indexed, making access to a specific individual more difficult. Finally, some census-style records are published with titles that are not immediately indicative of their contents. For example, Lawrence Feldman’s “Colonization and Conquest: British Florida in the Eighteenth Century (Genealogical Publ. Co., 2007) consists of population lists from 1763 to 1784 in addition to lists of refugees, signatories to oaths of allegiance, etc.

A standard resource for state census information is Ann S. Lainhart’s State Census Records (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1992, reprinted 2008). Lainhart, a former reference librarian at the new England Historic Genealogical Society, provides a state-by-state list of what state-level census records are available and where the original and microfilm copies are located. In addition, William Dollarhide’s two-volume Census Substitutes & State Census Records: An Annotated Bibliography of Published Name Lists for all 50 U. S. States and State Censuses for 37 States (Family Roots Pub. Co.) provides information about these records. Volume One covers the eastern states, while Volume Two, published in 2008, covers the west.

If you have not yet tried ancestry.com’s new search engine, I urge you to try it out soon. A keyword search of the Ancestry Card Catalog for “state census” yielded a list of 47 state censuses that are available including such states as Iowa (1836-1925), featuring an Iowa state census for 1895, Minnesota (1849-1905), a Rhode Island census for 1774, a Michigan state census for 1884, Wisconsin state censuses for 1895 and 1905, and Florida state censuses for 1867-1945.

State archive web sites also provide detailed information about state censuses in their collections. The Oregon State Archives has provisional, territorial and state census records available either in the original or on microfilm or in printed publications. Their website provides a chronological listing of sixteen censuses from 1842 to 1905, noting the counties included in each. A check against the ancestry.com Card Catalog finds only the Oregon Territory Census for 1850 as well as a database entitled “Pioneer Families of the Oregon Territory, 1850.” Many of these censuses are available on microfilm through the Family History Library. The Massachusetts State Archives page concerning state censuses “warns” that only the 1855 and 1865 population schedules are available and that the originals and microfilm copies are located at the Massachusetts Archives. It also indicates that state census records, their transcriptions in their original and complete indices, were published for some towns (listed on the page) by Ann S. Lainhart. Similar detailed information can be found at the Connecticut State Library and the Illinois State Archives sites. A website about New York state censuses provides links to the 1720 Albany County census, the 1814 Dutchess County census, the 1702 Orange County census, and the 1689 Ulster County census. In addition, it provides information about the history of the New York state census,  emphasizing that few have been indexed. Finally, it explores the various New York state censuses from 1825 to 1925, with FAQs, and indicates the corresponding LDS film reference numbers.

Other useful online sites include:

State Census Records, a Census Research Guide. This site provides an interactive map. Click on the desired state (except Idaho, Montana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire) and you will be taken to a page listing the extant state censuses for that state.

Genealogy Research Guides – State Census Records. This site, which is not a complete listing of all state census records, provides links to online state census records. Many are located on ancestry.com and require a subscription for access.

USGenWeb Census Project. State Census Index. This site seems to use the term “state census” interchangeably for federal and state level census enumerations. For example, although it lists Arizona, the only non-federal census year is 1864. There are five states with 1885 enumerations, as well as Minnesota with an 1857 census and Oklahoma with one in 1907. To see what indices have been completed, click on “completed transcriptions.” You may also sign up to be a volunteer transcriber.

About.com Genealogy. The article, “Where Can I Find State & Local Census Records?” includes a state-by-state list of existing colonial, territorial, and state census records with notations as to whether they are complete or partial.

State census records can be extremely helpful in adding to your knowledge of your ancestor. Use Lainhart’s State Census Records as your major source, checking to see if the census you’d like to view is available on ancestry.com (you may need to have a subscription to view the records, or check with your local library if they subscribe to Ancestry Plus), on another online source, or available on microfilm at your state archives or from the Family History Library.

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