Last night, I finally paid attention to one of those commercials urging us to fill out the 2020 Census online. It reminded me of the genealogical significance that it holds. With most Americans on a prison-esque “lock-down” due to COVID-19, we find ourselves doing more of the things we love, binging, and/or being bored. Whatever is your case, maybe the census can offer you something different to do with your time until more states ease restrictions…How about genealogy research?
The United States Census is a tool that the federal government has used formally since 1790 to collect data about its inhabitants. A genealogical gold mine, the information collected includes certain details about characteristics such as race and ethnicity, property ownership, immigration status, relatives’ names and ages, level of educational attainment, and native language. The census has been conducted every 10 years, and except for the 1890 Census in which almost all records were destroyed by fire, data from 1790 all the way through 1940 are available to the public, 72 years after each enumeration year. That means that you can start learning how to find your ancestors in the census now.
Back in the day and before the popularity of online genealogy websites, genealogists’ primary resource was the library, and we used a tool called the soundex code to find our ancestors in the census records manually. Since you don’t live “back in the day”, are stuck at home, and probably can’t use your local library, you now can use the powerful search engines of ancestry.com and familysearch.org to help you begin your search. Ancestry.com charges a fee for viewing population census schedules, including the 1940 Census; however, if you have never had an account before, you should be able to take advantage of a free, 2-week trial before you commit to something long-term. Fortunately, if you can’t or don’t want to pay for an Ancestry.com membership, you can search all population census schedules from 1790 to 1930 plus Native American census rolls, the 1850 Slave and Mortality schedules, and the 1890 Veterans Schedule, for free on familysearch.org.
For me, the minimum requirement for starting a new census search is to answer the questions: 1) Who was s/he?; 2) Where was s/he?; and 3) Whose is s/he? In other words, one should know a person’s name and approximate age; place of residence; and the names of parents, siblings or other relatives with whom they lived. If I have this information, I can trust my initial findings more confidently. Even if I don’t have all of these details, there is still hope! Always, you can make some informed hypotheses about a given subject and save the possibilities for a time when you can refine your guesses with information you may gather later. For example, let’s say I want to know more about the titular character of a movie we watched recently – Harriet (Chase, Lundberg, & Howard, 2019). Who was she? Off the top of my head, I know she went by Harriet Tubman (though her given forename was Araminta or Minty…I have forgotten her previously used surname) and was probably born around the 1830’s (I think she was in her 30’s when she escaped from her slaveowner prior to the Civil War). Where was she? I believe Ms. Tubman lived in the northeast U.S., probably in Virginia, Maryland, or D.C. area, before moving to Canada for a while. Enslaved people who secured their freedom as a result of the Civil War did not appear named in the census records until 1870; Harriet found freedom before then, but since I’m not sure of the year she ran away, I will look for her first in 1870. I don’t remember any of her relatives’ names off the top of my head, but I remember from the movie that she worked for a family as a servant and collaborated with Black people in the area who had means and practiced trades.
I went to ancestry.com and entered the following criteria in the search fields: First and Middle Name (s) – Harriet; Last Name – Tubman; Place your ancestor might have lived – “Maryland” (I selected “Exact, to State and Adjacent States” from the drop-down menu)”; and Birth Year – 1830 (I chose +/- 10 years from the drop-down menu). After selecting the Show more options button, I entered the year “1870” on the field labeled Any Event to restrict the search results to just the 1870 Census. My search yielded 3 names: Harriet Ross, a black female born in 1820 and residing in Maryland; W.H. Tubman, a white male residing in Maryland; and H. Tubman, an Ireland-born male residing in Pennsylvania. After clicking on my best option, Ms. Harriet Ross, I discovered that she was a “domestic servant” of the John King family and that she was born in Maryland. On ancestry.com, Araminta Harriet Ross and Harriet Tubman are offered by editors as alternate names for the individual I found.
It seems like this is the person for whom I’m searching, but being the skeptic that I am, I never trust what I see at first sight. Thankfully, because there is abundant information about Harriet Tubman available, if I want to verify this person to be Harriet Tubman, I can look for her in other census schedules and search for known data about Harriet Tubman on google, wikipedia, or the good, old, library. I’m not going to do any of these right now, although it’s very tempting. For the sake of time, I will plan to read the biography adorning my bookshelf this summer and leave you with a resource that I hope will aid in your search of the census records for ancestors more easily during this summer of corona virus. If I haven’t been convincing enough to help you decide to explore the census today, try something even simpler to get yourself (or even the whole family) into the genealogy groove here and also here.
“1870 United States Federal Census,” database and digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com: accessed 5 May 2020), search for Harriet Tubman, Year: 1870; Census Place: District 3, Calvert, Maryland; Roll: M593_581; Page: 113B. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com
Chase, D.M., Lundberg, D.T., & Howard, G.A. (Producers), & Lemmons, K. (Director). (2019). Harriet [Motion picture]. United States: Focus Features.