Do You Think You Know Census Records?

If you answered yes, answer another question: Have you read census enumerator instructions?  If the answer is no, then you may not know as much as you think about the census.

What is a census enumerator?  Enumerators are the individuals who collect information for the census.  They are each assigned a geographic area.  During the years available for genealogy research, they visited all of the households in their area and asked each household the required questions for that particular census year.   Different questions are asked each census year depending on the government’s need.  Instructions are given to enumerators related to census taking in general, as well as specific to each question on the census schedule.  Early census instructions were very brief, but they have become more detailed over time.

Why are enumerator instructions important?   It is important to read enumerator instructions so that you understand the census data that you find.  Census instructions help you understand what the column headings mean, the information entered for individuals, and why the data was recorded in a particular manner.   

Here are some examples of why enumerator instructions are helpful to genealogy research:

Enumerator instructions help understand the basic census form.  They explain what data should be entered in each census schedule column and what to do in unusual circumstances.

  • Example: The 1850-1930 schedules name all individuals in a household and identify the head-of-household.  The instructions will explain what to do in special circumstances such as if the individual lived in a tenement house, hotel, boarding school; if they were in a prison, hospital, or asylum; or if they worked out of the area and therefore lodged away from their usual home (i.e. shipping or railroad industry).

Instruction limitations may have restricted the information given about your ancestor. This may lead to misperceptions of your ancestors.

  • Example: The “color” category can be misleading.  Census instructions limit what information can be entered in this field.  The 1850 census limits the choices to white (column left blank), black, or mulatto. Individuals belonging to other ethnic groups such Native American (only those Native Americans taxed were counted) or Chinese had to be placed into these categories.
  • Example: The “employment” category may not record data on everyone.  In 1850, enumerators were instructed to insert opposite the name of each male the specific profession, occupation, or trade which the said person is known and reputed to follow.’  The occupation of females who were working outside of the home may not have been recorded.

Instruction specifications may have forced enumerators to give more data than they normally would have, providing more detail for your research.

  • Example: The 1860 place of birth column requires specific details for those born in Germany.  Enumerators were instructed to name the German state instead of the country for the place of birth.
  • Example: The 1860 deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, convict section. The instruction for this column explains what some of these terms mean, requires enumerators to report the cause of insanity and blindness, and in the case of criminals, the nature of the crime committed. 

Instructions may help you understand an abbreviation or term used that you find on a census schedule.

  • Example: In 1900 approved abbreviations for occupations were given.
  • Example: In 1910 approved names of languages spoken were dictated. 

Instructions may help narrow down vital event dates. This is especially useful in years when the recording of vital records was not mandatory.  Narrowing down a date can also save time when searching yearly indexes.

  • Example: Birth information. In 1870 and 1880 if a child was born within the year, enumerators were to record the month of birth.
  • Example: Marriage information.  From 1850-1890, the instructions required a column to be checked if a couple was married within the year (during the year before the official census day).

Instructions may help develop search strategies.

  • Example: On the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules, the deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, convict column.  If a slave was a convict, the date and nature of the crime were to be listed.  This information could be very useful because slaves are not named in these schedules.  If you suspect the criminal is your ancestor, you may be able to prove it with court or prison records.


To read census enumerator instructions see the following links:

Minnesota Population Center. Enumerator Instructions. In Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Census Microdata for Social and Economic Research. .

U.S. Department of Commerce. Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000.  United States: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002.

To find out what New York census records are available in the Grosvenor Room see our Census subject guides.

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